Women’s Suffrage Research Paper

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With few exceptions, women were not allowed to vote before the twentieth century. In 1900, however, only twenty-five nations held regular elections for at least some of their political leaders, and only six recognized the right of suffrage for most of their adult male citizens. Several American states and territorial governments granted women voting rights between 1855 and the 1890s; Sweden and Great Britain offered a limited right in local elections to some women in the 1860s; but New Zealand in 1893 was the first to guarantee a national right of woman’s suffrage. About two dozen European nations as well as Australia and Canada extended the right to vote to women by 1919. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution barred gender-based prohibitions of the right to vote in the United States. Other democracies recognized voting rights for women only after World

War II, France in 1944, Italy and Japan in 1945, and other nations still later, India (1950), Switzerland (1971), Portugal (1976), Taiwan (1996), and Kuwait (2005). In 1945 the newly established United Nations recognized “the equal rights of men and women” in its charter, and its 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights specified that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; … [as] expressed in periodic and genuine elections” and “by universal and equal suffrage.” Moreover, the declaration continues, these rights and freedoms are to be honored “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than half of all nations and approximately 60 percent of the world’s population live under some form of electoral democracy; among these nations, the full recognition of women’s voting rights has become a common baseline for assessing the presence of democracy.

The woman suffrage movement in the United States is commonly traced back to a women’s rights meeting convened in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. This point of origin, although significant, overlooks the ways the idea of women’s suffrage extends and gains much of its force from the principles of equality, consent, and liberty that emanate from democratic forms of government, however imperfect these forms or political practices may be at a particular time. For the democratic ideal that requires the equal treatment, consent, and empowerment of more than a select few within a society offers a suggestive logic supportive of efforts to include others, if not ultimately all persons, in the democratic process of self-governance. However self-evident this inclusionary logic may be to some, democratization is almost never self-executing or easy because most social relations in the world have been and remain ordered principally in nondemocratic ways.

Early History

From this perspective, the efforts of Margaret Brent, a Catholic immigrant to the colony of Maryland in 1638, offer the first instructive case of a woman who demanded full recognition of her right to vote along with her male peers. Brent was a prominent, unmarried property owner, businesswoman, and attorney in colonial Maryland. She also served as the legal executor of the estate of Maryland governor Leonard Calvert. Under the leadership of the Calvert family, Maryland was founded in the 1630s as the first American colony to recognize the freedom of religion. In 1645 the colony suffered extensive political and sectarian religious strife after Puritan militants invaded the colony, imprisoned several Catholic leaders, and plundered their estates.

Governor Calvert succeeded in defeating the militants in 1647, but he died the same year, leaving Brent to assume a leading role in restoring order within the colony. To aid her efforts, Brent in 1648 requested two votes in the Maryland colonial assembly. The first vote she claimed for herself, the second she claimed as the legal executor of Calvert’s extensive property interests in Maryland. Brent’s claims to a right to vote were rejected, but the assembly commended her critical contributions to the survival of the colony. Brent protested her exclusion from the assembly’s proceedings and later elected to resettle in neighboring Virginia. Although Brent’s attempt to secure her right to vote failed, historical records indicate that at least a small number of American colonial women—most likely all widowed or unmarried property owners—successfully asserted their right to vote in several colonial elections.

The subsequent democratic advances initiated by the American and French Revolutions in 1776 and 1789 supported similarly instructive associations between the principles carried by the democratic form and the advocacy of new women’s rights, including the right to vote. On the eve of American independence, for example, Abigail Adams appealed to her husband, John Adams, then a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress and later the second U.S. president. “Remember the Ladies,” Abigail famously wrote, “and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors …[For] if perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” (Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, Adams Family Papers, The Massachusetts Historical Society).

Although Abigail Adams failed in 1776 to convince her husband that democratic government required the consent of all, including women, the logic of her argument was repeated and became commonplace among subsequent advocates of women’s suffrage reform, including the French revolutionary thinker Marquis de Condorcet in the 1790 essay “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship.” Ironically, the more radical French Revolution never yielded robust efforts to extend voting rights for French women—despite their critical role in national events. American women, by contrast, possessed the right to vote in New Jersey state elections from 1776 until 1807, when a state constitutional amendment limited the suffrage to white, adult males. In addition propertied widows with school-age children were permitted to vote in local school board elections in Kentucky in 1838. These limited and highly exceptional American examples vividly demonstrate how little progress was made on effecting the idea of women’s suffrage during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The Seneca Falls Convention

