United States Suffrage Movement in the 19th Century
For two days in July 1848, a convention of women and a number of male supporters met in Seneca Falls, New York, to publicly address a number of grievances related to the subjugation of women. The culmination of this gathering was the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, modeled directly on the language of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and it called for gender equality in relation to marriage, property rights, legal status, contract law, child custody matters, and, most radically, voting rights. Undeterred by the chorus of criticism they received from the press and the public at large, women leaders from the Seneca Falls Convention, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Julia Ward Howe, and Lucy Stone, began a lifetime crusade to win voting rights for American women. Most of these early suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, would not live long enough to enjoy the right for which they fought so long. Only in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, were women given federal access to the polling booth.
The most common explanation for why the Seneca Falls convention took place has to do with the outrage that American women abolitionists felt when they were denied positions as delegates at the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840. They were forced to sit behind a curtain during the official proceedings, silently listening to the arguments of men. Spurred by this event, as well as countless jeers from an audience that overwhelmingly believed it unseemly for a woman to speak in public, nineteenth-century abolitionists vented their anger about their imposed inferiority in their declarations of woman's rights at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. There, in the hometown of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women demanded that they be given rights traditionally enjoyed only by property-owning, white men—especially the right to vote, which Stanton argued was the most important obstacle in the path of true gender equality. The following year, in 1849, the National Woman's Rights Association was formed, its membership firmly committed to winning voting rights for American women.
For the remainder of the century, women's suffrage gradually gained support from an ever-skeptical public that often argued that American social and national stability would be undermined if women were allowed to vote. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, momentum for women's suffrage increased as questions related to whether former slaves should be allowed to vote consumed the nation's attention. While nearly all suffragists had supported the extension of citizenship, civil rights, and liberties to freed blacks in the Fourteenth Amendment, their leadership split over whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment as it was proposed—guaranteeing citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race—or to campaign for the inclusion of gender in the equal protection clause. In 1869 suffragists divided into two organizations over this debate: the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Howe and Stone, which supported ratification, and the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Anthony and Stanton, which argued that although black men should be allowed to vote, any constitutional amendment which excluded women could not in good conscience be supported. After passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the rival suffrage organizations continued their work. In 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association held its first convention in what would become an annual event for the next fifty years to build grassroots support for a federal amendment to the constitution, granting women voting rights. The American Woman Association increasingly turned its attention to state congresses in hopes of winning female enfranchisement state by state. Their first victory came quickly in 1869 when the Territory of Wyoming became the first place where women were allowed to vote; in 1870 Utah followed suit. Other western states and territories would continue this trend over the next two decades, probably due to social conditions in frontier regions where women often assumed roles that were not available to them in eastern states.
After 1870, women suffragists also became increasingly militant in their tactics to win voting rights. Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872 despite the fact that she and the women she hoped to represent could not vote. Also in 1872, Anthony tested voting rights in New York by placing her ballot in a local election. She was promptly arrested for illegal voting, and the following year she was pronounced guilty in a trial in which she was not allowed to testify in her own defense because she was a woman. Anthony's eloquent and forceful denunciation of that verdict after the judge asked her if she had anything to say about her sentence and fine became a lightning rod for fellow suffragists. Over the next decades, numerous women intentionally challenged the law against voting, using their acts of civil disobedience and the guilty verdicts they invariably received to showcase the injustice of unequal voting rights. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, suffragists continued to work for voting rights. In 1890 the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As many scholars have noted, their tactics in the last decade of the century were often aimed at gaining popular support for their movement by making the cause seem less radical than it was commonly perceived. This was done in a variety of ways, some women stressing that woman's supposed moral superiority would prove itself a boon for social reform and regeneration through the ballot box. Others argued that women needed the vote to gain power in relationships too often dominated by drunken, abusive husbands.
Scholars continue to study the language, strategies, and influence of the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement, examining in particular the outspoken articulations of women's increasing demand to be given rights traditionally denied them. These studies have also begun in the past three decades to focus on lesser-known voices for gender equality and woman suffrage, especially from black women who suffered the prejudices of both gender and race, even from white women who often excluded black women from their delegations and conventions either as a result of their own or the perceived prejudices of their audiences.
