American Women in History

The Beginning of the Fight for Suffrage

Women today would not be where they are without the lifelong fights of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other women suffragists who fought alongside them. Even before the 19th century women began to stand up for their rights. In 1776 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams regarding the newly claimed independence saying, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” However it was not until years later that women would come together and take the responsibility upon themselves to make a change. The women held conventions, including the well known Seneca Fall Convention, led marches and gave speeches, fighting for equality. The women used the very documents of this country as cornerstones for their battle. However, men across the country held them back. During 1800’s women were still viewed as they were in Victorian times. They were expected to stay in the home, thought to be weak in physical strength and have no intellectual capacity. However, women came together to make a stand against this perception and started what is now known as the first wave of the feminist movement.

The women’s movement was influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, in the same way it influenced the colonists in the American Revolution. The Enlightenment “was a philosophical movement of the 18th century in which people stopped believing in previous theories and traditions and started basing ideas and philosophies on scientific proof.” The Enlightenment focused on the questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals. It was simply having freedom to one’s own intelligence.

John Locke was very influential in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Locke introduced the belief that a person had inherent rights, these being life, liberty and property. He believed that these were the most important rights an individual could posses and therefore, under no circumstances should one be denied these rights. The philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment very much helped spark the flame that carried the American Revolution.

During the American Revolution the American Colonies wanted separation from Great Britain; rejecting the Parliament of Great Britain and later rejecting the British monarchy itself. The colonies wanted to become a separate Nation: the United States of America. They wanted a government that was focused on the right of the people, and that provided people with certain “unalienable” rights. With the writing of the Declaration of Independence, it stated, “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This directly relates to Locke’s theory of inherent rights. Although it is “pursuit of happiness” instead of “property” the basic concept is the same. The American Colonies wanted a democratic and representative government opposed to a government not truly representing and acting for its people.

This too is what women wanted. However, instead of addressing Europe, they were addressing their own country. They felt that they were fighting for exactly what the Colonial men had fought for in the American Revolution. They too wanted a government that truly represented the entire nation.

The Enlightenment focused on having a fair government that governed with the consent of the governed. American women felt that their government was not acting true to this because the women of the United States had to abide by the laws of the country, without having any voice in political matters. In addressing the Legislature on women’s rights in 1854, Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, “…that you, who have declared that all men are created equal – that governments derive their just powers from consent of the governed, would willingly build up an aristocracy that places the ignorant and vulgar above the educated and refined…”. The feminist movement wanted to prove that what men had asked for from Europe is merely the same as what women were asking from their own nation. The women at the Seneca Falls Convention presented their own Declaration of Sentiments. Using the United States Declaration of Independence as a guideline the Declaration of Sentiments, addressed the American government the way the colonists had once addressed the government of Great Britain. They focused on the fact that women too had inherent rights and they deserved representation and the same “unalienable” rights that were granted to men.

During the 19th century women had few legal rights and representation. Conventions like the one at Seneca Falls were held all over the country to fight for women’s rights. Many men felt that it was inappropriate for women to hold these conventions. They believed women should stay out of the public eye and these meetings were a direct challenge to this belief. Men worried that women would use these conventions to become superior to men under the law. However, during these conventions women were fighting for equality under the law, not superiority. Women believed that with equality in the eyes of the law, they would be able to then gain the rights they deserved. Women wanted rights that were “undeniable” to citizens by the constitution, and with equality they hoped to gain these rights. Women were not fighting to be above the law or to deprive men of any rights; they wanted equality and the rights they felt should apply to all citizens.

One of the main lines of the Declaration of Sentiments presented at the Seneca Falls Convention was, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal…” The women wanted formal recognition that under the law, men and women were equal. They believed this would be the first and most important step to gaining the rights they deserved.

Women involved in the feminist movement felt that suffrage should come hand in hand with equality. At the Seneca Fall convention Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave her first public speech. At one point in her speech, Stanton said, “The right is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will. …The great truth, that no just government can be formed without the consent of the governed, we shall echo and re-echo in the ears of the unjust judge, until by continual coming we shall weary him…” Stanton believed the right to suffrage was a very important right that would lead to greater equality. With the right to vote, women would be able to represent themselves and influence the government to work for all citizens, male and female.

Men all over the country opposed the Seneca Falls Convention. Many men believed in a feminine ideal and a women’s sphere. This sphere and ideal portrayed women as weak, unintelligent and foremost, a wife before a woman. In the mind of many American men, women should stay out of the public eye. “It was said that a lady’s name should appear only three times in public – when she was born, when she married, and when she died.” Women’s conventions and women’s speeches were in direct conflict with the constraining beliefs of 19th century men. An article was published in the Mechanic’s Advocate in 1881 in response to the feminist conventions taking place across the country. In regards to a women’s right to vote, the article stated, “this change is impractical, uncalled for, and unnecessary. If effected, it would set the world by ears, make ‘confusion worse confounded,’ demoralize and degrade from their high sphere and noble destiny…” The article implied that it was a women’s “noble destiny” to be in the domestic sphere. Being in this sphere meant you did not have the freedom to let your voice be heard or be represented in the government.

