When the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was certified by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby on August 26, 1920, women finally won the right to vote, a monumental step toward gender equality. But why weren’t women given the right to vote when the 14th and 15th Amendments were passed after the Civil War, during a period known as Reconstruction? That will be the main subject of this article, with a background leading up to those amendments and a brief conclusion.
From the Revolution to the Civil War
In the spring of 1776, John Adams, a prominent lawyer and fiery patriot for the cause of American independence, served as a delegate for Massachusetts to the Continental Congress. Adams was pushing for a final resolution to officially sever ties with the British Crown (later to be called the Declaration of Independence). His wife, Abigail Adams, an educated and opinionated woman, would run the family’s affairs while her husband was away either at the Congress or serving abroad as an ambassador to France during most of the American Revolution. She realized the importance of the 1776 convention of the Continental Congress and why her husband was going there. In a letter dated March 31, 1776, she penned in part the following to him:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would 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 Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
When the U.S. Constitution came into effect in 1789, states were given the power to decide who would be allowed to vote. Every state would deny women that right. The majority of states allowed only white, landowning men the right to vote. When shifting moral, political, and economic attitudes led to a change in societal thinking regarding the ownership of one person by another, the women’s movement attempted to seize on those ideals to achieve women’s suffrage as well.
Many women abolitionist saw the anti-slavery movement as an opportunity for women to push for gender equality based on similar arguments, namely that women, too, were slaves with no rights. Activists such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became early leaders of the abolition movement while also was pushing for gender equality in the form of suffrage for women. As women, both Mott and Stanton were barred from participating in the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. They were not deterred but rather were motivated to hold a convention of their own in the United States. The true birth of the women’s suffrage movement began at that convention.
The 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York, advocated for an end to slavery but recognized that women also had been oppressed. Stanton would write the Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the Seneca Falls Convention. This document advocated the idea of women’s activism in political, moral, and social issues. Among those issues was the push for equality of women, the cornerstone of which was giving women the right to vote nationally. While not successful at getting the vote at this time, the women’s movement did win women some rights in several states, notably the right to own real property, to be heirs and successors of their spouse’s estates, and to hold public office. In 1848 California would give some property rights to women, and New York State would grant both real and personal property rights to women. In 1852 arguments were made in the Vermont Senate to allow women to own real property.
Lacking national backing for their quest for suffrage but recognizing the Northern political and public sentiment regarding slavery, the women’s movement would become deeply allied with the abolitionist movement during the decade immediately preceding the Civil War. The alliance was cemented at the 1851 National Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, which was attended by prominent abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Douglass, a former slave and a leader of the abolitionist movement, had also attended the Seneca Falls Convention, where he gave a rousing speech in favor of women’s suffrage. Sojourner Truth, also a former slave, delivered one of the most famous speeches of the Akron convention, arguing for abolition but advocating for women’s rights as she asked “Ain’t I a woman?” The next year saw the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 19th century’s best-selling novel, which advocated both for abolition and women’s rights. As the abolitionist movement would support the newly formed Republican Party (which advocated abolition), so would the suffrage movement. The joining of women’s suffrage advocates and abolitionists would be beneficial to the abolitionists but would ultimately fail the suffrage movement. And any hopes for women’s suffrage would be put on hold with the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861.
Reconstruction: 1865 to 1877
At the end of the Civil War in April 1865, the nation was in shambles. Most of the physical destruction was confined to the South, but the North had suffered high casualties during the war. Recent estimates put the death toll as high as 750,000 combined from both sides. Economically, the South was devastated, with most of its manufacturing, farms, railroads, roads, bridges, shipping, etc., having been destroyed. The period from 1865 to 1877, known as Reconstruction, would be focused on two issues: removing Democratic political control in the Southern states and reincorporating these states back into the Union so that the South could be rebuilt. Gender rights were not a priority and would be sacrificed.
After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Congress instituted a military-style occupation of the South. The Southern states reacted by passing what were to become known as Black Codes, laws designed to keep both male and female “freedmen” on or near the plantations by limiting their movement from rural areas, preventing landownership, and restricting the type of work they could perform. Congress, in turn, responded with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which outlawed these codes and declared all people born in the United States to be U.S. citizens. The South refused to follow the Civil Rights Act. Therefore, in June 1866, Congress passed the 14th Amendment—which guaranteed citizenship, privileges and immunities, equal protection of laws, and voting rights to males of the age of 21—and sent the Amendment to the states for ratification.
