Sunday, Jul 12, 2020
When the Founders crafted the U.S. Constitution, they gave the authority to decide who could vote to the states. All but one decided it would be men—white, property-owning men, 21 years old and older.
The one exception was New Jersey. For the first few decades of our new nation, property-owning women in New Jersey could vote. But in 1807, state legislators took a step backward and rescinded the right. New Jersey women joined their sisters across the country who were shut off from the ballot.
The start of a movement
Most historians mark the start of the American suffrage movement from the 1848 Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Both women had discovered their political voice fighting for the abolition of slavery. Both had felt the sting of being shut out by male-dominated leadership. They were outraged, frustrated, and ready to take on the status quo.
The status quo at the time was a sorry mess for women. Not only were they barred from public speaking and leadership positions, but married women could not own property, keep their own wages, or enter into any legal contract. Women were shut out of most professions. Divorce was near impossible, even in cases of abuse. A woman’s place was in the home—often an inherited home whose title had been ceded to her husband.
In 1851, three years after the Seneca Falls conference, Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony. Though strikingly unlike in appearance and temperament, they became lifelong friends. Together, they made a formidable team that reigned for more than 50 years as the iconic leaders of the suffrage movement.
Anthony and Stanton traveled the country making speeches and gathering support. When Stanton, mother of seven, cut back on travel, she stayed hard at work—writing Anthony’s speeches, organizing supporters, even rewriting the Bible from a feminist perspective.
Both women were bitterly disappointed when Congress refused, following the Civil War, to expand the language of the 15th Amendment to bar discrimination in voting based on both race and sex. Their outrage generated harsh statements from these former abolitionists that created a lasting racial rift among suffragists.
Anthony and Stanton did not give up. In 1878, they pushed for a 16th Amendment to guarantee women the right to vote. The “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” as it became known, failed in this first attempt and was introduced anew to each session of Congress for the next 42 years! The (by then) 19th Amendment, granting women’s suffrage, was finally ratified in 1920.
They didn’t live to see it
Neither Stanton nor Anthony lived to see passage. Their efforts fell short of their goals. But the inroads they gained, the organizations they created, and the national awareness they built set the stage for the next generation—the early 20th century activists who carried the campaign for women’s suffrage to victory.
The second wave
Among this second wave of suffragists were the daughters of Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott—and newcomers, including Carrie Chapman Catt and New Jersey native Alice Paul. Catt and Paul were rivals. Their strategies and styles were at odds. Catt favored local campaigns to change state voting laws. She thought militant demonstrations unpatriotic after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917.
In contrast, Paul took the fight for a U.S. Constitutional amendment to President Wilson’s doorstep. She lead an 18-month long picketing campaign at the gates to the White House. She welcomed the arrest and used the mistreatment of imprisoned suffragists to build public sympathy. Faced with a public relations nightmare, Wilson gave in and threw his support in favor of the federal amendment.
Passage of the Anthony Amendment was “the greatest expansion of democracy on a single day the world had ever seen” (Eleanor Clift, Founding Sisters).
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