Several propitious conditions in the 1830s and 1840s sustained the idea and hope for women’s suffrage. The most important of these conditions was the emergence of more activist and organized antislavery and temperance movements in the United States. Women were core elements in both movements, and many in turn gained deeper commitments to the democratic principles of equality and liberty as well as invaluable experiences regarding the organizational mechanics and difficulties of social reform. Coincident with these movements, voting rights and mass forms of political participation expanded to include a greater portion of the adult male populations in the United States, Great Britain, and parts of Europe. Social reformers of all sorts were encouraged by these democratic developments, which paralleled new educational, economic, and social opportunities afforded to a small but growing number of women. The advances of this period, however, also made manifest to some the inequity and democratic contradictions of the continued exclusion of women from voting and other forms of public participation. U.S. women’s rights advocates, such as Angelina Grimke and Sarah Grimke, initiated public discussions of these issues, which inspired wide public fascination, numerous critics, and a generation of future woman suffrage activists.

Against this historical backdrop, more than 300 women and men, including Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists, met in Seneca Falls in 1848. Inspired by the abolitionist movement, Quaker egalitarian ideals, and the Declaration of Independence, the organizers of this meeting (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary Anne McClintock, and others) proposed that the convention discuss the “social, civil and religious rights of women.” Attendees heard numerous speeches, but the most important was Stanton and Mott’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” which proclaimed “that all men and women are created equal” and that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Convention members vigorously debated the latter claim before they ultimately endorsed it and the declaration as a whole. With few exceptions, public reactions were hostile to the convention’s advocacy of woman suffrage, and many who endorsed its declaration publicly retracted their support. Over the next decade additional women’s rights conventions met, which along with new pro—women’s rights publications attracted greater public attention for the movement and strengthened a small but activist network of leaders that included Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Paulina Wright Davis, and Lucy Stone. Despite these developments, suffragists garnered no additional political advancements before the U.S. Civil War, although Kansas extended school board election voting rights to women in 1861.

The Post-Civil War Period

The conclusion of the Civil War opened new opportunities for political, economic, and social change in the United States. Foremost among these widely anticipated changes were the amendments required in the U.S. Constitution and most state constitutions. Woman suffrage leaders appealed directly to those who possessed the most influence over these expected constitutional changes: members of Congress, state legislators, party leaders, and abolitionist groups. Suffrage leaders also founded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which jointly promoted women and African American rights within a single “human rights” agenda framed, according to Anthony, by “the farthest bound of the principle of the ‘consent of the governed.’” At both the state and federal levels, however, not a single women’s suffrage amendment or popular referendum won political support. Stanton moreover ran (although she was not permitted to vote) for a U.S. House seat in New York in 1866. She lost, receiving only 24 votes of 22,450 cast. The political weakness of the woman suffrage movement also was evidenced by the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1868) formally recognizes each state’s power to limit the right to vote to “male inhabitants,” an engendered description of the right to vote not present in the original U.S. Constitution.

Some women suffragists found partial consolation in the language of the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S Constitution (ratified in 1870) because it used gender-neutral language to prohibit states from denying or abridging voting rights of U.S. citizens based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Other activists, such as Stanton and Anthony, were embittered and radicalized by their political failures, and they withheld support for the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, thereby severing themselves from other suffrage supporters and many of their former abolitionist and Republican Party allies.

After 1868 fissures among woman suffrage advocates grew more prominent. Stanton, Parker Pillsbury, and Anthony founded a new women’s newspaper, abandoned the AERA, and led efforts to create the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Under the leadership of Stanton and Anthony, the NWSA focused on securing a national constitutional amendment, but the two advocates and others aligned with them increasingly became involved in the promotion of other social reforms too. Their efforts won praise from some, greater opposition from entrenched and popular social interests, and no immediate political results related to the suffrage issue. For example, between 1869 and 1889 no women’s suffrage constitutional amendment won approval in either branch of Congress. In addition to its constant lobbying of members of Congress, the NWSA experimented with other constitutional reform tactics, which included civil disobedience and the federal judiciary. The latter hope was encouraged by a novel and expansive interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections of the “privileges or immunities” of American citizens. In 1872 Anthony and other women were arrested for attempting to vote in state elections. Their trials attracted considerable media attention for the idea of women’s suffrage and ultimately the desired opportunity to press their claim before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Minor v. Hapersett (1875), however, the Court determined that the term citizens in the Fourteenth Amendment did not grant women the right to vote.

