What was the Women’s Rights Movement in America?
Though there were some notable efforts made earlier, the rise and expansion of women’s rights really began to accelerate in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1848, there was a wave of nationalist revolutions across Europe, and it was during this tumultuous year that significant milestones were reached for women in America. The first was the passage of a law in New York which granted key property rights to married women, which was the culmination of years of work by Ernestine Rose.
Though not as well-remembered in the history of women’s rights as some other people, Poland-born Ernestine Rose was one of the first major forces of this movement. After successfully refusing the betrothal of a wealthy man chosen by her father, she fully renounced her inheritance so she could set off and make her own way in the world. She manufactured and sold room deodorizers made from perfumed paper to fund her travels. After making it across Europe, she married and set off to New York, arriving there in 1836. She was an accomplished speaker, known as the ‘Queen of the Platform’ who spoke fervently about abolition and the advancement of women’s rights. After several years of advocacy spearheaded by Rose, New York passed the first married women’s property law in the United States. The law recognized that any land or personal property brought into a marriage remained the woman’s property.
New York in 1848 was also the scene of another notable development, the first convention on women’s rights, which was held in Seneca Falls on the 19th and 20th of July. The conference was the brainchild of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two of the leading voices of the women’s movement in the nineteenth century.
Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and mother of six, was one of the first women to speak publically against slavery at a time when the opinions of women weren’t typically welcome. Like other abolitionist women, Mott was often sidelined by her male counterparts.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born into a wealthy New York family and took an early interest in the antislavery movement. To the disapproval of her family, she married Henry Stanton, a penniless abolitionist, in 1840. Their marriage vows were unusual for the time in that the word obey, in reference to the wife obeying the husband, wasn’t included. The newly wed couple traveled to London to take part in the antislavery convention. It was at the convention where Elizabeth Stanton met Lucretia Mott.
The Stantons began a family shortly after returning to the United States and it was some time before Mott and Stanton would meet again. In the pivotal year of 1848, Mott traveled to New York to attend a Quaker meeting and proceeded to invite Elizabeth Stanton. At the small gathering of women, which included the sister of Susan B. Anthony, the idea to hold a convention on women’s rights was hatched. The Declaration of Sentiments was drawn up to be presented at the conference, in which the famous preamble to the Declaration of Independence was rewritten as:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal”
The Declaration of Sentiments included 11 resolutions for discussion. The most contentious was the ninth point calling for a woman’s right to vote. Some organizers, including Mott, felt it was too radical a step and were wary of its inclusion. On July 19th, a larger-than-expected crowd of 300 showed up, including the formerly enslaved, prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When the resolutions were presented, it was indeed the ninth point that sparked the most debate. But in the end, the vocal support of Douglass helped the measure to pass. One hundred attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments on July 20th, 1848.
Another convention was held a few weeks later in nearby Rochester along with similar meetings held in Ohio and Indiana. By 1850, support for the movement had grown strong enough for the first national convention on women’s rights to be held. The event was held in Worcester, Massachusetts and was regarded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the true beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States.
Other significant leaders emerged in the 1850s. Susan B. Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 and soon became an indispensable part of the movement, bringing considerable organizational skills to the cause. She remained unmarried and took on an increasing share of the burden as many of her colleagues struggled to balance their family lives and careers. Sojourner Truth, born Isabella Bomfree, was a formerly enslaved woman who engaged audiences with a folksy and humorous style speech punctuated with her distinctive Dutch accent.
The campaign for women’s suffrage was put on hold by the outbreak of the American Civil War. The abolition of slavery came with the war’s conclusion and questions regarding the women’s movement arose. There were some divisions among abolitionists over support for the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment was first proposed in 1866 and granted citizenship and equal rights to African Americans, but the text specified the rights applied to men.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton feared that the inclusion of the word male in the amendment’s text would present a serious setback to the cause of votes for women, stating that “if that word male be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.” However, at the same time, there were others who supported the amendment as it was. This led to the creation of two rival national organizations for women’s rights in 1869.
The first, considered the more radical, was the New-York-based National Woman Suffrage Association, founded in 1869 by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association was established by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe in Boston. An important milestone for women’s suffrage was reached that same year when the territory of Wyoming’s legislature decreed women could vote and hold office. Utah then became the second territory to grant women the vote the following year.
