Special Collections Online Exhibits

Founding Mothers: From the Ballot Box to the University

Early History of the Suffrage Movement

"The true republic: men, their rights and nothing more;
women, their rights and nothing less.” Susan B. Anthony[i]

Citizenship and rights have been part of the narrative of our country since the earliest days of the colonization.  “Citizen” is a contested idea entwined with debates about women’s nature, slavery, Native peoples, and immigrants. 

Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John at the 1776 Continental Congress:

Remember the ladies, and be more generous and favourable 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 perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Law in which we have not voice, or Representation.[ii]

Adams replied that he did not take her request seriously: “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.”  Then he added, “We have only the Name of Masters, but rather than give up this, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope that General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.”[iii] And thus, the terms of the battle were drawn.

The age of brass. Or the triumphs of woman's rights

The age of brass. Or the triumphs of woman's rights, 1869. Library of Congress

Debates about slavery and experiences in the abolition movement strengthened the suffrage movement in two ways.  First, abolitionists condemned slavery for violating people’s natural rights.  If a man had basic natural rights based on his humanity, then it was a violation of rights for a man to own another human being. These arguments led people to ask, if men are equal regardless of their race or status of servitude, what about women?

Second, women in the abolition movement experienced their lack of power when they were silenced in the public realm. Angelina and Sarah Grimke, who came from slave-owning families, were denounced by their community for speaking in public. Others were shouted down, spit on, or hit by thrown objects

[Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, standing, three-quarter length portrait]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Library of Congress 

Officials at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Society in London refused to seat Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott as delegates. Another U.S. delegate, William Lloyd Garrison, was outraged at their treatment: “After battling so many long years, for the liberties of African slaves, I can take no part in a convention that strikes down the most sacred rights of all women.”[iv]  He took a seat with the women in the spectators’ gallery.  When they returned home, the women delegates directed their efforts toward women’s rights.

Stanton used the Declaration of Independence as the template for her Declaration of Sentiments, the document that guided discussion at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls NY. She also created a set of resolutions that included:

Resolved: That it is the duty of women in this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.[v] 

[Frederick Douglass] / C.F. Conly, Photographer, 465 Washington St., Boston.

Frederick Douglass. Library of Congress 

This resolution proved to be controversial; it was the only one of the twelve resolutions that did not have widespread support.  Frederick Douglass, a former slave and well known abolitionist, helped sway the audience with his speech, and the resolution passed by a small margin. Douglass argued, “There is not one reason, not one consideration, which they can argue in support of man’s claim to vote, which does not equally support the right of woman to vote.” [vi]

The issue of race created divisions in the suffrage movement. Suffragists put aside their activities during the Civil War because they wanted slavery abolished. But after the war, they were divided over the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments that gave all adult male citizens the right to vote–including African American men.  Some suffragists wanted to hold out for an amendment that included women.

In 1869, the suffrage movement split into two organizations over strategies for obtaining the vote: the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Stanton and Anthony, wanted a federal amendment; the American Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Lucy Stone and Harry Blackwell, wanted a state by state approach.  These different strategies had consequences for the arguments made and whose voices were included as the suffrage debate moved west.  


[i] Motto of the newspaper The Revolution, published 1868-1872 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. https://www.womenofthehall.org/inductee/susan-b-anthony/. Accessed October 1, 2020.
[ii] Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March 1776. Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-01-02-0241. Accessed October 1, 2020.
[iii] John Adams, “John Adams Answers Abigail's Plea to ‘Remember the Ladies’,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers. https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/676. Accessed October 1, 2020.
[iv] Elaine Weiss, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), 47.
[v] 1848 Declaration of Sentiments. http://www.womensrightsfriends.org/pdfs/1848_declaration_of_sentiments.pdf. Accessed October 1, 2020.
[vi] Frederick Douglass, Speech at International Council of Women, Washington, DC, April 1888. http://www.womensrightsfriends.org/pdfs/1848_declaration_of_sentiments.pdf. Accessed October 1, 2020.