“Women, their rights, and nothing less.”
Those are the words of Susan B. Anthony, part of the motto of her newspaper “The Revolution.” Many people, when they think of the fight for women’s suffrage, think of the suffragettes, 25,000 women marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City, and the Silent Sentinels standing watch outside the White House. This was, however, just the end of a 100-year struggle.
Now, the full story of the women’s suffrage movement is impossible to cover in a single article, but I will attempt to do justice to the main figures and events.
Internationally, the movement began in England in 1792 when Mary Wollstonecraft published “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” In the young United States, it was another 50 years before women’s suffrage became a national discussion.
For that, we can credit Angelina and Sarah Grimke. I mentioned them in my last article in the context of abolitionism, but they were also among the first to hold public speeches supporting the right of women to vote as early as 1836. Their speeches and writings brought William Lloyd Garrison and Lucy Stone into the movement, who in turn inspired Abby Kelley Foster and Susan B. Anthony.
As with every political movement in the 19th century, when support began to grow, what did they do? They held a convention! In July of 1848, roughly 300 supporters gathered in Seneca Falls, New York. Led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 68 women and 32 men endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments, based on the Declaration of Independence, supporting the rights of women to vote and own property, among others.
The Seneca Falls Convention was quickly followed by another in Rochester, then dozens of other small regional meetings in several states, then the first statewide convention in Salem, Ohio in 1850, and finally the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. There, over 1,000 attendees from 11 states gathered to hear speeches from Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth on topics as wide ranging as abolitionism, divorce, education, equal wages, suffrage, and temperance.
Annual national conventions continued until the outbreak of the Civil War, when the movement paused to focus on the emancipation of slaves. That being accomplished with the passing of the 13th Amendment, the focus was then on getting women’s suffrage included alongside African-American suffrage in the 15th Amendment. Obviously, that did not happen.
That fight to include suffrage in that amendment shattered the women’s movement. Anthony and Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), opposed by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe’s American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
This split drastically slowed the movement’s progress, but it did not end it. In 1869, Wyoming Territory granted women to right to vote. It was followed by Utah in 1870 and
Washington in 1883. The slow pace brought the two associations together again, to form to the National American Woman Suffrage Associations (NAWSA) in 1890.
In the meantime, between 1869 and 1890, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in Rochester in 1872, interrupted the 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia to present a Declaration of Rights for Women, and began training the next generation, including Carrie Chapman Catt. The movement also gained the support of major labor unions, including The Grange and the American Federation of Labor.
Resuming the slow march of progress, Idaho granted suffrage in 1896, California in 1911, Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon in 1912, Alaska in 1913, and Nevada and Montana in 1914. The tide was clearly turning, and women’s suffrage was gaining national support. These victories were followed by the election of Jeanette Rankin to Congress in 1916.
Public opinion was also shifting. In 1910, the first major suffragette parade was held in New York City. It was followed up by a 1913 parade in Washington, D.C., organized by the NAWSA and militant suffragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. Paul and Burns, in 1917, also organized the protests outside of the White House that we remember as the Silent Sentinels. For that, they were arrested, beaten, and tortured in prison.
The “Night of Terror” in Occoquan Prison, along with the massive contributions of women on the World War One homefront, finally pushed public opinion over the edge. New York, Oklahoma, and South Dakota grant full suffrage in 1917, President Wilson endorses the movement in 1918, and suffrage is granted by Michigan in 1919. A dozen other states granted partial suffrage.
With support growing across the nation, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, on June 4th, 1919. West Virginia ratified the amendment on March 10th, 1920, exactly a century ago this Tuesday, and the amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution after ratification by Tennessee on August 18th, 1920.
Of the 68 women that signed the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls in 1848, only one lived to see women win the right to vote.
Information from dozens of sources, primarily the online exhibits of the National Women’s History Museum.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be Saturday, March 14 at 5 p.m. at the Mason County Library.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.