Social Change in the Nineteenth Century

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Why did some feminists support the 15th Amendment while others opposed it?

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The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 caused a lasting rift within the movement for women's suffrage in the United States. The cause of securing a woman's right to vote was linked to the cause of abolitionism since long before the Civil War. Many of the women's rights leaders were also fervent abolitionists. They saw the two causes as being linked. The right to vote for one group, they felt, would lead to universal suffrage.

Many women in the movement, such as Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone, saw the inclusion of blacks in the voter rolls as a step in the right direction for their cause, even though it did not include women. If black men were given the vote, they reasoned, women were surely about to get their rights soon. They felt the two movements were connected and that what was good for one was also beneficial for the other.

However, other leaders in the movement for women's suffrage, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, saw the Fifteenth Amendment as a blow to their cause. The amendment specifically singled out men's right to the vote by including the word "male." They saw the amendment as yet a further constitutional barrier to their cause. They were also afraid that the passage of the amendment would shift the national discussion away from women's rights and refocus it too much on the black rights movement.

The passage of the Fifteenth Amendment ultimately caused a schism in the women's rights movement that would last for decades. The two groups that came from this divide were often at odds with each other over tactics and strategy. Some historians consider this rift as the reason why it would be over fifty years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which finally guaranteed a woman's right to vote.

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Women were split over the issue of supporting or opposing the Fifteenth Amendment. This amendment stated that citizens couldn’t be denied the right to vote based on their race, color, or former slave status. Some women supported this amendment because they had been active in the abolition movement and felt that any action that gave benefits to the former slaves was a good thing. Since women had wanted the right to vote, these women, such as Lucy Stone, believed that, if former slaves got the right to vote, it would support the efforts of women who were advocating for women to be able to vote.

Other women were opposed to this amendment because it didn’t give women the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt that, if former slaves got the right to vote, there would be less interest in giving women the same right. These women believed there was only so much support for giving more people voting rights, and if former slaves got this right, it might be many years before women would finally realize their goal of getting the right to vote.

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The 15th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was intended to address the lingering post-Civil War problem regarding the rights of former slaves.  Concerns regarding how blacks would be treated and whether they would be denied the right to vote in elections spurred efforts on the part of the government to reinforce the principle first established in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”  Because many feminists, including Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, had also supported the abolitionist movement and equal rights for blacks, the notion of opposing the 15th Amendment, which states in Section 1, 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,” they believed that common decency and the precedent the amendment’s passage would set would ultimately benefit women in their own struggle for the right to vote. 

On the other side of the divide was Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who opposed the 15th Amendment precisely because it did not provide for the right to vote for women.  In fact, the amendment’s obvious omission of any mention of gender as a basis of discrimination, combined with the earlier passage of the 14th Amendment, which, in Section 2, specifically refers to “male citizens” in the context of proportional representation, was viewed by some feminists as prejudicial to their cause.  Therefore, to sanction passage of the 15th Amendment would be to support the continued denial to women of their fundamental right to vote.  Anthony, Stanton and their followers did not want to appear supportive of any legislative or constitutional movements that failed to address the issue of women’s suffrage.

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