The Declaration of Independence made statements about “rights” that for decades were not applied to many people, including black men, women, Native Americans, and even white men who did not own property. The mid-nineteenth century brought significant changes to that situation, although many of the efforts had not succeeded by 1865. Even those rights that were secured were not always applied in practice.
The abolition movement and women’s rights movement operated somewhat independently of each other—to the extent that some people discouraged the campaigns for women’s rights as distractions from the goal of abolition. National, regional, and state activism also functioned both independently and interdependently. Although, with the advent of the Civil War, North–South distinctions became paramount, East–West distinctions were also significant in attitudes toward equality. Not only did the Western territories often take a more liberal stance than the Eastern establishment, admission of new states often hinged on deals that included slavery.
The Civil War itself was the culmination of many differences regarding states’ rights versus federal control, especially but not limited to slavery. The slave trade had already been abolished in 1807, but slavery continued. For those who favored total abolition, the Compromise of 1850 was a major disappointment, as it upheld the idea of balanced numbers of slave-holding and non-slavery states and was linked to the Fugitive Slave Act. The battles over “Bleeding Kansas,” in particular, paved the way for a nationwide war.
The war marked a turning point in many ways. African Americans’ wartime efforts, including serving in combat, had helped reunite the nation. During and immediately after the war, two major advances legally secured rights for African Americans. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, officially extending freedom to all the enslaved in the rebellious states. As the nation came back together at the war’s end, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on December 18, 1865.
Some women’s rights advocates came into that movement through their work for abolition or their exclusion from those efforts. By 1848, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had become established leaders of the women’s rights movement. While the activism focused on women’s suffrage, it was contextualized within larger issues of female equality under the Constitution. A group of women drew up the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that listed injustices and deliberately echoed the wording of the Declaration of Independence, and presented it at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. The initial congress was followed by the first and second National Women’s Rights Conventions in 1850 and 1851 in Worcester, Massachusetts. These included many male presenters, including noted abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass.
The Civil War effectively halted women’s rights activism. Soon after, the struggles resumed. In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would form the American Equal Rights Association. Nationwide, a women’s suffrage amendment would first be proposed in 1868, although this effort would finally succeed only in 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Individual states, however, were faster to recognize voting as a woman’s right. While still a territory, Wyoming recognized women’s suffrage in 1869, and the following year a woman voted in a statewide election.