Susan B. Anthony
"Letter to the Colored Men's State Convention in Utica, New York" (letter) 1868
United States of America v. Susan B. Anthony (court records) 1873
"Discontented Women" (essay) 1896
Elizabeth Burrill Curtis
"The Present Crisis" (essay) 1897
Frances D. Gage
"Woman's Natural Rights, Address to the Woman's Rights Convention in Akron" (essay) 1851
Matilda Joslyn Gage
"Woman's Rights Catechism" (speech) 1871
The National Citizen and Ballot Box [editor] (journal) 1878-1881
"An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" (essay) 1836
"Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States" (essay) 1837
"Address to Free Colored Americans" (essay) 1837
Ida Husted Harper
The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony 2 vols. (biography) 1899
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
"Dialogue on Woman's Rights" (poem) 1857
Isabella Beecher Hooker
"Two Letters on Women's Suffrage" (essay) 1868
Julia Ward Howe
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SOURCE: Cady Stanton, Elizabeth, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane C. Hunt. "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the First Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 190-93. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following excerpt, originally published in 1848, early suffragist leaders mimic the tone and sentiments of the American Declaration of Independence to advocate for women's rights, most notably equal voting rights.
Declaration of Sentiments
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hither to occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the...
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SOURCE: Stone, Lucy. Woman Suffrage in New Jersey: An Address delivered by Lucy Stone at a Hearing Before the New Jersey Legislature, pp. 3-19. Boston: C. H. Simmons & Co., 1867.
In the following excerpted address, Stone underscores the importance of women's suffrage.
GENTLEMEN OF THE COMMITTEE:—
Grateful for the hearing so promptly accorded, I will proceed without preliminary to state the object of the petition, and to urge its claim.
Woman ask you to submit to the people of New Jersey amendments to the Constitution of the State, striking out respectively the words "white" and "male" from Article 2, Section I, thus enfranchising the women and the colored men, who jointly constitute a majority of our adult citizens. You will thereby establish a republican form of government.
I am to speak to you of Suffrage. In any other country, it would be necessary to show that political power naturally vests in the people. But here the whole ground is granted in advance. When our fathers came out of the war of the Revolution, made wiser by those seven years of suffering, they affirmed these truths to be self-evident: "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." "Taxation without representation is tyranny."
The Declaration of...
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SOURCE: Truth, Sojourner. "Colored Men Will Be Masters Over the Women (1867)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 237. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following speech, originally delivered in 1867 and published in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 2, 1861-1876 in 1886, Truth argues that former slave women deserve the right to vote just as much as black men.
My friends, I am rejoiced that you are glad, but I don't know how you will feel when I get through. I come from another field—the country of the slave. They have got their liberty—so much good luck to have slavery partly destroyed; not entirely. I want it root and branch destroyed. Then we will all be free indeed. I feel that if I have to answer for the deeds done in my body just as much as a man, I have a right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again. White women are a great deal smarter, and know...
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SOURCE: Hooker, Isabella Beecher. "If Women Could Vote." In Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1600-1900, edited by Nancy Woloch, pp. 512-15. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992.
In the following excerpt, originally published in Putnam's Magazine in 1868, Hooker argues that women are in fact better suited for enfranchisement and political office than men.
My Dear Daughter:
You ask me what I think of the modesty and sense of a woman who can insist, in these days, that she is not sufficiently cared for in public and in private, and who wishes to add the duties of a politician to those of a mother and housekeeper.
This is a large question to ask, and a still larger one to answer by letter; but since you have a clear and thoughtful head of your own, and we are widely separated just now and unable to converse together as in times past, I will see what can be said by pen and paper for just the woman you have described.
And let me begin by asking you the meaning of the word politician. Having consulted your dictionary, you reply, "One who is versed in the science of government and the art of governing." Very well. Now who is thus versed in the science and art of governing, so far as the family is concerned, more than the mother of it? In...