Woman suffrage advocates not aligned with the NWSA formed other organizations, including the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Established in 1869 and led by Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Blackwell, Stone, and others, the AWSA published a weekly national newspaper, the Woman’s Journal. Unlike the NWSA, its principal focus was state and local suffrage reform movements; yet the record of political achievements also was limited over the next twenty years. Despite sustained organizational efforts, most states did not vote on suffrage amendments or referenda; where they did, the male electorate rejected women’s suffrage in Kansas in 1867, Nebraska in 1871, Michigan in 1874, Colorado in 1876, Oregon in 1884, Rhode Island in 1887, and Washington in 1889. Several successes were sufficient to encourage reform efforts in other states, yet only four western American territorial states granted women full voting rights: Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Washington (1883-1887), and Montana (1887). In 1867 Michigan women taxpayers received a limited right to vote in school trustee elections; women in Kansas received full voting rights in municipal elections in 1887. By 1889 American women could vote in school-related elections in about a dozen states and territories.

The Twentieth Century And The Nineteenth Amendment

In 1890 the NWSA and AWSA merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Like its predecessors, the new organization continued its lobbying and grassroots efforts, but it too achieved mixed political results. Over the next two decades additional states granted women’s suffrage in school, municipal, and tax-related elections, but only five states—Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), and Washington (1910)—recognized a woman’s right to vote in all elections. Despite persistent opposition to the idea of women’s suffrage, progressive social, economic, and political conditions in the United States and Europe accelerated the woman suffrage movement in the 1910s. President

William H. Taft spoke to the 1910 NAWSA annual convention. Although he did not endorse women’s suffrage, his presence at the meeting was perceived as an endorsement by NAWSA members and the media. In 1912 former president Theodore Roosevelt publicly supported woman suffrage, and the social reformer and NAWSA activist Jane Addams seconded Roosevelt’s nomination for president at the 1912 Progressive Party convention. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the presidency in 1912 without supporting woman suffrage, but Progressive Party legislators in Illinois proved critical for the passage of legislation in 1913 that recognized women’s voting rights in presidential and municipal elections. By mid-decade about one-third of American states fully recognized a woman’s right to vote, but only five national democracies did: New Zealand (1893), Australia (1902), Finland (1906), Norway (1913), and Denmark (1915).

World War I (1914-1918) and its aftermath corresponded with renewed efforts by national woman suffrage organizations and a further consolidation, especially in Europe, of the relationship between democracy and recognition of women’s voting rights. The United Kingdom recognized the right for women thirty years or older in 1918; Austria, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, and Poland recognized national rights of women’s suffrage in 1918, as did Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden in 1919. In the United States the NAWSA and the Congressional Union worked to win congressional approval of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In addition to lobbying members of Congress and President Wilson, these organizations effectively orchestrated mass marches, petition campaigns, and political candidate endorsements designed to exert electoral pressure on the national political parties and those running for office. In 1917 the National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, supported widely publicized protests and acts of civil disobedience in which some were arrested and imprisoned for chaining themselves to the White House fence. Publicly President Wilson remained uncommitted, refusing to endorse constitutional amendment efforts in Congress. But by January 1918 Wilson’s conceptions of a more peaceful and democratic postwar world were clear, and he argued before the U.S. Senate on September 30, 1918 that a women’s suffrage amendment was “clearly necessary to the prosecution of the war and the successful realization of the objects for which the war is being fought” (Cong. Rec). The U.S. House of Representatives endorsed the amendment by the required two-thirds majority, but the U.S. Senate stalled the amendment until June 1919, when it too passed the Nineteenth Amendment. By August 1920 three-quarters of the states required by the U.S. Constitution had ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.


  1. Abigail Adams to John Adams, March 31, 1776, Adams Family Papers. The Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston.
  2. Carr, Lois Green. 2004. Margaret Brent, A Brief History. Annapolis, MD: Maryland State Archives.
  3. Congressional Record, 65th Cong., 2nd sess., 1918, vol. LVI, pt. 10928.
  4. Dinkin, Robert. 1977. Voting in Provincial America: A Study of Elections in the Thirteen Colonies, 1689–1776. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
  5. DuBois, Ellen. 1978. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  6. Frost-Knappman, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-Dupont. 2005. Women’s Suffrage in America. Rev. ed. New York: Facts on File.
  7. Kromkowski, Charles. 2002. Recreating the American Republic: Rules of Apportionment, Constitutional Change, and American Political Development 1700–1870. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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