Suffrage (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
Suffrage (American History Through Literature)
Nineteenth-century suffrage movements can be best understood both within the history and culture of the period and as part of a broader set of social reform movements. For the most part, between the turn of the century and the Civil War, voting rights became increasingly defined in terms of whiteness and manhood. Early in the century, New Jersey law had allowed "all 'inhabitants' who otherwise were qualified" to vote, which was "interpreted locally to mean that property-owning women could vote" (Marilley, p. 54). In 1807, however, the New Jersey legislature established that only free white men could vote, thus enacting voting-rights criteria more in line with the rest of the nation. As for free African Americans, few states immediately denied them the vote following the Revolution, but by the time of the Civil War, only Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island failed to discriminate against free blacks (Keyssar, p. 55). Enslaved blacks were denied the vote, as were many Native Americans and a number of new immigrants, including Chinese immigrants in the West and Irish immigrants in the East. It was within this political context that the suffrage movements developed and operated.
Despite the success of these antiprogressive voting laws, an environment for progressive social and political reform was being established. In the late 1820s the Englishwoman Frances (Fanny) Wright (1795852) began a lecture tour of the United States, speaking before audiences of both men and women. By speaking in front of mixed audiences, a violation of contemporary notions about what constituted the women's sphere, Wright established a precedent. In 1829 David Walker (1785830) published Walker's Appeal ...to the Coloured Citizens of the World, in which he argued that slaves should revolt against their owners. He also condemned antislavery colonization efforts that would send freed slaves to Africa. Two years later, William Lloyd Garrison (1805879) established The Liberator, an abolitionist weekly that became a champion of other radical social reforms, including women's rights. In the early 1830s Maria W. Stewart (1803879), a free African American woman living in Boston, was published in The Liberator and delivered speeches before mixed-sex black audiences, arguing for universal rights and the abolition of slavery. These examples served as early moments in a developing reform culture that would have increasing if often indirect influence on American politics in the decades preceding the American Civil War.
THE DEVELOPING SUFFRAGE MOVEMENTS
The suffrage movements of this period were thus an aspect of larger reform movements that targeted a broad expansion of rights for Americans who were denied the benefits associated with citizenship. The most prominent of these movements began in the 1830s and focused on antislavery reform; as a supporter of the movement, the radical abolitionist Garrison greatly affected suffrage reform. Garrison not only advocated freedom and full citizenship rights for enslaved African Americans but also encouraged female participation in the movement, thus providing the foundation for the first organized women's rights movement in the United States. Garrison's The Liberator offered a forum for radical social reformers including Sarah Moore Grimké (1792873), Angelina Emily Grimké (1805879), Frederick Douglass (1818895), and Wendell Phillips (1811884) to advocate a progressive agenda organized around a radical expansion of rights, including suffrage, for the disenfranchised. The formation in 1833 of the American Anti-Slavery Society also proved to be a significant moment in antebellum social reform, providing the organizational foundation for the antislavery movement while also creating an environment in which a philosophy for women's rights could develop. Early on, women were among the most active abolitionists, organizing petition drives and raising the money needed to sustain the movement. Some of these
In 1838 Sarah Grimké published Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, which grew out of her developing political beliefs and the criticism she and her sister had received for their very public abolitionism, which was perceived as transgressing the appropriate female sphere. Earlier in 1837 the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts had issued their "Pastoral Letter," a response to the public political activity of the Grimkés. In this letter, the ministers urged women to reject the public sphere and to instead embrace the private, encouraging "the cultivation of private Christian character, and private efforts for the spiritual good of individuals." Grimké challenged this position by advocating greater rights and freedoms for women. In 1843 a second founding work of the American women's rights movement was published, Margaret Fuller's (1810850) essay "The Great Lawsuit; Man versus Men, Woman versus Women," which Fuller later expanded into a book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Less overtly political than Sarah Grimké and other women's rights activists, Fuller advanced ideas that were nonetheless crucial to the developing women's rights movement. Fuller argued that women should have access to the same paths in life as those available to men and should be responsible for their own choices.
While Fuller does not specifically champion suffrageer arguments are more philosophically abstract than overtly political, reflecting an approach rooted in transcendentalismer work helped provide an ideological basis for later women's rights efforts, which included the vote for women. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention drew on Fuller's work for a philosophical foundation for women's rights. The Seneca Falls Convention stands out as perhaps the most important moment in the nineteenth-century women's rights movement, in part because it was the first meeting in the United States organized exclusively for the advancement of women's rights but also because of its Declaration of Sentiments. Written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and modeled on the Declaration of Independence, this document details how men have historically wronged women, echoing Thomas Jefferson's litany of England's abuses of the colonies. Included in Stanton's declaration was a list of resolutions, the ninth of which claimed that it is "the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise" (1:70). This resolution proved to be the most controversial, even within the convention itself, as opponents condemned it, arguing that it was impractical and that it would undermine women's rights as a whole. The resolution passed, however, when Frederick Douglass argued that the vote was an essential component of freedom that should be denied based neither on sex nor race. Following the Seneca Falls Convention, female suffrage became an important element in the drive for expanded women's rights, with Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1820906) often taking the lead. However, while most of these reformers believed that suffrage was a crucial element of women's rights, other issues related to property rights, divorce rights, and child custody sometimes were deemed of greater significance for women; part of the reason for this was that the reform of these laws would provide immediate relief for women, but it was also a question of what was most pragmatic, as female suffrage faced considerable entrenched opposition.
