Women's Rights Movements

The American women's rights movement is usually dated from the convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to discuss the "Social, Civil, and Religious Condition of Woman." This meeting gathered activists from a wide range of political and reform concerns: antislavery, Free-Soil party supporters, temperance advocates, and Congregational Friends--a dissident religious group that had recently separated from the Hicksite Quakers. Lucretia Mott, the only nationally known woman speaker at the meeting, gained recognition as the convention's moving "spirit." Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the "Declaration of Sentiments," a document read and revised during the proceedings. This treatise called not only for women's right to vote, but insisted that women be granted "immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States."

The Antebellum Era.

Yet the women's rights movement did not begin in a single place nor did it focus exclusively on the vote. The process of mobilizing a women's rights movement was, in fact, far more complex. Before the Civil War, activists organized local and national women's rights conventions in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The national conventions were most vociferously promoted by Paulina Wright Davis (1813-1876), of Providence, Rhode Island, who also edited The Una (1853-1855), the first periodical devoted exclusively to the movement. These national gatherings occurred annually from 1850 to 1860 in Worcester, Syracuse, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In each state, coalitions of activists used this symbolic public forum to draft resolutions, make speeches, and organize petition campaigns that helped create a "critical public" and establish a "community discourse" about a wide range of issues. Holding a convention for open discussion of women's status as "rights-bearers" demonstrated that women constituted a portion of "the people" capable of shaping public opinion and stimulating political action. This goal was made clear at the 1850 Woman's Rights Convention in Salem, Ohio, where only women were permitted to participate in the deliberations, while males were relegated to the role of silent spectators, the traditional place of women in Antebellum Era politics.

In an era of avid constitutional revision, eleven states called conventions between 1846 and 1851 to redraft their original compacts. The early women's rights conventions organized in response to these state constitutional conventions. The 1848 Seneca Falls and Rochester women's rights meetings occurred two years after a New York constitutional convention, and the local delegate to the state constitutional deliberations, Ansel Bascom, attended the Seneca Falls meeting. Similarly, the early women's rights conventions in Ohio were responses to the Ohio state constitutional convention of 1850-1851. Activists held a convention in Indiana while that state revised its constitution. And the first two national conventions in Worcester, Massachusetts, were held in anticipation of an 1853 state constitutional convention.

Through this process, women's rights activists generated a coherent critique of women's position in society. They framed their arguments not only in natural-rights terms, but according to current understandings of the right of protection, due process, and personal liberty. They developed a sophisticated theoretical perspective on equality, consent, representation, and national citizenship. Supporters of women's rights also shaped their view of democratic polity through their earlier involvement in campaigns protesting black codes, fugitive slave laws, prostitution, capital punishment, and the Mexican War. All of these constituted a critique of the state's power to vest and divest rights, create "disabled castes," and undermine women's equal protection before the law.

Recognizing the link between women's family status and their political and civil standing, activists campaigned for married women's property rights, equal custody rights, a wife's contractual right to keep her wages, and, by 1860, women's right to divorce. This last issue proved divisive, however: Proponents such as Stanton argued that divorce required state protection, while some, like Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921), called for separation rather than divorce as a solution to unfit marriages.

The church provided another arena of political struggle because, in the language of representation, the dual images of the husband as head of the family and the minister as head of the congregation, reinforced the dominant political justification for women's exclusion from the political domain--namely, that all women were represented by proxy through men. Most supporters of the women's rights movement were also active in radical religious groups such as the Progressive Friends, evangelical and transcendentalist free churches, or the Religious Union of Associationists. These dissident religious groups created a public forum that acknowledged the "coequal representation" of the sexes.

From the Civil War to 1890.

The Civil War curtailed the women's rights conventions. Nevertheless, during the war Susan B. Anthony and other politically active reformers organized the Women's National Loyal League in New York to collect signatures on petitions urging the emancipation of slaves, which was achieved in 1865 with ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

By 1869 the women's rights movement had split into two factions: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Stanton and Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), supported by Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown Blackwell. The NWSA, headquartered in New York, published The Revolution (1868-1872); the Boston-based AWSA, which emerged from the American Equal Rights Association and the New England Woman's Suffrage Association, published Woman's Journal (1870- ). The division resulted from the Republican party's readiness, by means of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, to grant equal protection and suffrage to African-American men while excluding women from these same rights. The NWSA, refusing to postpone women's claims, explicitly asserted white women's superiority over black men as potential voters. The AWSA took a more qualified position on this issue, reaffirming the prewar alliance between the antislavery and women's rights move ments. Further, while the NWSA was run exclusively by women, the AWSA included men and indeed granted them leadership positions. While the AWSA was linked to the Republican party, the Stanton-Anthony organization joined forces with Democratic party supporters of the cause. Beginning in the volatile Kansas woman suffrage campaign of 1867, Stanton and Anthony collaborated with George Francis Train, who celebrated the superiority of white, middle-class, educated women over the newly freed, black male population.

