Feminism in Literature United States Suffrage Movement in the 19th Century - Essay


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.

Representative Works

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

Amelia Barr

"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

Angelina Grimké

"An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" (essay) 1836

"Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States" (essay) 1837

Sarah Grimké

"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

Reminiscences, 1819-1899 (autobiography) 1899

Anna Garlin Spencer

"The Fitness of Women to Become Citizens from the Standpoint of Moral Development" (essay) 1898

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

"Address to The New York Legislature" (speech) 1854

"Suffrage for All, White and Black, Male and Female" (speech) 1868

"Petitions for a Sixteenth Amendment" (speech) 1876

"An Educational Suffrage Qualification Necessary" (speech) 1897

Eighty Years and More (autobiography) 1898

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage

History of Women Suffrage 4 vols. [editors] (essays, speeches, letters, nonfiction) 1881-1902

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lydia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, Martha C. Wright, and Susan B. Anthony

"Appeal to the Women of New York" (speech) 1860

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 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 (pamphlet) 1848

Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe

The Woman's Journal [editors] (periodical) 1870-90

Charlotte Carmichael Stopes

British Freewoman (nonfiction) 1894

Sojourner Truth

"A'n't I A Woman?" (speech) 1851

"Colored Men Will Be Masters Over the Women" (speech) 1867

Victoria Woodhull

"Declaration of Candidacy" (speech) 1870

"The Argument for Woman's Electoral Rights under Amendment XIV and XV of the Constitution of the United States" (essay) 1887

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, Mary Ann Mcclintock, And Jane C. Hunt (Document Date 1848)

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...

(The entire section is 1810 words.)

Lucy Stone (Address Date 6 March 1867)

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.


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...

(The entire section is 6412 words.)

Sojourner Truth (Speech Date 1867)

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...

(The entire section is 1078 words.)

Isabella Beecher Hooker (Essay Date 1868)

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.

——,——, 1868

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...

(The entire section is 2136 words.)

National Woman Suffrage And Educational Committee (Letter Date 19 April 1871)

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.

Dear Friends:—

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...

(The entire section is 2225 words.)

Susan B. Anthony (Transcript Date 1873)

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...

(The entire section is 1442 words.)

Susan B. Anthony And Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Essay Date 1882)

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...

(The entire section is 1176 words.)

The National Woman Suffrage Association (Document Date 1883)

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.


(The entire section is 232 words.)

Ellen Carol Dubois (Essay Date 1978)

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...

(The entire section is 2064 words.)

Marjorie Spruill Wheeler (Essay Date 1995)

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.

(The entire section is 2341 words.)

Ellen Carol Dubois (Essay Date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 2739 words.)

Ellen Carol Dubois (Essay Date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 6688 words.)

Harriet Sigerman (Essay Date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 3334 words.)

Suzanne M. Marilley (Essay Date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 6618 words.)

Doris Weatherford (Essay Date 1998)

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....

(The entire section is 10536 words.)

Leila R. Brammer (Essay Date 2000)

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...

(The entire section is 6494 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 691 words.)