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National Woman Suffrage and Educational Committee. An Appeal to the Women of the United States, pp. 2-4. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1871.
In the following letter, the committee for woman suffrage and education implores the women of America to ban together in an effort to attain equal rights.
The question of your rights as citizens of the United States, and the grave responsibilities which a recognition of those rights will involve, is becoming the great question of the day in this country, and is the culmination of the great question which has been struggling through the ages for solution, that of the highest freedom and largest personal responsibility of the individual under such necessary and wholesome restraints as are required by the welfare of society. As you shall meet and act upon this question, so shall these great questions of freedom and responsibility sweep on, or be retarded, in their course.
This is pre-eminently the birth day of womanhood. The material has long held in bondage the spiritual; henceforth the two, the material refined by the spiritual, the spiritual energized by the material, are to walk hand in hand for the moral regeneration of mankind. Mothers, for the first time in history, are able to assert, not only their inherit first right to the children they have borne, but...
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SOURCE: Anthony, Susan B. "United States of America vs. Susan B. Anthony (1873)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 244-45. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following court transcript, originally published in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 2, 1861-1876 in 1886, Anthony argues that the guilty verdict rendered against her for the crime of voting is unjust because she is denied the fundamental rights of an American taxpaying citizen.
… The Court, after listening to an argument from the District Attorney, denied the motion for a new trial.
THE COURT: The prisoner will stand up. Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence shall not be pronounced?
MISS ANTHONY: Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled underfoot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject; and not only myself individually, but all of my sex, are, by your honor's verdict, doomed to political subjection under this so-called Republican government.
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SOURCE: Anthony, Susan B. and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. "Political Lessons." In Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1600-1900, edited by Nancy Woloch, pp. 509-11. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992.
In the following excerpt, originally published in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 2 in 1882, Stanton and Anthony argue that the rejection of their movement by liberal male abolitionists over issues concerning the Fifteenth Amendment turned out to be a blessing in disguise, freeing women to fight for their rights without the need to compromise with the interests of men.
So utterly had the women been deserted in the Kansas campaign by those they had the strongest reason to look to for help, that at times all effort seemed hopeless. The editors of the New York Tribune and the Independent can never know how wistfully, from day to day, their papers were searched for some inspiring editorials on the woman's amendment, but naught was there; there were no words of hope and encouragement, no eloquent letters from an Eastern man that could be read to the people; all were silent. Yet these two papers, extensively taken all over Kansas, had they been as true to woman as to the negro, could have revolutionized the State. But with arms folded, Greeley, Curtis, Tilton, Beecher, Higginson, Phillips, Garrison, Frederick Douglass, all...
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SOURCE: The National Woman Suffrage Association. Library of Congress. Gift of the National American Woman Association (1 November 1938).
In the following document, originally created in 1883, the members of the National Woman Suffrage Association detail the mission and structure of the organization.
The National Woman Suffrage Association
ARTICLE 1.—This organization shall be called the NATIONAL WOMAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION.
ARTICLE 2.—The object of this Association shall be to secure NATIONAL protection for women citizens in the exercise of their right to vote.
ARTICLE 3.—All citizens of the United States subscribing to this Constitution, and contributing not less than one dollar annually, shall be considered members of the Association, with the right to participate in its deliberations.
ARTICLE 4.—The officers of this Association shall be a President, a Vice-President from each of the States and Territories, Corresponding and Recording Secretaries, a Treasurer and an Executive Committee of not less than five.
ARTICLE 5.—A quorum of the Executive Committee shall consist of nine, and all the Officers of this Association shall be ex-officio members of such Committee, with power to vote.
ARTICLE 6.—All Women Suffrage Societies...
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SOURCE: DuBois, Ellen Carol. Introduction to Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of An Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869, pp. 15-20. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
In the following excerpt, DuBois argues that suffragism is best understood as a social movement that developed its core ideology in reaction to changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.