In the following decades, the AWSA encouraged the formation of woman suffrage associations at the state and local level. The NWSA used more confrontational tactics, promoting efforts of women to vote illegally. This strategy of storming the polls began in 1870, resulting in Anthony's arrest and prosecution in 1872-1873. The NWSA focus on constitutional rights led to its involvement in two important if unsuccessful Supreme Court cases. Bradwell v. Illinois (1873) denied Myra Bradwell the right to practice law, restricted women's rights to engage in other professions or public pursuits, and reaffirmed the distinction between women's basic civil rights and their political rights. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), the Court ruled that although women were "citizens" and "persons," this did not guarantee them the privilege of voting. These two cases made clear that state-level campaigns to secure the rights of citizenship held more promise than national campaigns. Even state-level campaigns, however, required long-term plans for changing public opinion and working with partisan politicians.

During the 1870s and 1880s, the demands for "equal rights" or "women's rights" faced competition from a new political ideology, "Home Protection," advocated by Frances Willard of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). This new wave of reform emphasized certain traditional values, particularly the ideal of women's vital domestic role, and stressed women's moral distinctiveness rather than their political equality. Under Willard's leadership, the WCTU gained over 200,000 members in the 1880s, built a national grassroots organization, and established local alliances with state politicians. The WCTU did not escape racism, especially as it organized in southern states. By playing upon fears of sexual assault by drunken men, the WCTU contributed to the "southern rape complex" that southern white politicians used to justify the lynching of black men.

From 1890 to 1920.

State campaigns brought some success. Women won the right to vote in Colorado in 1893, relying on support from the WCTU, the Populist party, and the Colorado State Equal Suffrage League. In 1890, the two wings of the movement joined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), a union long pursued by Susan B. Anthony, the first president of the new organization. Race remained divisive, however, as the NAWSA excluded black women in an attempt to retain support from southern white women. But in 1906, NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw (1847-1919) refused to endorse the racist campaigns in the South, arguing that woman suffrage should not promote racial exploitation.

Dramatic changes came around 1910, as the woman suffrage campaign emerged as a "feminist" movement. A new cadre of leaders, including Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), Carrie Chapman Catt, Jane Addams, and Alice Paul (1885-1977), argued for suffrage not only as a matter of justice, but also as a solution to such political and social problems as prostitution, labor exploitation, and municipal corruption, thus linking it to the powerful wave of Progressive political reform. Distancing themselves from the nativist and racist agendas of the late nineteenth century, the new leaders even attempted to form alliances with immigrant men through their support for child-labor laws and literacy campaigns. By linking suffrage to social policy at the state level, the NAWSA laid the foundation for a larger national campaign to amend the federal Constitution. This final push for suffrage, initiated in 1914, culminated in 1920 with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women's right to vote.

Related Articles in The Oxford Companion to United States History

Antislavery; Civil Rights; Child-Labor Laws; Feminism; Free-Soil Party; Lynching; Marriage and Divorce; Nineteenth Amendment; Progressive Era; Prostitution and Antiprostitution; Racism; Rape; Religion; Seneca Falls Convention; Society of Friends; State Governments; Suffrage, Temperance and Prohibition; Transcendentalism; Woman Suffrage Movement.


Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869, 1978. Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, 1987. Nancy Caraway, Segregated Sisterhood: Racism and the Politics of American Feminism, 1991. Joan Hoff, Law, Gender and Injustice: A Legal History of U.S. Women, 1991. Judy Wellman, "The Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention: A Study of Social Networks," Journal of Women's History 3 (Spring 1991): 9-37. Ellen Carol DuBois, "Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Bradwell, Minor, and Suffrage Militance in the 1870s," in Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, eds. Nancy A. Hewitt and Suzanne Lebsock, 1993, pp. 19-40. Suzanne M. Marilley, Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920, 1996. Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage, 1997. Nancy Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America, 1998.

Nancy Isenberg

Nancy Isenberg. "Women's Rights Movements";
The Oxford Companion to United States History, Paul S. Boyer, ed., New York, 2001.
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