The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848–1920
The beginning of the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States, which predates Jeannette Rankin’s entry into Congress by nearly 70 years, grew out of a larger women’s rights movement. That reform effort evolved during the 19th century, initially emphasizing a broad spectrum of goals before focusing solely on securing the franchise for women. Women’s suffrage leaders, moreover, often disagreed about the tactics for and the emphasis (federal versus state) of their reform efforts. Ultimately, the suffrage movement provided political training for some of the early women pioneers in Congress, but its internal divisions foreshadowed the persistent disagreements among women in Congress and among women’s rights activists after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The first gathering devoted to women’s rights in the United States was held July 19–20, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. The principal organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a mother of four from upstate New York, and the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott.1 About 100 people attended the convention; two-thirds were women. Stanton drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions,” that echoed the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Among the 13 resolutions set forth in Stanton’s “Declaration” was the goal of achieving the “sacred right of franchise.”2
The sometimes-fractious suffrage movement that grew out of the Seneca Falls meeting proceeded in successive waves. Initially, women reformers addressed social and institutional barriers that limited women’s rights; including family responsibilities, a lack of educational and economic opportunities, and the absence of a voice in political debates. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a Massachusetts teacher, met in 1850 and forged a lifetime alliance as women’s rights activists. For much of the 1850s they agitated against the denial of basic economic freedoms to women. Later, they unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to include women in the provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments (extending citizenship rights and granting voting rights to freedmen, respectively).
In the wake of the Civil War, however, reformers sought to avoid marginalization as “social issues” zealots by focusing their message exclusively on the right to vote.3 In 1869 two distinct factions of the suffrage movement emerged. Stanton and Anthony created the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which directed its efforts toward changing federal law and opposed the 15th Amendment because it excluded women. Lucy Stone, a one time Massachusetts antislavery advocate and a prominent lobbyist for women’s rights, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).4 Leaders of the AWSA rejected the NWSA’s agenda as being racially divisive and organized with the aim to continue a national reform effort at the state level. Although California Senator Aaron Sargent introduced in Congress a women’s suffrage amendment in 1878, the overall campaign stalled. Eventually, the NWSA also shifted its efforts to the individual states where reformers hoped to start a ripple effect to win voting rights at the federal level.
During the 1880s, the two wings of the women’s rights movement struggled to maintain momentum. The AWSA was better funded and the larger of the two groups, but it had only a regional reach. The NWSA, which was based in New York, relied on its statewide network but also drew recruits from around the nation, largely on the basis of the extensive speaking circuit of Stanton and Anthony. Neither group attracted broad support from women, or persuaded male politicians or voters to adopt its cause. Susan B. Anthony and Ida H. Harper cowrote, “In the indifference, the inertia, the apathy of women, lies the greatest obstacle to their enfranchisement.” Historian Nancy Woloch described early suffragists’ efforts as “a crusade in political education by women and for women, and for most of its existence, a crusade in search of a constituency.”5
The turning point came in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when the nation experienced a surge of volunteerism among middle-class women—activists in progressive causes, members of women’s clubs and professional societies, temperance advocates, and participants in local civic and charity organizations. The determination of these women to expand their sphere of activities further outside the home helped legitimate the suffrage movement and provided new momentum for the NWSA and the AWSA. By 1890, seeking to capitalize on their newfound “constituency,” the two groups united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).6 Led initially by Stanton and then by Anthony, the NAWSA began to draw on the support of women activists in organizations as diverse as the Women’s Trade Union League, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the National Consumer’s League.
For the next two decades, the NAWSA worked as a nonpartisan organization focused on gaining the vote in states, though managerial problems and a lack of coordination initially limited its success. The first state to grant women complete voting rights was Wyoming in 1869. Three other western states—Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), and Idaho (1896)—followed shortly after NAWSA was founded. But prior to 1910, only these four states allowed women to vote. Between 1910 and 1914, the NAWSA intensified its lobbying efforts and additional states extended the franchise to women: Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon. In Illinois, future Congresswoman Ruth Hanna McCormick helped lead the fight for suffrage as a lobbyist in Springfield, when the state legislature granted women the right to vote in 1913; this marked the first such victory for women in a state east of the Mississippi River. A year later, Montana granted women the right to vote, thanks in part to the efforts of another future Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin.
