Suffrage Movement

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
The Suffrage Movement refers, specifically, to the seventy-two-year-long battle for woman's right to vote in the United States. Rooted in the abolition of slavery, the movement promoted civic action among newly enfranchised women through organizations like the League of Women Voters and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Famous suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. In 1919, the U. S.


Suffrage is the right or privilege of voting and is frequently incorporated among the rights of citizenship (the duties and privileges of a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation). However, just as not all people in the United States are necessarily granted the privilege of citizenship, not all U.S. citizens have been uniformly endowed with the right to vote. Throughout U.S. history, persons have been denied suffrage based on sex, race, age, and income. This lack of universal suffrage historically resulted in an avalanche of debate, protest and advocacy for political reform. There was great resistance to this reform, and the woman suffrage movement's accomplishments came over time. Arnaud-Duc explains,

Political rights empower citizens to influence the state's priorities and hold public office. Suffrage may be national (or federal), local, or limited to particular offices. Because such hierarchies existed, women could only work their way gradually toward full citizenship. (1993, 82).

Though, in the broadest sense the suffrage movement embodies the fight by all individuals to obtain voting rights, the term is seen to be synonymous with the woman's suffrage movement, which stemmed from the fight for women's rights (Weatherford 1998). This is likely due to the fact that the woman's suffrage movement was a seventy-two-year-long battle that was rooted in the abolishment of slavery and, at least for some reformers, linked to obtaining the right for both blacks and women to vote; that is, some suffrage activists sought enfranchisement for blacks as well as women (McCulloch 1929).

Beyond merely providing women the legal ability to vote, the suffrage movement promoted civic action among newly enfranchised women through such organizations as the League of Women Voters, the new arm of the now defunct National American Woman Suffrage Association (Adams 1967). Seen as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, suffrage gave women a voice and greater ammunition with which to make a difference on local and federal levels (Kraditor 1965). By engaging in public works such as the establishment of community development organizations (the primary vehicle for development in low-income neighborhoods), women have been able to make contributions of lasting importance to their communities and to the greater society (Gittell, Ortega-Bustamante, and Steffy 2000). Although the right to vote might not be as fully appreciated today, women continue to impact their communities positively and influence federal and state governmental policies even though they are represented only by a small percentage of elected and appointed officials (Boyte and Skelton 1997; Black 1983; Clemens 1993).

This paper will focus on the struggle for woman's suffrage, arguments against women's right to vote, progress toward equality, and related social and political reform. Moreover, it will highlight key events and figures involved in the suffrage movement and suggest how both supporters and opponents of suffrage focused on the ways voting rights would affect women's abilities to bring about social change.

Historic Roots

Written in 1787 and adopted the following year, the U.S. Constitution granted each state the power to decide the voting qualifications of its residents in all elections (McGovney 1949). Many states restricted voting rights to those who owned land or substantial taxable property. Given the property laws and economic status of citizens at that time, these restrictions meant that most women and persons of color could not vote, and only about "half of the adult white men in the United States were eligible to vote in 1787" (Ibid., 16). Nevertheless, a few state constitutions-such as New Jersey's (1797)-were written in such a way that allowed free women to vote. In limited numbers, these women took advantage of verbal loopholes in state constitutions and cast their ballots. However, in general "woman suffrage was almost unheard of up to the middle of the nineteenth century" (Porter 1969, 136).

Most women were prohibited from voting or exercising the same civil rights as men during this time based on the idea that "a married woman's legal existence was incorporated into that of her husband" (Ibid., 138). This viewpoint reflected a widespread ideology of "separate spheres" for men and women; the many people who adopted this perspective argued that the place for women was at home and not in the affairs of the government (Robb 1996). With so few rights, many women drew parallels between their social and political state and that of slaves. This comparison won support of greater numbers of women and men to their cause, among them were the famous suffragettes attributed with founding the woman suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (Porter 1969).

Dedicated abolitionists, Stanton and Mott returned to the United States in June of 1840 highly indignant that they had been denied the right to participate in the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London because they were women (Harper 1969). Determined to overcome the social, civil, and religious disabilities that crippled women of their day, Stanton and Mott organized the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, on 19 July 1848. It drew over 300 persons (Weatherford 1998; Harper 1969; Coolidge 1966). Stanton drafted the "Declaration of Sentiments," a document declaring that "men and women are created equal" ( Woman's Rights Conventions, 1969). Modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it outlined several resolutions regarding higher education, property rights, and woman's suffrage (Graham 1996; Carter 1996).

Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker and rising leader in the woman's suffrage movement, made nationwide suffrage a goal and recruited many supporters (Carter 1996; Weatherford 1998). Anthony was convinced that women would not obtain the rights listed in the Declaration of Sentiments or be effective in implementing social reforms until they had voting power. However, despite the close cooperation between abolitionists and advocates of woman's rights following the Seneca Falls Convention, arguments over the Fifteenth Amendment led to a split in the movement in 1869 (Graham 1996; Porter 1969; Weatherford 1998). The Fifteenth Amendment provided black males the right to vote, building upon language in the previous amendment in which "any male inhabitants" were granted voting privileges. But many viewed the Amendment as an insult to women because the language did not even bother to exclude them (Weatherford 1998). Some persons sought to postpone woman's suffrage in order to focus efforts on securing enfranchisement for blacks freed following the Civil War, a move that Stanton and Anthony felt "compromised a betrayal of the ideal of universal suffrage" (Graham 1996, 5; Kraditor 1965).

From this split, two associations emerged: The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), and the National Woman Suffrage Assocation (NWSA). The AWSA was dedicated to state-by-state campaign reform, while the NWSA focused on a federal amendment campaign in addition to state action. Over the course of the next three decades, efforts on the part of both associations resulted in gains for woman's suffrage in several states, including Wyoming, the territory of Utah, and Washington. These two associations remained separate entities until 1890, when they merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Headed by Stanton, the consolidated organization marked a new era in the history of woman's suffrage (Weatherford 1998; Harper 1969).

Despite the growing support for women's right to vote, there were many who were opposed to the idea. Many anti-suffragists were men who argued that a woman's place was in the home and that voting rights would compromise those characteristics that made women distinctly feminine (Porter 1969; Kraditor 1965). According to Kraditor, "This 'separate but equal' doctrine of the respective spheres of man and woman was a central part of the sociological argument against woman suffrage, which declared that social peace and the welfare of the human race depended upon woman's staying home, having children, and keeping out of politics" (1965, 22). Some opponents of woman's suffrage also argued that women lacked the political experience and competency necessary to vote (Kraditor 1965).

Women's commitment to prohibition and close ties with the Women's Christian Temperance Union also produced many opponents to the woman suffrage movement (Weatherford 1998). The liquor industry feared that if women voted, prohibition laws would be passed, which would make it illegal to make or sell alcoholic beverages (Hossel 2003). Immigrants also opposed woman's suffrage for similar reasons. According to The History of Woman Suffrage, as cited by Weatherford (1998), "In suffrage for women [German immigrants] saw rigid Sunday laws and the suppression of their beer gardens" (133). Irish immigrants were also reportedly fearful that American women's vote would end their pub habits (Weatherford 1998).

Other industries were opposed to woman's suffrage. In the late 1800s, as the woman suffrage movement gained momentum, women became more attentive to social issues, such as food and drug safety, worker safety, and child labor. Factory and business owners fought against women's right to vote because they were worried that women would pass laws requiring changes in procedures and make it more expensive to operate their businesses (Hossell 2003).

Moreover, clerics and other laypersons relied on scriptural interpretations to debate the validity of woman's suffrage. Along with anti-suffragist clerics, many women spoke against suffrage, arguing that marriage was a sacred unity in which the family was represented by the man; thus, women need not vote (Weatherford 1998). In 1911, anti-suffragists came together to form the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, which voiced the opinions of the conservatives until women gained the right to vote in 1920.

Nevertheless, by 1912 so many women had gained voting rights within their individual states that presidential candidates began to court the female vote for the first time

(Ibid.). Additionally, the tireless efforts of women in support of the country during World War I gained the attention and respect of many persons who had initially questioned woman's suffrage. In 1918, President Wilson issued a statement supporting the federal amendment to grant woman's suffrage, publicly departing from his initial preference for state-by-state suffrage (Ibid.). The woman's movement rose to its climactic victory following the conclusion of the war. In 1919, the United States House and Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. In August of 1920 it was ratified by Tennessee, the last of the thirty-six state approvals necessary for the Amendment to become binding.


