Women’s History in the U.S.

The U.S. women’s movement had its beginnings in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott called the Seneca Falls Convention in New York to “discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.”  Stanton and Mott had broad ranging goals for this first-ever women’s convention, as detailed in their “Declaration of Sentiments.” Modeled after the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the document included twelve resolutions concerning the rights, privileges, and obligations of women, eleven of which easily passed. The resolution arguing for woman suffrage was a point of contention among participants. After much debate, Frederick Douglass, the well-known orator, abolitionist, and vigorous supporter of women’s rights, stood up to speak in favor of women’s franchise. His passionate argument helped garner support from Seneca Falls participants, and over 100 of them signed the resolution, enabling it to pass.

Two years later, at the American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston, members resolved to create a national convention for the formal consideration of women’s rights. For the next ten years (with the exception of 1857), delegates met annually at the National Women’s Rights Convention where a wide range of issues was discussed including equal wages, educational rights, women’s property rights, marriage reform, and women’s suffrage. The conventions, known for their hotly debated and frequently unconventional topics as well as standing room only crowds, saw the passage of several resolutions by attendees, who were encouraged to go home and bring pertinent issues before their own state legislative bodies.

The American Civil War brought an end to the National Women’s Rights Convention, and for the next several years, women’s rights activists focused their energies on the abolition of slavery, and on emancipation issues. But at the 1866 American Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Boston, abolitionist Lucy Stone and suffragist Susan B. Anthony proposed the idea of an organization where women and blacks could work together toward universal suffrage. Thus, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed, with Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass as co-founders. Within a few years, news of an impending 15th Amendment—granting free men of color the right to vote—created a rift among members; while many in AERA considered the amendment a victory, and were satisfied that things were moving in the right direction, others, including Stanton and Anthony were not happy. The 15th Amendment did not extend voting rights to women—a “grave injustice” and even affront to these activists—and they could not and would not support it. AERA members were split in their support, and the organization did not survive the schism.

In 1869, Stanton and Anthony created the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) whose sole mission was to secure woman suffrage. Abolitionists Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe believed that women’s suffrage should remain linked to black suffrage (and to equal rights movements, in general), so they began an alternative organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). At this time, African American women had also created concurrent movements for black women in the U.S., and women like Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell represented an important link between organizations and women, across color, faith, and status. For years, these organizations worked side-by-side for women’s rights. It became increasingly clear, however, that suffrage in particular was going to take a unified effort. In 1890, NWSA and AWSA joined forces, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was born.

The founding of NAWSA was an important step toward the progression of the national movement for women’s right to vote.  The strategy of the newly formed organization was to push for the ratification of enough state suffrage amendments to force Congress to approve a federal amendment.  Between 1869 and 1896, only four states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho) granted women the right to vote.  When Susan B. Anthony retired as NAWSA president in 1900, she named Carrie Chapman Catt her successor.  Catt served two terms as president (1900-1904, 1915-1920).  Unfortunately, the state campaigns came to a halt in 1896 with no other states adopting suffrage amendments until 1910.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the emergence of a new generation of suffragists who were increasingly impatient with the movement’s seeming inactivity and with its inability to win suffrage for women. Stanton’s daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, was particularly instrumental in changing the movement’s tactics for garnering public attention and support. Like Alice Paul, another young suffragist and activist, Blatch had spent time in England working in the British women’s movement alongside the militant Pankhurst family. Blatch and Paul’s experiences overseas led to the adoption in the United States of protest methods that were increasingly public, large in scale, and occasionally militant in nature. Specifically, Blatch brought the suffrage parade to the U.S., and encouraged women to publicly engage the “man in the street” while picketing for women’s rights. Paul, inspired by the Pankhurst family motto to protest with “deeds, not words,” implemented what are considered now to be the movement’s most radical strategies, including the act of picketing the White House during World War I, and encouraging protest via hunger strikes. Blatch, Paul, and Lucy Burns were the leaders of this increasingly radical wave of suffragists, most of whom endured repeated arrest for their actions, and who suffered being force-fed in prison as punishment for hunger striking.

