Skip to main content

Women’s Suffrage: The Movement

The beginning of the struggle for woman’s suffrage in the United States is usually traced to “The Declaration of Sentiments” produced in 1848 at the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N. Y. when a group of abolitionist activists–mostly women, but some men–gathered to discuss the issue of woman’s rights. Most of the delegates agreed: American women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” proclaimed the Declaration of Sentiments that the delegates produced, “that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” What this meant, among other things, was that they believed women should have the right to vote.

During the 1850s, the woman’s rights movement gathered steam, but lost momentum when the Civil War began. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton found themselves increasingly at odds with many of their former reform allies. Many reformers wanted to focus on winning rights — including the right to vote — for newly emancipated African-American men. Their efforts led to the passing of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Anthony and Stanton were against these amendments because they included the word “male.” They believed that with the word “male” written in these amendments, it would be even harder for women to obtain the right to vote for women.

Anthony and Stanton began to concentrate exclusively on woman’s rights. Susan B. Anthony had become a brilliant organizer and political strategist, and she showed a tireless devotion to the cause. In 1868, she and Stanton started publishing a newspaper for woman’s rights: Revolution. The paper championed woman’s suffrage, equal pay for equal work, woman’s education, the rights of working women and the opening of new occupations for women, as well as the liberalization of divorce laws.

Equal Suffrage League of Virginia
Equal Suffrage League of Virginia
Photo: Courtesy of the Adele Goodman Clark Papers, Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU

In May of 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. This organization would focus on securing a federal woman suffrage amendment as well as working on key state campaigns for the vote. Anthony served as a member of the executive committee and later as vice-president, while Stanton was the president. Others argued that it was unfair to endanger black enfranchisement by tying it to the markedly less popular campaign for female suffrage. The pro-15th-Amendment faction formed a group called the American Woman Suffrage Association and fought for the franchise on a state-by-state basis.

In 1872, suffragists brought a series of court challenges designed to test whether voting was a “privilege” of “U. S. citizenship” now belonging to women by virtue of the recently adopted 14th Amendment. One such challenge grew out of a criminal prosecution of Susan B. Anthony for illegally voting in the 1872 election. The first case to make its way to the Supreme Court, however, was Minor vs Happersett (1875). In Minor, a unanimous Court rejected the argument that either the privileges and immunities clause or the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment extended the vote to women. Following Minor, suffragists turned their attention from the courts to the states and to Congress.

In 1878, a constitutional amendment was proposed that provided “The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This same amendment would be introduced in every session of Congress for the next 41 years.

In 1890 the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the organization’s first president.) By then, the suffragists’ approach had changed. Instead of arguing that women deserved the same rights and responsibilities as men because women and men were “created equal,” the new generation of activists argued that women deserved the vote because they were different from men. They could make their domesticity into a political virtue, using the franchise to create a purer, more moral “maternal commonwealth.”

This argument served many political agendas: Temperance advocates, for instance, wanted women to have the vote because they thought it would mobilize an enormous voting bloc on behalf of their cause, and many middle-class white people were swayed once again by the argument that the enfranchisement of white women would “ensure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.”

In July 1890, the Territory of Wyoming, which allowed women to vote, was admitted as a state. Wyoming became the first state with women suffrage. By 1900, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho joined Wyoming in allowing women to vote.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party became the first national political party to have a plank supporting women suffrage. The tide was beginning to turn.

In May, 1919, the necessary two-thirds vote in favor of the women suffrage amendment was finally mustered in Congress, and the proposed amendment was sent to the states for ratification. By July 1920, with a number of primarily southern states adamantly opposed to the amendment, it all came down to Tennessee. It appeared that the amendment might fail by one vote in the Tennessee house, but twenty-four-year-old Harry Burns surprised observers by casting the deciding vote for ratification. At the time of his vote, Burns had in his pocket a letter he had received from his mother urging him, “Don’t forget to be a good boy” and “vote for suffrage.” Women had finally won the vote.

For further reading: For more information on the Suffrage Movement and woman’s progress toward equality visit The Sewall-Belmont House and Museum and the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership. To learn more about the role of African American women in the movement, see Terborg-Penn, R. (1998). African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. See also the article about Mary Church Terrell.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J. (2011). The women’s suffrage movement. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from



Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.

2 Replies to “Women’s Suffrage: The Movement”

    • Yes, efforts are being made. The New York Times recently ran a number of articles about African American women who worked for suffrage. The work of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920) would be an important place for anyone interested in this omission to begin reading.

Comments for this site have been disabled. Please use our contact form for any research questions.