Despite the new momentum, however, some reformers were impatient with the pace of change. In 1913, Alice Paul, a young Quaker activist who had experience in the English suffrage movement, formed the rival Congressional Union (later named the National Woman’s Party).7 Paul’s group freely adopted the more militant tactics of its English counterparts, picketing and conducting mass rallies and marches to raise public awareness and support. Embracing a more confrontational style, Paul drew a younger generation of women to her movement, helped resuscitate the push for a federal equal rights amendment, and relentlessly attacked the Democratic administration of President Woodrow Wilson for obstructing the extension of the vote to women.
In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt, a veteran suffragist since the mid-1880s and a former president of the NAWSA, again secured the organization’s top leadership post. Catt proved an adept administrator and organizer, whose “Winning Plan” strategy called for disciplined and relentless efforts to achieve state referenda on the vote, especially in non-Western states.8 Key victories—the first in the South and East—followed in 1917 when Arkansas and New York granted partial and full voting rights, respectively. Beginning in 1917, President Wilson (a convert to the suffrage cause) urged Congress to pass a voting rights amendment. Another crowning achievement also occurred that year when Montana’s Jeannette Rankin (elected two years after her state enfranchised women) was sworn into the 65th Congress on April 2, as the first woman to serve in the national legislature.
Catt’s steady strategy of securing voting rights state by state and Paul’s vocal and partisan protest campaign coincided with the Wilson administration’s decision to intervene in the First World War—a development that provided powerful rhetoric for and a measure of expediency for granting the vote.9 The NAWSA publicly embraced the war cause, despite the fact that many women suffragists, including Rankin, were pacifists. Suffrage leaders suggested that the effort to “make the world safe for democracy” ought to begin at home, by extending the franchise. Moreover, they insisted, the failure to extend the vote to women might impede their participation in the war effort just when they were most needed to play a greater role as workers and volunteers outside the home. Responding to these overtures, the House of Representatives initially passed a voting rights amendment on January 10, 1918, but the Senate did not follow suit before the end of the 65th Congress. It was not until after the war, however, that the measure finally cleared Congress with the House again voting its approval by a wide margin on May 21, 1919, and the Senate concurring on June 14, 1919. A year later, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment, providing full voting rights for women nationally, was ratified when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve it.
But achieving the right to vote, while ending one phase of the women’s rights movement, set the stage for the equally arduous process of securing women a measure of power in local and national political office. Scholars have debated whether the women’s movement underwent fundamental change or sustained continuity in the years before and after 1920.10 However, most agree that Rankin and those who followed her into Congress during the 1920s faced a Herculean task in consolidating their power and in sustaining legislation that was important to women. Several factors contributed to these conditions.
The Progressive Era, in which several waves of activists, moving from the local to national level, pursued democratic reforms within political, social, and cultural contexts, had helped sustain the women’s rights movement. But the Progressive Era waned after the U.S. entered World War I. With its passing, the public enthusiasm for further efforts decreased, contributing to women’s difficulty in the early 1920s to use their new political gain as an instrument for social change.
Just when women gained the vote, voter participation declined nationally. Fewer men and women were attuned to national political issues which, increasingly, were defined by special-interest groups and lobbies.
As Carrie Chapman Catt pointed out, in winning the vote reformers lost the single unifying cause that appealed to a broad constituency of women. The amalgam of the other reform causes tended to splinter the women’s rights movement, because smaller communities of women were investing their energies across a larger field of competing programs.
Women, contrary to the expectations of many on both sides of the suffrage debate, did not vote as a single, unified bloc. They split over party affiliation, key issues, and the vagaries of parochial politics. They also voted in far lower percentages than predicted. Finally, to the consternation of feminist reformers, they did not vote independently; instead, their voting preferences tended to mirror those of the men in their families.
