Women’s suffrage: The fight for and against voting rights

The fight for women's rights was far from unified, despite the sanitized version of events often presented in history books.

(National Archives)

SAN JOSE, Calif., Aug. 18, 2016 – The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guaranteed women the right to vote, was passed by Congress and ratified by the states on Aug. 18, 1920.

For many American citizens, this seems as if it was long overdue from the time of the Declaration of Independence or from the newly ratified Constitution in 1788 until 1920. However, many Americans are unaware of many of the details or struggles down that long road, and one of the difficulties along the path of the women’s suffrage movement was manifested by divisive controversy within the movement itself.

Historically, women have done just fine in fighting among or against one another in the political arena. While women’s suffrage finally came to fruition when the “ladies” finally received the right to vote via the 19th Amendment, several prominent women leaders of the movement denounced and opposed the rights of former slaves to have the right to vote via the 14th and 15th Amendments. The women’s movement, which historians agree started at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, was for all practical purposes put on hold during the American Civil War. But the war changed things.

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The alliance of reformers that had existed before the Civil War unraveled after the war, as the move to secure former slaves as American citizens with all the rights of citizens created serious divisions within the women’s suffrage movement. Unfortunately, this is not common knowledge. To know the essence of such divisiveness can help to understand part of the reason it took longer for American women to secure the right to vote. Serious ideological differences grew between abolitionists and ardent women’s rights advocates over the political goal that black males should be able to receive the right to vote before women.

Just after the American Civil War, when the 14th Amendment was being debated, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony alienated their abolitionist friends as they actively lobbied against the ratification of the amendment that would grant African-American men citizenship in a post-slave America. Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a strong abolitionist, agreed with Stanton that voting rights should be universal. As early as 1866, Stanton, Anthony and other suffragists drafted a petition that demanded the right to vote be provided without regard to one’s sex or race, and Stevens introduced it in Congress.

Despite such strong opposition from the two core leaders of the women’s movement, Congress proposed the 14th Amendment on June 13, 1866, and it was ratified and became law on July 9, 1868. By the time the 15th Amendment was being scrutinized by Congress, Stanton’s absolutist stance against black men’s receiving the right to vote divided the women against one another, and ultimately developed into a major split between the women’s leaders and between women’s rights advocates and abolitionists. Included in the ranks of supporters of the 14th Amendment was the former slave, Frederick Douglass, who believed like many other supporters of the amendment that black suffrage and woman suffrage could be handled independently and treated as one issue after the other.

More specifically, Frederick Douglass did not view the view the need for women to get the right to vote to be as urgent as the effort to provide freedmen with full citizenship rights. Although he was an early and lifelong advocate of women’s suffrage, he did not afford it the same priorities:

I must say that I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to women as to the negro. With us, the matter is a question of life and death. It is a matter of existence, at least in fifteen states of the Union. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.

Although white women leaders of the suffrage movement believed in abolition of slavery, some believed that blacks, and more specifically, black men, were inferior to white women. Translated into legislative action, it meant that such women truly believed that black men were not truly ready for the right to vote, and arguments for women suffrage, and against the enfranchisement of blacks, were often based upon on racist sentiments.

Both Stanton and Anthony had become angry that their former allies in working for both African-American and women’s rights, had decided against Stanton’s all-or-nothing approach, and ultimately as desperation set in, rhetoric began to reveal a deeper racial prejudice.

In her argumentation of advocating female suffrage, Stanton stated that women voters of “wealth, education, and refinement” were necessary to balance out the effect of former slaves and immigrants whose “pauperism, ignorance, and degradation” could harm the American political system. One infamous line attributed to Stanton is her concern regarding “a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo‘ walk into the kingdom [right to vote] first.”

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Such remarks truly offended even those within the women’s suffrage movement, but due to her absolutist opposition to black male voting rights, several historians have made the point that such behavior fragmented the civil rights movement by pitting African-American men against women.

This serious schism within the women’s rights movement is still a sore point, and some sanitized, politically correct, historical references gloss over this period of separation; but by 1869, the real disagreement over ratification of the 15th Amendment led to the creation of two separate women’s suffrage organizations. Elizabeth Cady Stanton held to her entrenched “all or nothing at all” stance, and strong opposition from many of the other leaders in the women’s suffrage movement spurred Stanton, as well as Anthony, to found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in May 1869.

Opposition leaders, including Elizabeth Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone, created the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) by November of that year.

The NWSA demanded changes to the 15th Amendment that included the right of females to vote, and in light of Stanton’s stance, opposed passage of the amendment if the changes were not made. The AWSA, led by Stone, Blackwell and Howe supported the wording of the 15th Amendment as it had been written: “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.”

Despite the efforts of Stanton and the NWSA to oppose the 15th Amendment, the measure as originally written was passed by Congress in 1869 and quickly ratified by the states in 1870.

In reflecting upon this critical moment in American history, there are several lessons that could be learned. Elizabeth Cady Stanton left an indelible mark on the women’s rights movement, but her strong opposition to extending the right to vote to African-American men and her offensive language had the unfortunate outcome of her being on the same side as the former Confederacy and the remnant of the power structure that introduced the Black Codes, poll taxation and the Jim Crow laws. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was originally and ultimately promoting issues that reveal she was well ahead of her time, but in that moment  of time, even though she was one of the enlightened founders of the women’s rights movement, she also damaged the rights efforts and caused a separation of two organizations that did not enjoy genuine support from the American public, even the support of many women.

Ultimately, the leaders of the AWSA publicly rejected the NWSA’s efforts as being radically divisive and decided to completely focus on working on the state level for incremental change. While the AWSA was better funded and the larger of the two groups, it was successful only on a regional level. The NWSA, based in New York, relied on a smaller base within the state, but it could extend its influence to the rest of the nation, primarily due to the more extensive speaking engagements booked for Stanton and Anthony. However, during the 1880s, the two women’s rights organizations essentially struggled to maintain momentum. If the truth is known, neither group attracted widespread support from women, nor were they able to persuade male politicians or the voters to adopt their general cause.

It was not until 1890 that the two organizations reunited as the National American Woman Suffrage Association. That year, focusing on statewide efforts paid off as Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote. However, it would still be another 30 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. Sadly, Stanton and Anthony died at the turn of the century without seeing much fulfillment of their efforts. But in the beginning of the 20th century, women’s roles in American society were changing as more women were working, and more were getting a valuable education.

As early as 1916 both the Democratic and Republican parties were publicly endorsing the right of women to vote. Ultimately, women got their own amendment as the 19th Amendment passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on Aug. 18, 1920, and then it became the law of the land. A long time coming, but a struggle to be remembered.

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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.