The woman's suffrage movement is important because it resulted in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally allowed women the right to vote. However, as Lucinda Desha Robb suggests, "one of the most important lessons of the woman suffrage movement may be the relative unimportance of suffrage all by itself" (1996, 40). The early suffragists did not see voting privileges as their primary goal; rather they saw suffrage as an opportunity to participate more fully in the public affairs of society through political engagement and civic action (Kraditor 1965).

In the Declaration of Sentiments, Stanton proposed twelve resolutions, of which woman's enfranchisement was just one. While many of her contemporaries initially felt that woman's suffrage was inconceivable, Stanton and Anthony soon saw that achievement of their other goals regarding women's rights was only possible through suffrage and the political advances and allies they would make along the way (Carter 1996; Weatherford 1998). Though they faced obstacles and hardships, Robb points out,

The years of hard work women put into making suffrage a reality taught them the full potential of democracy and how to employ that potential. They learned grassroots skills and gained the political credentials that made them more effective and laid the groundwork for their increasing participation in government. (1996, 41)

The ripple effect of the woman's suffrage movement on subsequent generations is evident in a range of educational, civil rights, and health care reforms, as well as in the growing number of women elected to governmental positions (Hossell 2003).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The woman suffrage movement has promoted human welfare in numerous ways. It has stimulated social and political reform through individual and group civil action. Local community organizations were formed and gained membership. The movement also led to the development of non-partisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters, which helps to educate women so that they may be informed voters and also prompts women to exercise their right to vote-a privilege many people today take for granted.

During the early part of the suffrage movement, suffragists and abolitionists worked together closely to fight for universal suffrage: the right to vote for all adult persons regardless of race, religion, or gender. Advocates for women's rights also developed intimate ties to supporters of the temperance movement, who sought to deter the abuse of alcohol and promote greater familial responsibilities among married men. Women were active participants as well in Progressivism, the movement that sought to address such social issues as worker safety and food and drug laws (Hossell 2003).

In addition, through the suffrage movement, women became more skilled at grassroots organization, which led to greater involvement in their local, state, and national communities (Robb 1996). Financial contributions to the movement aside, the time and energy suffragists dedicated to advancing their cause and improving society clearly demonstrate the links between the woman's suffrage movement and the philanthropic sector.

Key Related Ideas

A number of commonly understood terms or ideas related to woman suffrage exist in our vocabulary. Among them are feminism , inequality , sexism , and women's rights . In addition, other ideas bear the need for more explanation or historical context:

Abolition : The opposition and eradication of slavery. The anti-slavery or abolitionist movement was established in 1833 with the formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia, although anti-slavery sentiment predated the formation of the republic (Library of Congress). Following the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), Congress ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially abolished slavery.

Enfranchisement : To endow a person with the rights of citizenship, particularly the right to vote.

Equal rights : Those benefits and privileges that are due to a person by law, tradition, or nature without discrimination, specifically in regard to one's sex. Passage of the Nineteenth Amendment marked the first specific written guarantee of women's equal rights in the Constitution. However, in response to the many laws and practices at work and in society that still perpetuated the unequal treatment between men and women, Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923. The ERA advocated for the equal application of the Constitution to all citizens to ensure freedom from discrimination based on sex. To date however, the ERA has failed to be ratified by the United States Congress (Equal Rights

Grassroots advocacy : Active support for something such as a policy, an idea or cause spearheaded by people or society at a local level rather than as a result of major political activity.

Progressivism : The principles and practices of political progressives. Persons in support of progressivism promote progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods. Efforts made by Progressives during the early 1900s led to the establishment of laws governing child labor and food and drug safety (Hossell 2003).

Temperence Movement/Prohibition : Initiated by Christian women who saw the societal and familial ills created by the abuse of alcohol, temperance was the movement to prohibit the lawful manufacture, transportation, sale or possession of alcoholic beverages (Hossell 2003). In the simplest terms, prohibition refers to restrictions against the sale of alcohol; however, prohibition also refers to the period (1920-1933) during which the Eighteenth Amendment (which outlawed the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages) was in force in the United States. In 1933, prohibition of alcohol was repealed by passage of the Twenty-first Amendment.