Complicating these factors was the overarching reality that the political culture would take decades to adjust to the enfranchisement of women. The expectation was that women would be loyal followers under the banner of one or the other major party, with men charting the course. Emily N. Blair, a Missouri suffragist and the vice president of the Democratic National Committee (beginning in 1924) observed: “Women were welcome to come in as workers but not as co-makers of the world. For all their numbers, they seldom rose to positions of responsibility or power. The few who did fitted into the system as they found it. All standards, all methods, all values, continued to be set by men.”11 Carrie Chapman Catt made a similar assessment, noting that there was, at least in one sense, continuity between the suffrage struggle and the 1920s: women’s marginalization. She noted that “the unwillingness to give women even a small share of the political positions which would enable them to score advantage to their ideals,” was a condition all too familiar for “any old time suffragist.”12
In Congress, particularly, the pioneer Congresswomen, with several notable exceptions, were far outside the party power structure. Not only did they face institutional prejudices, but many of them (nearly three-quarters of the first generation) were dependent on their husbands or their fathers for their positions. Moreover, these first women in Congress would not agree among themselves which form the political participation of American women should take: as public officeholders or as participants in nonpartisan reform groups?
Nevertheless, fortified by the constitutional victory of suffrage reformers in 1920, the handful of new women in Congress embarked on what would become a century-long odyssey to broaden women’s role in government, so that in Catt’s words, they might “score advantage to their ideals.” The profiles in this book about these pioneer women Members and their successors relate the story of that odyssey during the course of the 20th century and into the 21st century.
1Standard biographies of these two women include Lois W. Banner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Women’s Rights (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1980); and Margaret Hope Bacon, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott (New York: Walker Publishing, 1980).
2For more on the convention at Seneca Falls, its participants, and the larger movement it spawned, see Ellen DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in the U.S., 1848-1869 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978). For an overview of the period from the Civil War through 1920, see Nancy Woloch, Women and the American Experience, 2nd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994): especially 326–363.
3See, for example, DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: 21–52; Woloch, Women and the American Experience: 327.
4For more on Lucy Stone, see Andrea Moore Kerr, Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992).
5Woloch, Women and the American Experience: quotes from 328; see also 329–336.
6Woloch, Women and the American Experience: 334–335.
7For more on Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, see Inez Haynes Gillmore, Up Hill with Banners Flying (Penobscott, ME: Traversity Press, 1964).
8For a biography of Catt, see Robert Booth Fowler, Carrie Catt: Feminist Politician (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986).
9Woloch, Women and the American Experience: 353.
10Historians debate this point vigorously. William L. O’Neill, in his Feminism in America: A History 2nd revised ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989), argues that feminists themselves were responsible for the failure to mobilize women voters in the 1920s. O’Neill believes that the decision taken in the 20th century to focus on the vote to the exclusion of other “social” issues ultimately undermined feminist reform efforts 1) prolonging the suffrage struggle and 2) depriving the movement of cohesiveness after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Nancy Cott, in The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), challenged O’Neill’s assertions about the shortcomings of the feminist movement, insisting in part that though the movement struggled in the arena of electoral politics after 1920, it flourished among a host of new volunteer and civic women’s organizations. In this regard, Cott sees more continuity between the pre- and post-1920 eras than does either O’Neill or William Chafe, in The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Both O’Neill and Chafe stress discontinuity, particularly Chafe, who suggests that women “were caught in a no-win situation” because a shift away from mass political participation had devalued the importance of the ballot. “It appears that the entire political culture was shifting, and even though supposed progress had been made in democratizing the electoral process during the 1910s through direct election of senators, the initiative, referendum and reform, direct primaries, and woman suffrage, the actual value of casting votes at the ballot box had diminished substantially.” See Chafe’s discussion, The Paradox of Change: 31.
11Quoted in Woloch, Women and the American Experience: 357.
12Quoted in Melanie Gustafson, Women and the Republican Party, 1854–1924 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003): 194.