Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

With their suffrage proposals triumphant in only four western states when they died, Stanton, Anthony, and Gage nevertheless suffused the first three volumes of their history with their ebullience, with their unswerving belief in the justice of their cause, and with their informed high purpose, producing an élan that marked...

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With their suffrage proposals triumphant in only four western states when they died, Stanton, Anthony, and Gage nevertheless suffused the first three volumes of their history with their ebullience, with their unswerving belief in the justice of their cause, and with their informed high purpose, producing an élan that marked subsequent volumes as well. While they were confident of their own high principles, their advocacy of woman suffrage, as the work amply documents, was plagued nevertheless by the criticisms and indifference of society-at-large, crippled by personal animosities and organizational frictions among suffragists, and wracked by conflicts between suffragist priorities and those of other feminists and reformers. Yet despite the density and tedium of some of its inclusions, the tome of History of Woman Suffrage conveys frank good sense, as if with distant vision the suffragists had assumed the stance of future generations asking why, given the obvious justice of universalizing the vote for women, its attainment required so many years of struggle.

History of Woman Suffrage is more than a painstaking assemblage of speeches, journal excerpts, documents, legislative activities, and organizational vicissitudes. The first volumes, chiefly the handiwork of Stanton and Anthony, which they completed in 1886, are thus rich in historical context designed to deepen the suffragist movement’s self-awareness. To this end, volume 1 traces the origins of suffrage reform within broader ranges of feminist reformism, discernible by the late eighteenth century and reaching an early pinnacle at the Women’s Rights Convention assembled in Seneca Falls on July 19, 1848. During these years, as part of the expansive democratic sentiments that were affecting much of American society—most apparently during the presidency of Andrew Jackson—women’s rights advocates promulgated a comprehensive challenge to traditional and predominantly male social values. In their thrust toward winning equality, they demanded legal reevaluations of marriage, divorce, and birth control, as well as reassessments of property rights for women. They were a principal force behind temperance movements and a vigorous adjunct to the increasingly vocal and influential antislavery movements of the 1850’s. Within this wide spectrum, the demands for suffrage advanced by women such as Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and others became the key to achieving most other feminist objectives.

Because the authors-editors of History of Woman Suffrage recognized their own place within this environment of general reform, they were mindful of the importance of other feminist leaders whose principal goals did not center on the suffrage issue. For this reason, Stanton and Anthony respected, by inclusion, references to the writings and speeches of the great British feminists Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Martineau, as well as foremost Americans such as Lucretia Mott, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Margaret Fuller, Francis Wright, Lydia Child, and Carrie Chapman Catt. They also addressed the concerns of dozens of other figures less well known to later generations, such as Martha C. Wright, Eliza W. Farnham, Mariana W. Johnson, Harriot K. Hunt, Lydia Fowles, Pauline Wright-Davis, Ann Preston, and Mrs. Collins, who was also credited with being the founder of the first women’s suffrage society. (The American Woman Suffrage Association is mentioned in the work, but Lucy Stone, the leader of these rival suffragists, refused to contribute).

The first volume is the record of a movement growing in confidence and influence, one supported on principle by a number of prominent male reformers, most of them leading abolitionists. This confident note continues into the early pages of the second volume, which cites women’s contributions to the antislavery cause and their Civil War efforts; their subsequent support of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution; and the convening of the first postwar woman suffrage convention. Yet the suffrage movement, the history notes, fell upon hard times during Reconstruction (1867-1877). When erstwhile abolitionists and male legislators confronted what they perceived as a political choice between winning extensions of civil rights, including voting rights to African Americans (meaning at the time African American males) or universalizing the vote for women, they chose to back extensions of freedoms to black males and virtually abandoned the cause of woman suffrage.

Volumes 3 through 6, therefore, survey what were predominantly the campaigns of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (an organization created by the merger of the NWSA and the AWSA) in key states and localities, the strategies formulated in annual conventions, and legislative losses and gains year by year until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

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