In the Presidential Election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony was one of the women who attempted to cast a vote, claiming the right under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. She was one of fifteen women arrested and convicted for casting a ballot in Rochester, New York. Sojourner Truth arrived at a polling station in Michigan and unsuccessfully attempted to cast a vote in the same election.
Change came slowly in Congress. The text that would eventually become the 19th Amendment first appeared in 1878 after a Senate committee formed to consider the question of women’s suffrage. The motion was defeated by 34-16. Rather than be deterred by the outcome, Susan B. Anthony reflected on the progress that had been made:
“It was a triumph for us. You see we now have on our side one-third of the United States Senate.”
In 1890, the two rival women’s organizations merged into one unified entity, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA. As Wyoming was granted statehood that same year, it became the first state to grant women the right to vote. Colorado was the second in 1893, followed by Utah and Idaho in 1896. NAWSA pursued a state-by-state strategy at the turn of the century, seeing that as a more viable path than a broad national campaign.
A suffrage parade was held in New York City in 1912. This wasn’t the first march of its kind, but it was by far the largest. Women of all backgrounds were part of the 15,000 marchers to take to the streets. Former President Theodore Roosevelt’s newly formed Progressive Party, commonly called the Bull Moose Party, announced a platform that included support for women’s suffrage later that summer.
A new wave of energy came in the form of Alice Paul, who proposed a more assertive strategy to gain the vote. Paul had spent time in Britain from 1907-1910 and joined the efforts of the British Suffragettes in their campaign to gain women the vote. She was instrumental in the planning of a NAWSA parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Paul later split with NAWSA over disagreements regarding strategy and helped form what eventually became the National Woman’s Party.
Alice Paul then organized a picketing campaign outside the White House in 1917. Each day, the group silently stood outside the gates as a constant reminder of the administration’s lack of action on women’s suffrage. The group became known as the Silent Sentinels. Hundreds were arrested and imprisoned over the course of their two-and-a-half-year vigil. Alice Paul herself was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement. After enduring harsh conditions and going on hunger strike, the picketers were all released by November 1917.
Meanwhile, Montana had elected the first female representative, Jeanette Rankin, in 1916. Rankin was a committed pacifist and was among the few who voted against the United States’ entry into World War One in 1917. Interestingly, after leaving office in 1919, she would re-enter congress the very same year the United States entered World War Two in 1941. She was the sole vote against war with Japan.
It was Rankin who opened debate on the passage of an amendment to grant women the right to vote in 1918. Woodrow Wilson announced his support for the amendment and agreed to its passage after the end of the war. Interestingly, the passage of the 18th amendment prohibiting alcoholic beverages may have paved the way for the passage of the 19th amendment. Ever since the 1850’s, there was strong overlap in women’s support, particularly in the North, for prohibition of alcohol, women’s suffrage, and abolition of slavery. Since a strong majority of potential women voters also supported Prohibition, much of the political funding opposing women’s suffrage came from American alcohol producers. Once Prohibition was accomplished, however, there was no further incentive for the now defunct brewers and distillers to fund political opposition to women’s suffrage.
In 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passed and was ratified the following year on August 26th, 1920. Three months later, millions of women exercised their rights for the first time as Warren Harding defeated James Cox to become the 29th President of the United States. The 1920s would usher in many changes, and many women would take greater control of their own lives and build upon the victories won by their predecessors. Of course, the story of women’s rights did not end in 1920, but that’s all we’ll cover for today’s video.
Now, before we go, let’s look at a couple of review questions to test your memory.
1. What was the Declaration of Sentiments?
- A document protesting women’s inferior status compared to men
- A direct plea asking the US government to allow women to vote
- The first draft of the Declaration of Independence
The correct answer is A! Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments in protest of women’s status and included 11 resolutions for women’s equality.
2. What led to the creation of two rival national organizations for women’s rights in 1869?
- Racial segregation
- Differences in religious beliefs
- Support for the 14th Amendment was split
The correct answer is C! Some people believed that the 14th Amendment was fine just as it was, but others, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, believed that inserting the word male would be a mistake that would last well over a century.
That’s all for this review! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!