Weary of NAWSA’s slow efforts to lobby individual states for suffrage, Paul and Burns broke from that organization in 1913 and created the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (which changed its name to the National Woman’s Party [NWP] in 1915). The women of the NWP focused their energies on the passage of a constitutional amendment ensuring women’s right to vote, and were relentless in their attempts to garner public and legislative attention for their cause. Many of their efforts at that time were considered scandalous, particularly during America’s involvement in World War I, when their protests were condemned as “unpatriotic” and even treasonous. Ultimately, President Wilson’s unwillingness to acknowledge the protesters’ demands, and what appeared to be his disregard for their health and safety when they were imprisoned, helped to sway public opinion in support of their cause. Along with increasingly successful state suffrage referenda, it was only a matter of time before the House and Senate “remember(ed) the ladies.”

Spurred on to action by the NWP’s controversial and public tactics, Catt resumed leadership of NAWSA in 1915 and unveiled her “Winning Plan” to build momentum for the federal amendment.  The plan involved campaigning for suffrage both on the state and federal levels, and working toward partial suffrage in the states resisting change.  Simultaneously, Catt cultivated President Wilson’s support and in December 1916 the president urged Congress to pass the amendment.  In May 1919, the House of Representatives passed the federal suffrage amendment followed by the Senate a few weeks later.  The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 26, 1920, and women’s suffrage was achieved. Whether it was NAWSA’s more controlled and traditional methods that succeeded in winning the campaign or the NWP’s more flamboyant and uncompromising tactics, one thing remains certain: the two organizations needed each other in order for the suffrage amendment to pass in 1920.

Many in this younger generation of activists continued their important work in the period from 1920 through the 1950s. Notably, Alice Paul and the NWP immediately began work on passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); NAWSA’s second president, Carrie Chapman Catt, worked on an international women’s movement; and American sex educator Margaret Sanger intensified her campaign for safe and legal birth control. But this period also represents a time of retreat by those working for women’s rights. The U.S. depression in the 1930’s, and the U.S. entry into World War II shifted the focus for some to nationalism.  American women were encouraged to join the war effort, by taking jobs in factories and offices in need of their labor. New ideas about what (especially married) women could and should do began to emerge, particularly when women were again encouraged after the war to “do their duty” by returning to their homes, where they could serve their husbands and “repopulate the ranks.” Moreover, the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s provided a model for rights movements at that time, and also served as a real-life training ground for many women. Ultimately, it was the release in 1953 of The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s historical analysis of women’s second-class status, which forced the issue into the public arena.

The “women’s lib” movement of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and the early 1980’s was, in part, a continuation of the work of the early suffragists, who sought to have women’s equality fully recognized. Organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), begun in 1966 by Betty Friedan and Pauli Murray, worked to change the institutional structures of society so that women could achieve economic, political, and social equality. Critically important changes took place during this period, including:

•    Betty Friedan’s 1963 work, The Feminine Mystique defined “the problem that has no name” and encouraged women to develop their own careers in addition to marriage and motherhood.
•    1963 Equal Pay Act required that men and women be paid the same amount of money for the same work performed.
•    Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought forth the issue of “protected categories,” and its Title VII helped to create the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, making it illegal to deny employment on the basis of race, religion, country of origin, color—or sex. Title IX of the Higher Education Act provided the impetus and federal funding for women’s sports programs in schools, creating an unprecedented shift in the educational and social experiences of women and girls.
•     In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut struck down remaining anti-birth control laws, and importantly, established a “right to privacy” for all U.S. citizens.
•    The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case declared a woman’s decision to have an abortion during the first trimester a fundamental right of liberty as defined by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, thus declaring as unconstitutional all existing federal and state bans on abortion.
•    The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress in 1972, but failed to get enough states for ratification. It was defeated in 1982 by a coalition of religious and conservative women’s groups that spearheaded the beginning of another backlash against feminism.

The upheavals of the second wave period left their mark. Changes—legal, economic, political, and social—were real, and appeared to be unchallengeable. The 1980s brought a significant number of “firsts” for women in the U.S., including the first female Supreme Court justice, the first female astronaut, and the first woman to be included on a major ticket for the U.S. presidency. Additionally, when a record number of American women were elected to national office in 1992, it was clear that the U.S. women’s rights movement was entering a “third wave” of feminism.  While women have come a long way since the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and its Declaration of Sentiments, there is still a lot of progress to be made.  The ongoing movement for women’s full equality in the United States is broader and more complex than ever before.  What is certain, though, is that the feminist movement will continue its work for the economic, political, social and personal empowerment of women, in this nation and the world over, until “…the equal station to which they are entitled…”  has been achieved.