In the 19th Century men values women solely as wives. In an article in The Philadelphia Ledger and Daily Transcript it was said, “A women is nobody. A wife is everything. A pretty girl is equal to ten thousand men, and a mother is, next to God, all powerful…” Men also tried to convince women that women were above men and influenced all of their husband’s decisions, and thus they did not need a vote because they already influenced and were represented by their husbands. Many men claimed that because of their feminine and domestic state, equality would be a step down from women’s superiority.

During the peak of the women’s movement the Nation became entranced with a new conflict: the Civil War. For years women had been fighting for their rights and fighting for respect. Once the Civil War began, many women put their fight for women’s rights on the back burner. Susan B. Anthony knew that if women did not make a stand for their rights during the time of chaos, men would think that it was not truly a priority for women. When the Civil War ended, African-American rights took the center stage, instead of women’s rights. Not only was the fight for women’s rights almost completely forgotten, but there was consideration of inserting the word “male” into the newly proposed 14th Amendment, that would grant black men citizenship. This would be the first time the word “male” would appear in the constitution. Many women saw this as a step backward from the progress they had made before the war.

The newly proposed 14th and 15th Amendments influenced the women’s right movement to focus on obtaining suffrage. Many women involved in the movement for women’s rights were also abolitionists and strong supporters of the 13th Amendment. In an 1869 debate between Fredrick Douglas and Susan B Anthony, Anthony said, “What we demand is that women shall have the ballot, for she will never get her other rights until she demands them with the ballot in her hand. It is not a question of precedence between women and black men.” Anthony argued that it was not right for black males to receive the vote before women. She felt betrayed that after fighting not only for women’s suffrage but also for abolition, women would not receive a vote, yet black men would receive both abolition and suffrage.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was also angered by the introduction of these new amendments. At a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association Fredrick Douglas led the fight and stated, “I must say that I do not see how anyone can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro.” This seemed to be the final blow for Anthony and Stanton. She personally had helped Fredrick Douglas escape from slavery and felt betrayed when even he stated that it was the time of the black man, and women should wait their turn. After this meeting the focus of the women’s rights movement shifted to earning women the right to vote.

Once the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified Anthony looked at them with an open mind and saw them as a step forward both for women and black men. Susan B Anthony was an intelligent woman, and when reading these amendments she read them literally. With her interpretation of the amendments, Anthony believed that women also were given the right to vote for two reasons.

The first was within the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment stated that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without the process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” With this definition of citizen, Anthony came to the direct conclusion that women were citizens, and with citizenship came the right to the ballot. In 1872 Anthony said, “And here, in this first paragraph of the Declaration, is the assertion of the natural right of all to the ballot; for how can ‘the consent of the governed’ be given, if the right to vote be denied?” Anthony was very confident that, with the literal definition of the 14th Amendment and with the accordance of the Declaration of Independence, women had been awarded the right to vote.

The 15th Amendment stated, “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.” Anthony believed and argued that women did indeed fall under the term “previous condition of servitude”. In Anthony’s Constitutional Argument in 1872, she said, “I will prove to you that the class of citizens for whom I plead are, by the principles of our government and many of the laws of the States, included under the term ‘pervious condition of servitude.’” For years women had been robbed of any legal status upon marriage. Once a woman was married, she and her husband legally became one person. However in marriage, the man was the only one with rights. A woman was not allowed to be involved in any contract if she was married, she was not able to own property, and any wages she earned did not belong to her, they went to her husband. These restraints on married women were similar to the ones placed on African-American slaves. Anthony argued that if these slaves were given rights that could not be denied because of a previous condition of servitude, then why was it lawful to deny women the right to vote? Under the principles of the government, there was little difference in the previous conditions of servitude of slaves and of women. With Anthony’s interpretation of the 14th and 15th Amendments, she felt she was legally entitled to register and cast a vote in 1872 presidential election. On November 1, 1872, Anthony and a number other women went to register to vote. On November 5, after Anthony was permitted to register, she went to the polls to cast her ballot in the presidential election. Anthony was able to cast her vote. However the feeling of achievement was short lived. On November 18, Anthony was arrested on the accusation of illegally voting.

On June 17, 1873 Susan B Anthony went to trial with her attorney Henry Selden. People all over the country knew of her trial and wondered what the outcome would be. Selden made a well thought out and intelligent argument on behalf of Anthony, explaining why she did not knowledgably cast an illegal vote. But it seemed that the arguments made in court did not matter to the judge. At the end of the trial, Judge Hunt, drew from his pocket a paper and began reading an opinion that he had apparently prepared before the trial started. Hunt declared, “The Fourteenth Amendment gives no right to a woman to vote, and the voting by Miss Anthony was in violation of the law.” The judge then went on to say that, “She voluntarily gave a vote which was illegal, and thus is subject to the penalty of law. Upon this evidence I suppose there is no question for the jury and that the jury should be directed to find a verdict of guilty.” This response from Hunt stunned many. Not only did the judge seem to form an opinion before hearing the arguments, but he also directed the jury to convict her. To Anthony and many others, Hunt denied her the right to a fair trial by unlawfully influencing the jury.

