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Votes for Women

In the spring of 1776, John Adams was at the Continental Congress preparing a resolution for American independence and for states to write their own constitutions. John received a letter from his wife, Abigail, asking him to include women in the drive towards freedom and equality within a republican government based upon the consent of the governed. Abigail wrote:

“I long to hear that you have declared independence—and by the way in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation” (Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776)

John responded in the way that most men of the time would have and wrote that he could not “but laugh” at her “extraordinary code of laws.” Freed northern slaves, apprentices, and the poor were demanding equality, and John feared that, “Another tribe [women], more numerous and powerful than all the rest,” were also thinking about equality. He called Abigail “saucy” in her demands and promised that men would rule “fair and softly” because “you know we [men] are the subjects.” Men only enjoyed the appearance of masters, in John’s estimation, and feared women’s rights would “completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat” (John Adams to Abigail Adams, April 14, 1776). It was hardly an auspicious dawn for women’s rights; yet, an important Founding Mother had raised the issue, if only privately.

Both before and after the American Revolution, some women did vote in states such as New Jersey, and although the colonial records are sketchy, they also voted in some parts of Massachusetts and New York. The emergence of a true women’s movement for equality and suffrage (the right to vote) developed after the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening and the rise of several antebellum (before the Civil War) reform movements in the 1830s and 1840s. These women’s reform movements sought to remake society morally and even usher in a utopian age by bringing the kingdom of God to earth. Some of the reforms included abolitionism, prison reform, temperance, and common schools.

During this time, the reigning view was one of “separate spheres” for the sexes with men entering public life through work and politics and women having control over the home. While some observers note that this was unfair for women, the idea of “republican motherhood” meant that the survival of the republic depended on women raising their children in a virtuous home with patriotic republican principles. Moreover, it was believed that the public sphere corrupted men’s morals because of the attraction of greed, power, and vice, but then their wives cultivated good homes where men could remember their virtue. Since the view was that women were more moral, they could make the world and American politics more moral.

The pre-Civil War reform movements wished to make it permissible for women to enter public life and politics in order to civilize and moralize the public sphere. Many women worked on behalf of other reforms, and faced discrimination in those movements and began to advocate for their own liberty and equality. For instance, women were refused a seat at the 1840 World’s Antislavery Convention in London. Women’s participation in other reforms taught them to organize a movement, speak in public, and lobby politically.

Women were denied the vote for several reasons. They were not seen at the intellectual equal of men, were seen as less rational than men, and were seen as dependent upon their husbands. The fear was that women would vote as their husbands directed thereby giving two votes to any married man.

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Women were denied the vote for several reasons. They were not seen at the intellectual equal of men, were seen as less rational than men, and were seen as dependent upon their husbands. The fear was that women would vote as their husbands directed thereby giving two votes to any married man.

In July 1848, a group of women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met at Seneca Falls, New York, to address women’s inequality particularly regarding suffrage. The convention produced a “Declaration of Sentiments” modeled on the text of the Declaration of Independence. It was the first of several reform movements that appealed to the principles in the Declaration of Independence to argue for natural and civil rights. The Declaration of Sentiments began from the assertion, perhaps a misreading, that it did not include women when it said that all men are created equal. So a new statement was proposed; “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal” Here was a correction of the original Declaration, yet one that clarified the meaning of equality rather than changing the principles of the document. Therefore, it demonstrated respect for the universal principles of the Declaration.

The Declaration of Sentiments asserted that the history of mankind was one of “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” Therefore, among its many demands, the declaration argued that women did not merely have a civil right to suffrage but rather an “inalienable right to the elective franchise” (Seneca Falls Convention, Declaration of Sentiments, 1848) Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass attended (he was the only African American to do so) and spoke with his usual eloquence in favor of women’s suffrage when that issue was hotly debated at the convention. “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world,” Douglass said. Women—married women especially—had no legal standing, no right to own property, no profitable employment, no ability to receive a college education, and no right to be members of the clergy (except in a few denominations like the Quakers), the Declaration of Sentiments complained. While many of these goals would go unfulfilled for the better part of a century, the Seneca Falls Convention laid an agenda for the future and rooted it in the American Founding.

In the wake of the Civil War, African American males won the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, but suffragettes were disappointed that the language did not bar discrimination on account of sex. By 1869, in response, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony organized the National Women’s Suffrage Association to fight for a constitutional amendment, while Lucy Stone and others formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which supported the Fifteenth Amendment and pursued a state-by-state strategy for women’s suffrage since states determined eligibility requirements for voting. The state strategy met with great success particularly in the West. By 1890, when the two groups merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), several states and territories allowed women to vote.

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In the wake of the Civil War, African American males won the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, but suffragettes were disappointed that the language did not bar discrimination on account of sex.

Women’s suffrage came late to the South and East due to racism and nativism that was central to a movement of primarily white, middle-class women. In the South, opposition to black suffrage was pronounced and a variety of restrictions were implemented to block the Fifteenth Amendment for black males or women’s suffrage for black females. It was widely recognized at the time that the NAWSA made racist arguments and supported white female suffrage as a means preserving white supremacy in the South. One activist bluntly stated that women’s suffrage would counteract the vote of millions of “ex-slaves, illiterate and semi-barbarous.” Others thought that the traditional role of women as guardian of household morality should be maintained without being infected by worldly politics.

Alice paul

Alice Paul left the NAWSA to form the National Woman’s Party. In 1917, Paul was arrested after protesting at the White House and went on a hunger strike to protest the poor conditions in the prison.

The same arguments were made by suffragettes in the face of millions of immigrant men from southeastern Europe voting when they arrived in the United States. The Suffrage Movement was marred by remarks that showed a strong streak of Social Darwinism (a belief in a hierarchy of races) and nativism.

There was a “multitude of coarse, ignorant beings, designated in our constitution as male citizens—many of them fresh from the steerage of incoming steamers. There, too, are natives of the same type from the slums of our cities,” who could vote. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Hearing of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, January 28, 1896).

Immigrant men were repeatedly denounced by suffragettes as “ignorant,” “worthless,” and “dangerous.” Indeed, activist Florence Kelley, admitted that, “I have rarely heard a ringing suffrage speech which did not refer to the ‘ignorant and degraded’ men…This is habitually spoken with more or less bitterness” (Florence Kelley, Speech at the NAWSA Annual Convention, 1906). The NAWSA, however, changed tactics during World War I, and appealed to those immigrant men of northeastern cities when the suffragettes realized they needed to win over their votes for a constitutional amendment.

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