The suffrage movement saw an opportunity and advocated for gender to be added to the 14th Amendment’s voting rights clause. This movement was led by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all regardless of gender or race. In an 1867 speech, Stanton insisted that a woman’s right to vote be included, arguing that the Amendment must grant “equal rights to all that the ideal of the Founding Fathers be now made a fact of life.” But in Congress and during the two-year state ratification process, that language was not included. In 1868 the 14th Amendment was ratified without gender inclusion, and with its passage the alliance of the suffrage movement and the abolition movement would come to an end.
Of course, there were other attempts at gaining suffrage. In 1868 Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy introduced a bill to add a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution. It failed. In that same year, the 15th Amendment was being passed in Congress to guarantee suffrage to citizens regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The Amendment left open to the states the legal ability to deny women the right to vote. Here, the women’s suffrage movement would be divided on how to attain that right. Stanton and Anthony wanted the 15th Amendment to guarantee the right to vote to women. But Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe, and other more “conservative” activists believed that suffrage should be obtained by changing each individual state’s law; they were afraid that any national attempt to include women’s suffrage could end the suffrage movement. The 15th Amendment would be ratified by the states in 1870, stating, “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Once again, gender was not included.
Women’s suffrage advocates lost in a very short period of time (1865 to 1870) all the allies that they had thought would help them achieve the right to vote. First, they lost the support of the Republican Party, which they had supported prior to the war. The Republicans’ position was that only the votes of the freedmen (about 2 million male votes) were needed to control Southern state houses. Women’s votes were not necessary, and Republicans believed that advocating for women’s suffrage would only add another incendiary issue to an already confrontational environment. Second, the abolitionists also turned their backs on the women’s suffrage movement. In a letter to Stanton, Wendell Phillips, a leading abolitionist, wrote of the alliance, “I think such a mixture would lose for the negro far more than we should gain for the woman.”
With its internal disagreements regarding philosophy and strategy, the loss of its abolition allies, and its inability to build political support in Congress or the White House, the women’s suffrage movement eventually split into two separate organizations. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869; Stone, Blackwell, and Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1870. This division would last for 20 years. Each of these organizations had its own agenda and path for gaining women’s suffrage. The NWSA wanted a constitutional amendment, whereas the AWSA sought to change each individual state’s voting laws.
The suffrage movement entered a new phase in the fight for gender equality, using every means available, including resistance, seeking new allies, court intervention, and legislation. In 1872 Anthony was arrested for voting (along with 15 other women) in the presidential election. The judge refused to allow Anthony to speak during the trial and would not let the jury deliberate—he instructed them that she was guilty. When Anthony declared she would never pay the $100 fine imposed by the judge, he declined to jail her for fear that the appellate court might side with her. Similarly, Sojourner Truth was not allowed to vote in Battle Creek, Michigan. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, formed in 1874, joined the women’s suffrage fight, believing that if women were allowed to vote, liquor sales could be prohibited. In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled in Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1875), that the 14th Amendment does not grant women the right to vote. In 1876, the country elected as president Rutherford B. Hayes, who promised to remove federal troops from the Southern states. Reconstruction came to an end, and the women’s suffrage movement was on its own to achieve its object.
Aftermath of Reconstruction
Minor v. Happersett ensured that the ratification of a constitutional amendment was necessary to bring about women’s suffrage. In 1878 Senator Aaron Sargent of California introduced such an amendment to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, but the Committee recommended that the issue be “indefinitely postponed.” In 1882 Senator George Hoar of Massachusetts established the Select Committee on Woman Suffrage, which submitted a report supporting a women’s suffrage amendment. The amendment was defeated in the Senate in 1887. These defeats ultimately led to a reconciliation of the two suffrage organizations and the creation of the unified National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, with Stanton as president, Anthony as vice president, and Stone as chair. And with the added leverage of the temperance movement, almost entirely made up of women, the future passage of a women’s suffrage amendment was finally made possible. Of course, it would take another 30 exhausting years before the 19th Amendment was ratified by the states on August 18, 1920. Ironically, Tennessee, a Southern state, would be the final state needed to ratify the women’s suffrage amendment.