This book is a study of the origins of the first feminist movement in the United States, the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement. For three-quarters of a century, beginning in 1848, American women centered their aspirations for freedom and power on the demand for the vote. At its height, the movement involved hundreds of thousands of women. Along with the black liberation and labor movements, woman suffrage is one of the three great reform efforts in American history.1
To appreciate the historic significance of the woman suffrage movement, it is necessary to understand the degree to which women expected the vote to lead to a total transformation of their lives. This expectation had to do with changes taking place in the family, its relation to society, and women’s role within it. Historically, woman’s role has been shaped by her position in the family. Because the traditional family...
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SOURCE: Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. "Introduction: A Short History of the Woman Suffrage Movement in America." In One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, pp. 9-20. Troutdale, Oreg.: New Sage Press, 1995.
In the following excerpt, Wheeler traces the origins, strategies, divisions, and state victories of the woman's suffrage movement from 1848 to the end of the nineteenth century.
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SOURCE: DuBois, Ellen Carol. "What Made Seneca Falls Possible?" In Remembering Seneca Falls: Honoring the Women Who Paved the Way: An Essay, pp. 4-16.: Boston: The Schlesinger Library for the History of Women, Radcliffe College, 1998.
In the following excerpt, DuBois compares and contrasts the revolutionary nature of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention calling for women's rights with popular democratic revolutions in Europe that same year.
For both the champions and the denigrators of women's rights, the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention of 1848 was of a piece with the revolutionary upheavals of the age. The year 1848 was of wide historical significance, with revolutions in Europe and major social changes, or demands for change, in the United States, not only by women.
In 1848 Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to earn a regular medical degree, and the organized working women of Lowell petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for a ten-hour day; in 1847 Lucy Stone had been the first woman in American history to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. In such an atmosphere, the announcement of a public convention dedicated solely to the rights of women, a development for which there was no precedent in this country or any other, was less startling than it might have been in a year in which history was moving at a less breakneck...
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The Civil War And Its Effect On Suffrage
SOURCE: DuBois, Ellen Carol. "Taking the Law Into Our Own Hands: Bradwell, Minor and Suffrage Militance in the 1870s." In One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, edited by Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, pp. 81-98. Troutdale, Oreg.: NewSage Press, 1995.
In the following excerpt, DuBois describes the increasingly militant strategies pursued by women in courts of law during the 1870s in reaction to their exclusion from enfranchisement in both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
Introduction to the New Departure
… Most histories of women's rights—my own included—have emphasized the initial rage of women's rights leaders at the Radical Republican authors of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In 1865 Elizabeth Cady Stanton was horrified to discover what she called "the word male" in proposals for a Fourteenth Amendment. The second section of the amendment defines the basis of congressional representation as "male persons over the age of twenty-one" and in doing so makes the first reference to sex anywhere in the Constitution. The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1869, a much more powerful constitutional defense of political equality, only deepened the anger of women's rights advocates because it did not include sex among its prohibited disfranchisements.1
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SOURCE: Sigerman, Harriet. "Laborers for Liberty: 1865-1890." In No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States, edited by Nancy F. Cott, pp. 303-10. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000.
In the following excerpt, Sigerman discusses the setbacks and conflicts that plagued the suffrage movement following the Civil War and describes how the western states and territories proved most progressive in granting women the right to vote.
After the Civil War ended, American women had battles to wage on other fronts—for the right to vote, to attend college, and to gain greater control over their lives. As Ernestine Rose, a leader in the women's rights movement, once proclaimed, "Freedom, my friends, does not come from the clouds, like a meteor.… It does not come without great efforts and great sacrifices; all who love liberty have to labor for it." In the afterglow of victory for the Union and peace for the entire nation, she and other champions of women's rights forged ahead, ready to labor for their freedom. From their battles emerged many new ideas for achieving social and political equality for women.
During the war, leaders of the women's rights movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had shifted their efforts from fighting for women's political and economic rights to campaigning for the...
