If you thought your right to place a ballot and decide on the future of your country has always been a given, think again. The right to vote has been hard-won by many groups throughout history, and women are no exception.
The women’s fight for equal suffrage was a long and difficult struggle in countries worldwide. It began in the late 1800s and wasn’t entirely successful until the second half of the 20th century. This article will walk you through the history of women’s suffrage in the US and some of the key figures who fought for this important right.
Women's Rights Throughout History
Since the early days of humanity, many societies have oppressed women, and marginalized them compared to men. This was not true of all societies, but with the advent of Western colonialism, the patriarchal culture born in Europe spread across the world. As a result, women in most parts of the world have long been denied the same rights as men and excluded from many aspects of society.
In Europe, the first examples of women fighting for their rights can be found in ancient Greece and Rome. In these societies, women were primarily confined to the home and were not allowed to participate in public life. They were denied the right to vote, own property, or pursue a career. Women were also subjected to various forms of abuse and were often seen as inferior to men.
Despite these conditions, some women did manage to make their voices heard. The most famous example is the Greek poet Sappho, who wrote about love and desire from a woman’s perspective, and her love of other women. In Rome, the poet Livy was another rare voice of female empowerment. She recorded history from a feminine perspective, although her male contemporaries largely ignored her work.
In the sense that we think of it today, the fight for women's suffrage began in the late 18th century, at the end of the Enlightenment. This was a time when reason and individual rights were championed, and women took the opportunity to step up from their subordinate position in society. The women’s rights movement continued to grow in the 19th century, with many women speaking out against their oppression. The campaign truly flourished in the Victorian era and secured its most important victories in the 20th century.
In the United States, the fight for women’s suffrage began in earnest in 1848, with the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Before this turning point, the idea of civil liberties for groups other than white men were getting more and more traction across the US, and women strengthened their voices and articulated their cause.
The biggest step in the campaign for women’s suffrage up to that point, the Seneca Falls Convention, resulted from the struggles of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, among others. They drafted the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which called for equality between men and women in all areas of life, including the right to vote. Though the Seneca Falls Convention was a turning point for the women's rights movement, it would be many years before these demands were met.
The movement faced significant opposition from those who believed that women were not capable of voting responsibly. In addition, many people thought that women's place was in the home, not in the public sphere. Despite these challenges, the suffragette movement made gradual progress over the next few decades.
The Civil War and the Fight for Equal Suffrage
The Civil War was a time when women's rights fell to the background, as many of the movement's leading activists were abolitionists who redirected their energy to the fight against slavery. However, some women continued to fight for voting rights during this time.
In 1864, the movement for women’s suffrage in the US joined the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), campaigning for the right to vote regardless of race or gender. This helped keep the suffrage movement alive during the war years.
In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, and in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States. These amendments opened the door for women’s participation in the elections, as many activists argued that if men of all races and origins were given the right to vote, women should also be extended this right.
However, some argued that tying the less popular movement for enfranchising women to the campaign for Black suffrage might endanger Black people’s cause. That's why the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men, was passed without mentioning women. However, it represented a significant victory for the women's suffrage movement, as it provided a constitutional basis for extending voting rights to women, as another excluded group.
The events eventually caused a split in the movement: In 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) to campaign for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. In contrast, others gathered around the more moderate American Woman's Suffrage Association (AWSA).
The Victories and Setbacks of Women's Suffrage
The struggle for women's voting rights continued after the Civil War, with both the NWSA and AWSA working on securing them, although separately. However, their efforts were met with significant opposition.
During the years between the Civil War and World War I, there were several setbacks for American suffragettes. In 1873, the Supreme Court ruled in Minor v. Happersett that the Fourteenth Amendment did not guarantee women's right to vote. This ruling dealt a severe blow to the whole movement, as it seemed to some that women would never be given the right to vote.
In addition, many states passed laws during this period that made it difficult or impossible for women to vote. For example, some states required women to own property to vote, while others imposed literacy tests or other barriers that effectively prevented women from exercising their rights, as neither schooling nor real estate ownership were widely available for them.
The fight for women's rights in the 1800s faced significant opposition from those who argued that women were too emotional and irrational to make decisions about government and politics. They also claimed that giving women the vote would undermine the family and lead to social chaos.
In 1890, the NWSA and the American Woman's Suffrage Association (AWSA) merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). This new organization fought for women’s suffrage, too; however, it was larger and better funded than either of its constituent organizations, and it helped increase support for the cause.
The 20th Century: A Radical Approach
In 1916, NAWSA's president, Carrie Chapman Catt, came up with a new strategy to win suffrage for women. This plan, which became known as the “Winning Plan,” called for women to focus their efforts on winning the support of men to get the vote.
Catt believed it was essential to appeal to men in positions of power, such as legislators and business leaders. She also thought it was imperative to use all available channels to reach these men for women to get the vote in the United States: Advertising, public speaking, and all other media opportunities were used. The Winning Plan was successful in garnering the support of many male politicians and business leaders for the cause. However, the results were not sufficient.
On the other hand, Alice Paul, an outspoken suffragette, believed in the merit of a more radical approach. Paul felt it was essential to use more aggressive tactics, such as protests, hunger strikes, and civil disobedience, to campaign for the vote. This approach made Paul something of a controversial figure within the suffrage movement, and she was often at odds with NAWSA's leadership. However, her tactics did bring more attention to the fight.
The 19th Amendment: Women Won the Right to Vote
During World War I, women played a significant role in the war effort, working jobs traditionally assigned to men. This showed they could do more than just domestic work, and garnered widespread support for their right to vote.
After the war, NAWSA continued its work to get a constitutional amendment passed to grant American women the right to vote on state and local levels. In 1919, Congress finally approved the Nineteenth Amendment, and it was ratified by 36 states in 1920. The 19th amendment granted women suffrage and expanded their political rights - it was the suffragettes’ most significant victory at the time.
Over time, women began to play a more active role in government and politics. They also gained increased access to education and employment opportunities. The victory of female suffrage helped change the way society viewed women, and paved the way for future advances in women's rights. The first elections in the US in which women were able to vote were held in November of 1920, and women voters have been shaping the country's political future ever since.
Truly Universal Suffrage: Women of Color
The struggle to ensure women's right to vote was not just a fight for white women. Women of color also fought hard for their rights, and they experienced discrimination and violence from both the government and white suffragettes.
Despite passing the 19th amendment, Black women were still discriminated against when it came to voting, and were further strangled by infamous Jim Crow laws. Many states passed laws that prevented Black people from voting, and they were often harassed and intimidated by government officials. White suffragettes also often excluded women of color from their organizations.
It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all women, regardless of race, were finally able to exercise their right to vote. This piece of legislation was the final step in the fight for women's suffrage in the US, at least on paper. However, minority voter suppression, especially in conservative-led states, remains a very real threat to this day.
Since enfranchising all women, the US’s political future has been shaped by their will, at least in part. The success of the whole movement also paved the way for future advances in women's rights. Still, the fight is far from over: Even now, women earn 81 cents for each dollar earned by men, their reproductive rights are constantly in danger, it’s more difficult for them to secure a loan, they face prejudices in the workplace, along with discrimination and violence in all areas of life. However, the inspiring story of American suffragettes reminds us that even when the odds seem insurmountable, change is possible.