Voting rights : The ability of U.S. citizens to participate in local, state and federal elections. Despite passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (which prohibited state and federal governments from denying citizens the ballot on the basis of race) Blacks and other minorities continued to experience resistance by state officials who were unwilling to enforce the amendment. In 1965, President Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, "generally considered the most successful piece of civil rights legislation ever adopted by the United States Congress" (U.S. Department of Justice). The Act systematizes and actualizes the Fifteenth Amendment's permanent guarantee that no person shall be denied the right to vote on account of race or color.

Important People Related to the Topic

Several key figures in the woman's suffrage movement are central to its success. They include Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). Yet, other individuals have played equally important roles in the advocacy of women's enfranchisement. Among these are:

Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947): A prominent suffragette that was a protégé of Susan B. Anthony. Catt was a talented speaker and active figure in the international suffrage movement. She became president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900.

Alice Paul (1885-1977): A Quaker suffragist, Paul is considered one of the leading figures responsible for the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Once a member of NAWSA, she broke away to form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, which

Alice Paul (continued) -later evolved into the National Woman's Party. Following the passage of woman's suffrage, Paul became involved in the struggle to introduce and pass an Equal Rights Amendment, also known as the Lucretia Mott Amendment (Kraditor 1965; also see Women's History).

Lucy Stone (1818-1893): A prominent abolitionist and one of the most important figures in the first generation of suffragists. Known for her liberal marriage to Henry B. Blackwell , Lucy headed the American Woman Suffrage Association and was the mother of Alice Stone Blackwell (1857-1950), who would later be called "the foremost suffragist propagandist" (Kraditor 1965, 266).

Stanton, Anthony, and others were not avid supporters of black suffrage because of fear it would lessen their chances of obtaining voting rights for women (Weatherford 1998; Hossell 2003). Nevertheless, the woman suffrage movement was aided by the efforts of three important black figures: Sojourner Truth (ca.1797-1883), Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931). All three fought for woman's suffrage, although Wells-Barnett fought primarily for the right of black women to vote (Hossell 2003).

Related Nonprofit Organizations 

  • The Federal Suffrage Association : The FSA was formed in 1892 by Reverend Olympia Brown with the purpose of creating coalitions with organizations focused on issues other than suffrage (Weatherford 1998). In 1902, the association was reorganized as the Woman's Federal Equality Association in an attempt to address women's concerns (Harper 1969).
  • National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA): Formed in 1890 through the unification of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (headed by Stanton and Anthony) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (headed by Lucy Stone; Graham 1996).
  • The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage : Headed by Mrs. Arthur M. Dodge, the association was organized in 1911 in New York. This organization sought to "increase general interest in the opposition to universal woman suffrage and to educate the public in the belief that women can be more useful to the community without the ballot than if affiliated with and influenced by party politics" (Harper 1969, 679). As stated by Weatherford, the Association was "the conservatives' banner-carrier until they finally lost" in 1920 (1988, 176).
  • The National College Equal Suffrage League : Prompted by an obligation of service to the cause of woman's suffrage, Maud Wood (later Park), a student at Radcliffe College, founded the Massachusetts College Equal Suffrage League in 1900. With help from
  • NAWSA, Park helped organize similar leagues on other college campuses and in 1908 the National College Equal Suffrage League was formed to "promote equal suffrage sentiment among college women and men both before and after graduation" (Harper 1969, 661-2).
  • The National Woman's Party (NWP): Founded by Alice Paul in 1916, the National Woman's Party was originally named the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage; its intent was to support the work of the Congressional Committee of the NAWSA. "Modeled after tactics utilized by British suffragists, the NWP endeavored to win national suffrage by aggressively lobbying Congress through 'an aggressive, unapologetically egalitarian, militant style'" (Bjornlund 2003, 56).
  • Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU): The oldest continuing non-sectarian women's organization in the world, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1874 by a group of women concerned about the problem of alcohol abuse in the United States. Because of common goals between the temperance and the woman's rights movements, "the move from temperance work to suffrage work was a natural evolution for tens of thousands" (Weatherford 1998, 128; WCTU).
  • General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC): Founded in 1890, the General Federation of Women's Clubs is "one of the world's largest and oldest women's volunteer service organizations" (GFWC). It currently has members in 6,500 clubs around the United States, with more than one million members worldwide. GFWC was originally established as a means of self-education and personal and professional development for women, the organization groomed many women to be political actors on a local level prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote. Consequently, the federation has a notable record of governmental activity on issues of historical importance. Specifically, the organization helped establish a model for juvenile courts; promoted conservation before the environmental movement began; aided in passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1913; supported the first child labor law and legislation restricting the workday to eight hours; and called for both equal rights and responsibilities for women. .
  • League of Women Voters : The League of Women Voters was organized in 1919 at the NAWSA national convention to replace the National Association following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Among its primary goals, the League of Women Voters was established to remove the remaining legal discrimination against women in state codes and constitutions, to use its influence to achieve full enfranchisement for women, and to assist millions of women to fulfill their new responsibilities as voters. Today, the League continues to influence public policy (Harper 1969; LWV).