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Suffrage: Issues And Individuals
SOURCE: Marilley, Suzanne M. “Airs of Respectability: Racism and Nativism in the Woman Suffrage Movement.” In Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920, pp. 159-86. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
In the following excerpt, Marilley describes how suffragists shed their radical image between 1885 and 1900, using a variety of practical strategies, many of them playing on nativist and racist sympathies in order to build greater support for the right of women to vote.
Between 1885 and 1900 the American woman suffrage movement changed from the radical cause of former Garrisonians into a quest for citizenship by diverse groups of women. Although elite white leaders succumbed to racist and nativist sentiments, such sentiments never fully eclipsed their egalitarian aims. Muted egalitarian themes emerged because (1) suffragists were ambivalent about their racism and nativism, (2) feminisms of personal development cropped up that encouraged white elites to exploit their privileged education and wealth but also stimulated positive self-conceptions among oppressed black and working-class women, (3) victims of the reformers' racism and nativism informed elite leaders that such views were hypocritical and unjust, and (4) those who opposed votes for women continued to portray the measure as radically egalitarian....
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SOURCE: Weatherford, Doris. "The Hour Not Yet, 1871 to 1888." In A History of the American Suffragist Movement, pp. 127-54. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1998.
In the following essay, Weatherford combines a detailed overview of how suffragists worked at the statewide level in the 1870s and 1880s to secure the right for women to vote, along with a discussion of how the movement began to unite with European organizations in order to gain global acceptance.
At their Chestnut Street headquarters for the Philadelphia centennial, the National Woman Suffrage Association kept "an immense autograph book" for visitors. Greetings "from the old world and the new" in it showed that the women's movement increasingly was going global. Some international links had been part of the movement from the beginning: Scottish Francis Wright had set the example in the 1840s, while German Mathilde Anneke and French Jeanne de Hericourt followed up by speaking to women's rights conventions in the 1850s and 1860s. After the Civil War, two feminist pioneers, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and Ernestine Rose, returned to their family roots in Britain and helped to spread the equal rights gospel there. For different reasons, African-American Sarah Remond returned to the United States only briefly after the Civil War; disappointed with the reality of black life in the United States,...
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SOURCE: Brammer, Leila R. "Matilda Joslyn Gage and Woman Suffrage." In Excluded from Suffrage History: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Nineteenth-Century American Feminist, pp. 55-65. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Brammer describes the unwavering principle of natural rights underlying the suffrage work of Matilda Joslyn Gage, who, the critic argues, deserves to be remembered along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as one of the preeminent nineteenth-century advocates for women's rights.
Matilda Joslyn Gage's unwavering belief in liberty for all persons was grounded in her commitment to the United States Constitution. Based in natural rights, the Constitution upholds equality and liberty for all. The natural rights foundation is clearly illustrated in the memorable passage, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Joslyn Gage's arguments concerning woman's rights and woman suffrage are firmly rooted in this ideal. She believed and argued vehemently that all persons, including women, had been endowed with inalienable rights that the government was obligated to protect. As a result, underlying Matilda Joslyn Gage's arguments for woman's rights was the basic...
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Buhle, Mari Jo and Paul Buhle. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Gage, and Harper, edited by Mari Jo and Paul Buhle. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978, 468 p.
Provides selections of suffrage writings from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Frances Harper's six-volume collection of speeches and writings from 1848 to 1920.
Catt, Carrie Chapman and Rogers Schuler. Woman Suffrage and Politics. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923, 504 p.
Offers a full-length study of the American woman's suffrage movement.
Cowley, Joyce. Pioneers of Women's Liberation. New York: Pathfinder Press, Inc., 1969, 504 p.
Article that first appeared in 1955 in the Fourth International seeking to place the American woman's suffrage movement within its historical context, concentrating on how black and white suffrage leaders overcame ridicule and internal divisions to secure the right to vote.
Cullen-Dupont, Kathryn, ed. Pioneers of Women's Liberation. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002, 613 p.
Offers an anthology of works by American women activists that includes speeches...
(The entire section is 691 words.)