The U.S. women’s suffrage movement had its roots in the abolition movement.
Most supporters of women’s rights were introduced to reform efforts through the abolition movement of the 1830s, many of them as members of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) led by William Lloyd Garrison. Abolitionist societies provided women with opportunities to speak, write and organize on behalf of slaves, and in some cases gave them leadership roles. Among such prominent female abolitionists were the sisters Angelica and Sarah Grimké, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe and the former slave Sojourner Truth, whose “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851 earned her lasting fame. In 1840, when Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, they were forced into the gallery along with all the women who attended. Their indignation led them, eight years later, to organize the first U.S. women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York.
After the Civil War, many abolitionists and women’s rights activists parted ways over the question of female suffrage.
In the early years of the women’s rights movement, the right to vote was just one of many goals of women’s rights activists, whose broad agenda included equal access to education and employment, equality within marriage and a married woman’s right to her own property and wages, custody over her children and control over her own body. But during the post-Civil War debate over the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which would give citizenship and suffrage to African-American men, many women’s rights activists refocused their efforts on the battle for female suffrage. While Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and others campaigned against any suffrage amendment that would exclude women, some of their former allies—including Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe and Frederick Douglass—argued that this was “the Negro’s hour” and female suffrage could wait. In 1869, Stanton and Anthony founded the female-only National Woman Suffrage Association, which stood in opposition to Stone and Blackwell’s American Woman Suffrage Association. The rift between the two sides endured until 1890, when the two organizations merged to form the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.
The women’s rights movement launched its own fashion craze.
In 1851, Elizabeth Smith Miller of Geneva, New York debuted a radical new look: a knee-length skirt with full Turkish-style pantaloons gathered at the ankle. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, publisher of a trailblazing newspaper for women called The Lily, wrote articles about Miller’s outfit and printed illustrations of it, wore a similar getup herself and urged other women to shed their heavy, bulky hoop skirts in favor of the new style. In addition to revealing the fact that women actually had legs under their skirts (shocking!), the so-called “bloomers” made it easier for their wearers to get through doorways, onto carriages and trains and along rainy, muddy streets. Bloomers quickly became so popular that they became synonymous with the women’s rights movement—and infamous among the movement’s critics. Though activists such as Susan B. Anthony discarded the style after they realized they were getting more attention for their dress than their message, this early fashion rebellion would eventually help women claim the freedom to wear what they wanted to wear.
A woman ran for political office nearly 50 years before women got the vote.
Victoria Woodhull rose from poor and eccentric origins (as children, she and her sister Tennessee Claflin gave psychic readings and healing sessions in a traveling family show) to become one of the most colorful and vivid figures of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement. In 1870, with backing from railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, the sisters opened a stock brokerage firm. They used their Wall Street profits to bankroll a controversial newspaper, which supported such causes as legalized prostitution and free love. Victoria won increased respect from women’s rights activists when she argued on behalf of female suffrage in front of the House Judiciary Committee in early 1871, and the following year the Equal Rights Party nominated her for president of the United States. By the time of the general election in 1872, Woodhull’s enemies had gotten the better of her temporarily, and she spent Election Day in jail after publishing an article that accused the popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher of adultery. She was eventually acquitted of all charges, moved to England and married a wealthy banker.
Susan B. Anthony (and 15 other women) voted illegally in Rochester, New York in the presidential election of 1872; Anthony was subsequently tried and convicted of violating the 14th Amendment.
In 1868, a group of 172 black and white women went to the polls in Vineland, New Jersey, providing their own ballots and box in order to cast their votes in that year’s national election. Between 1870-72, around 100 women tried to register and vote in the District of Columbia and states around the country. Finally, in 1872, Susan B. Anthony led a group of 16 women in demanding to be registered and vote in Rochester, New York. All 16 were arrested, but only Anthony would be tried for violating the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed “the right to vote…to any of the male inhabitants” of the United States over 21 years of age. Judge Ward Hunt would not permit Anthony to take the stand in her own defense, and eventually directed the jury to issue a guilty verdict. He sentenced Anthony to pay a $100 fine, which she refused to do, challenging the judge to hold her in custody or send her to jail. Hunt declined, knowing this would allow her to appeal her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although her case was closed at that point, “Aunt Susan” earned widespread respect and inspired younger women with her courageous example, helping to ensure that her cause would eventually triumph some 14 years after her own death.
The women’s suffrage movement in Britain was far more militant than its counterpart in the United States.
The movements for female suffrage in Britain and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had many common links, but there were some significant differences between them. For one thing, British women seeking the vote called themselves “suffragettes,” while Americans preferred the more gender-neutral “suffragists.” A far more important difference was the degree of militancy of the two movements. Under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), thousands of suffragettes demonstrated in the streets, chained themselves to buildings, heckled politicians, broke store windows, planted explosive devices and engaged in other destructive activities in order to pressure Britain’s Liberal government to give women the vote. In a particularly gruesome (and public) display, Emily Wilding Davison was fatally trampled by a racehorse owned by King George V when she tried to pin a sash advertising the suffragette cause to the horse’s bridle during the Epsom Derby in 1913. More than 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned between 1908 and 1914; when they engaged in hunger strikes to draw public attention to their cause, prison officials responded by force-feeding them. Such militant tactics ceased when World War I broke out, as Pankhurst and the WSPU threw all their support behind the patriotic cause. In 1918, the British government granted suffrage to all women over the age of 30, ostensibly in recognition of women’s contributions to the war effort.
But some American suffragists, inspired by their British sisters-in-the-cause, adopted militant tactics themselves.
In 1907, an American Quaker named Alice Paul was studying in England when she joined British women in their campaign for suffrage. Over the next three years, while doing graduate work at the Universities of Birmingham and London, Paul was arrested and jailed three times for suffragist agitation. After returning to the United States, she joined the National American Suffrage Association, founded by Carrie Chapman Catt, but soon grew impatient with that organization’s mild-mannered tactics. In 1913, Paul and fellow militants formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, later the National Woman’s Party. Their demonstrations outside Woodrow Wilson’s White House in 1917 culminated in the so-called “Night of Terror” that November, during which guards at Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse brutally beat some 30 female picketers. At the time, Paul herself was serving a seven-month stint in prison, where she was force-fed and confined to a psychopathic ward. In January 1918, a district court overturned all the women’s sentences without ceremony; that same month, President Wilson declared his support for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment (later the 19th Amendment) granting female suffrage.