This essay first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Choice (volume 57 | Issue 10).
The US Constitution as originally written and ratified left it to the states to determine eligibility to vote. Until amended in 1790, New Jersey’s State Constitution was notable for extending the franchise to all residents, including women and people of color, the only state in the new nation to eschew limitations based on race or gender. At the national level, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) further defined the rights and privileges of citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) later granted the vote to African American males specifically. Within this changing context, however, women still struggled to win the vote for themselves.
Across the Atlantic, the fight for woman suffrage in Britain shared many similarities and connections to American women’s struggle for voting rights. It is thus notable that two years after English women won the right to vote in 1918, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granted the franchise to American women as well. The struggle for woman suffrage on both sides of the Atlantic began in earnest in the late eighteenth century as the growing influence of Romanticism emphasized the individual as the primary channel for the improvement of humankind. Reflecting this sentiment, in 1776, as John Adams met with the other signers in Philadelphia charged with writing a declaration of independence, Abigail Adams wrote to him, chiding her husband to “remember the ladies” as he participated in this momentous deliberation. Sixteen years later, across the Atlantic, writer Mary Wollstonecraft argued that women were the equals of men and should be treated as rational beings. Both Adams and Wollstonecraft rejected separate spheres for the genders, where men participated economically and politically in the world at large while women, deprived of rights, kept the home fires burning for their husbands and children.
Though it would take decades to win the passage of the Nineteenth, or Susan B. Anthony, Amendment, which stipulated 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 sex,” Nineteenth-century women developed the organizational and leadership skills needed in the decades-long struggle through participating in voluntary societies focused on antislavery, temperance, and world peace. However, not all women were unified in this goal. Supporters came to be known as “Suffs,” while women who opposed it were the “Antis.”
Following the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and later the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment extended the franchise of voting rights, but only to African American males. Thus excluded, women began lobbying for a sixteenth amendment, although in 1869 they split over tactics: the American Woman’s Suffrage Association, as a single focus group, believed in the power of state-by-state campaigns, while the National Woman’s Suffrage Association favored a constitutional amendment that would impact all women at once. In 1890 the groups merged to form the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), combining forces until Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947) formed the more radical, militant National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916. Organizing parades and marches and picketing the White House for months, its members faced arrest and imprisonment. When they organized hunger strikes, brutal forced feedings gained them even more attention from a sympathetic public.
This essay charts the development of this historic movement through seminal primary and secondary texts, those written by and about remarkable figures in the fight for women’s voting rights. The sources outlined will aid students and researchers in understanding the trajectory of the woman suffrage movement and its impact on our understanding of women’s rights today, especially pertinent as we enter the centennial of women’s right to vote becoming law in the US.
Duncan R. Jamieson's PhD is in American intellectual history. He is a professor of history at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio.