The women’s suffrage movement became one of the most prominent areas of reform during the Progressive movement. Learn about the work of early feminists, changing roles of women and notable women suffrage leaders who pushed for women’s right to vote.
Early Feminists Seek Equal Rights
In the 21st century, there is not much I can’t achieve when compared to my male counterparts.
For instance, I can obtain an education, work in a career of my choice and exercise my right to vote. However, for many years, women did not enjoy the same basic rights as men in the United States.Many historians point to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as the start of the women’s suffrage movement. Early feminist leaders brought attention to women’s rights by calling for improved legal status, economic opportunity and the right to vote. Another early women’s rights leader who challenged existing social norms and inequalities between the sexes was Susan B.
Anthony.Anthony and Stanton first proposed a national women’s suffrage amendment granting women the right to vote in 1878. Lucy Stone worked at the state level using a state-by-state approach to achieve voting rights for women. But it was not until 1920 when the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and National Woman’s Party (NWP) finally secured the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.
S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Let’s take a look to see how the ladies made it happen.
Challenging Women’s Role
First of all, women had to tackle long-held beliefs about proper roles for their gender. Historically speaking, men and women were seen to have separate spheres of influence.
Men’s roles were predominately as the head of the household and outside the home. Middle-class women’s roles were almost exclusively within the home and focused on the family. Women who worked outside of the home were usually young, unmarried and employed as domestic help or as factory workers.
Some educated women worked as teachers, nurses and librarians.During the Progressive Era, women’s clubs helped expand middle-class women’s roles outside of the home. Initially concentrated on education and literacy, women’s clubs began working to alleviate social problems. Women were key players in the push for prohibition (meaning outlawing the sale and consumption of alcohol), improved housing standards, regulations of the food and drug industry and government inspections of factories.
The settlement house movement provided assistance to immigrant communities and led to the rise of social work.Women’s organizations supported laws regarding women and children, such as public assistance for mothers with dependent children and a minimum wage law for women and children. Some middle class women joined laborers to push for laws protecting workers. Women joined labor unions, held meetings, picketed and raised money to support their causes.
Women’s activism during the Progressive Era was a way many women began to enter public life. The idea of separate spheres for men and women was challenged as women became more involved in civic matters. As women began to address social issues, it seemed natural to many women that they should be able to vote.
Some women’s suffrage supporters stressed that if women were granted the right to vote, they would bring a sort of moral uplift to the country. For example, they argued that women would likely vote for prohibition or laws aimed at stopping prostitution.
Fight for Women’s Suffrage
By the turn of the century, only four western states allowed women full suffrage.
So why exactly did women’s suffrage take so long to achieve? As with many controversial political issues, there was substantial opposition. Anti-suffrage organizations, newspapers and petitions were formed to stop women’s suffrage gains. Some upper-class women opposed the women’s suffrage movement, arguing that women were encroaching on men’s territory. The anti-suffrage movement contended that granting women the right to vote was challenging the ‘natural order’ of society, and they attempted to associate women’s suffrage with compromised morals, even leading to neglect of children and divorce. The most significant resistance to women’s suffrage came from the South and East.In 1900, Susan B.
Anthony retired from the leadership of NAWSA and Carrie Chapman Catt became the organization’s new president. A skilled political organizer, Catt called for organization at the local levels, while retaining firm national control. NAWSA worked steadily to gain women suffrage state by state, and slowly but surely, additional states joined the women’s suffrage ranks.
The suffragists used modern publicity tactics, such as newspaper advertisements, parades, banners, posters, catchy slogans and playing cards, promoting the suffrage agenda. In 1913, thousands of women marched in a national women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., on the day before President Wilson’s inauguration. These efforts by suffragists created hype around the movement.Speaking of hype, let’s talk about the more militant side of the women’s suffrage movement.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had spent time in Britain observing the women’s suffrage movement and brought back to the States some of the militant tactics used over there. Upon their return, the women served on NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, whose main purpose was to lobby Congress for a national suffrage amendment. Paul and Burns went on to form the National Woman’s Party (NWP).The NWP was more confrontational than NAWSA.
Some of these tactics used by Paul and her followers included aggressive lobbying of government officials, civil disobedience, picketing the White House during wartime, demonstrations and even hunger strikes. Many members of the NWP were arrested and imprisoned. Some were even force fed to end hunger strikes. While not all of these tactics may seem extreme today, these activities were shocking and brought increased attention to the women’s suffrage movement.
Passage of the 19th Amendment
President Woodrow Wilson had dodged supporting a federal women’s suffrage amendment for several years. He endorsed women’s suffrage initiatives at the state level in the 1916 Presidential Democratic platform. In that same year, Jeannette Rankin from Montana was the first woman to be elected to Congress. It was not until 1918 that President Wilson finally supported the 19th Amendment, partly due to women’s contributions during World War I.Decades after the women’s suffrage amendment was first proposed, the U.S. Senate adopted the 19th Amendment by a close vote on June 4, 1919.
It took 14 months for the states to ratify the amendment (meaning to approve by vote), which happened on August 18, 1920. The 19th Amendment states: ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.’ The 19th Amendment granting nationwide women’s suffrage was nicknamed the Susan B. Anthony amendment in her honor.
After the 19th Amendment was ratified, Alice Paul went on to write the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She believed that the 19th Amendment would never truly protect women’s rights and prevent discrimination based on sex. The ERA became known as the Alice Paul Amendment and was a part of the 1923 National Women’s Party platform. Other former suffrage leaders did not support the ERA because they thought its demands went too far and could potentially damage previous gains for women in terms of labor legislation.
Congress eventually adopted the ERA in 1972, but the states failed to ratify it.
In summary, during the Progressive Era, women’s clubs, settlement house workers and other female reformers challenged the idea of women’s roles confined to the home and family. Women’s involvement in social reform served as a way for women to gain valuable organizational and leadership experience. During the 20th century, Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party were key leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. In conclusion, the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, is considered to be the most significant democratic achievement of the entire Progressive Era.
When you have finished this lesson, you should be able to:
- Recognize that as early as 1848, the Women’s Movement was at work
- Examine the work of the NAWSA and NWP in pushing for Women’s Suffrage during the Progressive Era
- Recall that the movement passed the ERA in Congress in 1972 and the fact that it stalled out in local state houses