Bibliography and Internet Resources

Adams, Mildred. The Right to Be People . Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1967.

Arnaud-Duc, Nicole. "The Law's Contradictions." In A History of Women: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War . Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1993, 4: 80-113. ISBN 0674403665.

Bjornlund, Lydia. Women of the Suffrage Movement . Farmington Hills, MI: Lucent Books, 2003. ISBN: 1590181735.

Black, Naomi. "The Politics of the League of Women Voters," International Social Science Journal 35 (1983): 4, 585-603.

Boyte, Harry C., and Nan Skelton. "The Legacy of Public Work: Educating for Citizenship." Educational Leadership 54 (1997): 5, 12-17.

Carter, Rosalynn. "Women Who Shaped the Constitution." In A Voice of Our Own: Leading American Women Celebrate the Right to Vote , edited by N. M. Neuman. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. ISBN: 0787902314.

Clemens, Elisabeth S. "Organizational Repertoires and Institutional Change: Women's Groups and the Transformation of U.S. Politics, 1890-1920," American Journal of Sociology 98 (1993): 4, 755-98.

Coolidge, Olivia. Women's Rights: The Suffrage Movement in America, 1848-1920 . Sixth ed. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1966. ISBN: 0525431527.

Equal Rights "The History Behind the Equal Rights Amendment." The Alice Paul Institute. .

General Federation of Women's Clubs. "About Us: GFWC in History." GFWC. .

Gittell, Marilyn, Isolda Ortega-Bustamante, and Tracy Steffy. "Social Capital and Social Change: Women's Community Activism," Urban Affairs Review 36 (2000): 2, 123-47.

Graham, Sara Hunter. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy . New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0300063466.

Harper, Ida Husted, ed. The History of Woman Suffrage . Vol. 5. New York: Arno and The New York Times , 1969. Original edition, 1922.

Hossell, Karen Price. The Nineteenth Amendment: Women Get the Vote . Chicago: Heinemann Library, 2003. ISBN: 1588109089.

Kraditor, Aileen S. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 . New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1965. ISBN: 0393014495.

League of Women Voters. "About LWV: Past and Future." League of Women Voters. .

Library of Congress. "The African-American Mosaic." Library of Congress. .

McCulloch, Albert J. Suffrage and Its Problems . Baltimore: Warwick and York, 1929.

McGovney, Dudley O. The American Suffrage Medley: The Need for a National Uniform Suffrage . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Porter, Kirk H. A History of Suffrage in the United States . New York: Greenwood Press, 1969. Original edition, 1918.

Robb, Lucinda Desha. "Lessons from the Woman Suffrage Movement." In A Voice of Our Own: Leading American Women Celebrate the Right to Vote , edited by N. M. Neuman. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996. ISBN: 0787902314.

United States Department of Justice. "Introduction to Federal Voting Rights Laws." USDOJ. .

Weatherford, Doris. A History of the American Suffragist Movement . Santa Barbara: The Moschovitis Group, 1998. ISBN: 1576070654.

Woman's Rights Conventions: Seneca Falls & Rochester, 1848 . New York: Arno and The New York Times, 1969. Original edition, 1870.

Women's Christian Temperance Union. History of the WTCU . WCTU. .

Women's History. Alice Paul . About, Inc.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.