ABOLITIONISM IN THE 1850S
As a women's rights movement developed, abolitionists continued their efforts to end the practice of slavery in the United States. A key moment occurred in 1845 when Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, an autobiography detailing Douglass's years as a slave and his escape to the North, was published. Douglass had for several years been among the most effective antislavery speakers, but it was his first autobiography that most firmly established his abolitionist credentials and public identity, and it has endured as one of the most important works of antebellum literature. In the decades following the Narrative, Douglass remained active as a reformer, publishing his own abolitionist paper, the North Star, which later became Frederick Douglass' Paper, and advocating universal suffrage.
The 1850s proved to be one of the most politically contentious decades in American history, largely because of the slavery issue. Early in the decade, two novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811896) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and William Wells Brown's (c. 1814884) Clotel (1853), reflected the politically charged environment. Stowe's novel, first serialized in the moderate antislavery newspaper the National Era, became the most successful novel in American history. Stowe had intended that Uncle Tom's Cabin would peacefully end slavery in America by revealing to the public the moral horrors associated with the institution. While the novel clearly fell short of this goal, it did shape the antebellum discourse on slavery and advance the antislavery sentiment in the North. Brown's Clotel may have had a lesser social impact than Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it is nevertheless significant both for cultural and literary reasons. The first published novel by an African American writer, it details the travails of the daughters of Thomas Jefferson and an African American slave, exploring how the intersection of Jefferson's two legacieshat of the rhetoric of freedom invoked in the Declaration of Independence and that of his own slave progenyevealed conflicting American belief systems that were reflected in the ongoing ideological clash between northern freedom and southern slavery. Both novels represent the ante-bellum era's spirit of reform, specifically in antislavery terms, and both advanced the emphasis on individual rights advocated by radical reformers.
During the 1850s this conflict became more heated as politicians attempted to maintain the compromise on slavery between North and South written into the constitution while antislavery reformers advanced their own agendas and northerners and southerners became increasingly mutually suspicious. The Fugitive Slave Act (1850), the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), and the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision (1857) were pivotal moments in the ongoing attempt to maintain this delicate balance, and each reinforced the belief of many northerners that slave power had increasing authority in their lives. From this situation emerged John Brown's (1800859) violent attacks on proslavery settlers in Kansas and his later raid on Harpers Ferry. Widely condemned throughout the nation, Brown nonetheless gained the respect of many northerners even if they objected to his violent tactics, largely because he provided a challenge to what they perceived as the spread of slave power, which is reflected in Henry David Thoreau's "A Plea for John Brown" (1859). In the realm of politics, the formation and rapid growth of the Republican Party demonstrated the increasing importance of political abolitionism and a movement away from apolitical reform societies as the center of the antislavery movement. John Brown's acts in 1859 and the founding of the Republican Party in 1854 reflected the growing antislavery sentiment in the North; this sentiment would lead to the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, which in turn offered southern states the rationale to secede, prompting the beginning of the Civil War.
SUFFRAGE AND THE POSTWAR PERIOD
The Civil War caused social reformers to pause in their reform efforts and shift their focus to the war. Following the Union victory, suffrage activists recognized the opportunity to press their case. The alliance between women's rights reformers and abolitionists had been established in the early years of Garrison's The Liberator, but long-developing tensions between the two movements were exacerbated following the war. For decades, this alliance had been threatened by the unwillingness of many antislavery activists to accept the very public roles that women had occupied. While male Garrisonians largely embraced the women's contribution and supported women's rights, more conservative reformers identified their behavior as a violation of the women's sphere and a threat to the antislavery cause.
When it became clear after the war that new laws would be established providing rights and protections to newly free African Americans, including possible amendments to the constitution involving voting rights, suffrage activists could see both opportunity and potential danger. While Stanton and Anthony continued to call for suffrage for women, other reformers, including Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone (1818893), and Lydia Maria Child (1802880), argued that such advocacy at this crucial moment would endanger suffrage for black men, with potentially disastrous consequences. For Douglass, it was a question of survival for African Americans, as the racially charged postwar milieu in the South and the riots targeting blacks in northern cities revealed. Suffrage, Douglass believed, would provide a form of protection that had long been denied to African Americans. For Stanton and others, failure to achieve suffrage for women would be a defeat and would indicate that decades of effort had been squandered. The passage of the Fourteenth Amendment proved especially vexing, as the inclusion of the word "male" three times in Section 2 made the fears of suffragists real; the constitution had now clearly excluded women from voting in federal elections.
Suffragists held out hope that a subsequent amendment would grant women the vote, but the later passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared that "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," dashed these hopes, as well, as the language made it clear that women would continue to be denied the elective franchise. Women's suffrage was thus deferred, and it would take nearly fifty years before women gained the vote, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. What initially appeared to be a victory for African Americans was, however, complicated by widespread systematic efforts to deny them the vote for decades following the war. It would take the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to finally ensure that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments would truly be enforced.
See also Declaration of Sentiments; Letters on the Equality of the Sexes; The Liberator; Oratory; Reform; Seneca Falls Convention; Woman in the Nineteenth Century
Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. 1853. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Fuller, Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Other Writings. 1845. Edited and with an introduction by Donna Dickenson. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts. "Pastoral Letter." 1837. In American Rhetorical Discourse, edited by Ronald F. Reid, pp. 36567. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press, 1995.
Grimké, Sarah. Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and Other Essays. Edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Ann Bartlett. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. 6 vols. 1881922. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Boston: J. P. Jewett; Cleveland: Jewett, Proctor, and Worthington, 1852.
Walker, David. David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. 1829. Edited and with a new introduction by Peter P. Hinks. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Du Bois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
Marilley, Suzanne M. Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.
James R. Britton