Judge Hunt’s actions enraged Anthony. At Anthony’s sentencing, Hunt asked Anthony if she had reason why her sentence should not be carried out. Anthony responded, “Yes, your honor, I have many things to say; for in your ordered verdict of guilty, you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored.” Anthony went on, explaining to the judge with intelligence and composure, why he had wrongfully sentenced her. Anthony seemed to almost debate with the judge and re-iterate every reason behind why she cast a legal vote. At the end of this new debate, Judge Hunt still sentenced her to pay a fine of one hundred dollars. However, many viewed Anthony as the ultimate victor because of her intelligent argument. One New York paper observed, “If it is a mere question of who got the best of it, Miss Anthony is still ahead. She has voted and the American constitution has survived the shock. Fining her one hundred dollars does not rule out that fact that…women voted, and went home, and the world jogged on as before.”

Anthony’s trial was not the only well known case of this time involving females and the newly enacted amendments. In 1872, a case was brought in front of the Supreme Court concerning Myra Bradwell, asking if it was unlawful for Illinois to deny her the right to take the state bar exam. Bradwell was an intelligent and well-respected legal scholar. She was very interested in legal matters and decided she wanted to become an attorney. When her husband was in law school she began to read all of his law books alongside him. Bradwell then applied to practice law before the Illinois bar. However, she was denied a license.

Undaunted, Bradwell, with the help of her husband, filed suit and took it to the United States Supreme Court. Bradwell, like Anthony, planned to use the 14th and 15th Amendments in her argument. However the Supreme Court came to the decision that that Illinois Supreme Court had the right to deny her the right to practice law, merely on the basis of being a woman. They declared that 14th Amendment’s Privileges and Immunities Clause did not protect Bradwell in this case. In writing for the court, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller stated that, “admission to practice in the courts of the State is not [one of the protected federal privileges and immunities] which a State is forbidden to abridge.” This meant that the “federal” Supreme Court could not and should not get involved; it was merely a State matter, not federal.

In addition to stating that it was not a federal matter, one Justice, Justice Joseph P. Bradley, took it further and reasoned that a women’s destiny was to fulfill the roles of a women and mother, and that this was the law of the creator. This ruling and reasoning was favored the current status quo, and although Bradwell did all she could to change the way women were treated she was not successful. Many women felt they had taken steps forward however; men still viewed them as wives before women. The status quo for women did not change and the ruling in Bradwell’s case re-enforced it. Women were still expected to be domestic and stay in the home, and were denied privileges that were granted to men.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton devoted the majority of their lives to fighting for women’s rights. Their fighting was what would influence the 19th Amendment; however, they did not get to see the results of their valiant efforts. At the time of their deaths, Stanton in 1902 and Anthony in 1906, suffrage was not nationally legalized for women. There had been steps forward in women’s property rights but it would be years until their work paid off and the women could vote.

There are many reasons Stanton and Anthony were not successful in obtaining the vote before their deaths. These women were ahead of their time. They knew that women’s suffrage was something that was needed immediately; however, others did not understand this. During the 1800’s many men at this time still viewed women as merely domestic figures. They felt as if women were incapable of taking on the intellectual responsibility to vote and be involved in political matters. Many of these men were also politicians who contended that women did not want the vote and it would disrupt the feminine ideal, making it difficult for women to obtain suffrage. In addition to men still disagreeing with the fact that women needed suffrage, it seemed that even some women who were involved in the feminist movement seemed to give up on suffrage and focus on other things.

A resolution adopted by the Democratic Party in 1849 after rejecting pleas for a suffrage plank stated, “We oppose woman suffrage as tending to destroy the home and family, the true basis of political safety, and express the hope that the helpmeet and guardian of the family sanctuary may not be dragged from the modest purity of self-imposed seclusion to be thrown unwillingly into the unfeminine places of political strife.” These men still believed that a woman taking the action of placing a vote would cause a family to be torn apart. They also viewed voting as an unfeminine activity. They professed that women should not vote, not only because it was unfeminine but because women could not hold the responsibility that would come along with suffrage. The fight for suffrage was made very difficult by the narrow minds of many politicians.

During the 1870’s and 1880’s more women’s associations began to form. Many of these new associations focused on things other than obtaining suffrage. These new organizations ranged from women’s clubs in towns, to larger nationwide organizations. Some of these new organizations were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. Many of these women did indeed support the vote, this was not their main focus in the newly founded organizations. “As a result, support for the vote was rarely voiced in postwar women’s organizations.” Anthony and Stanton saw that this was causing the vote to drop in priority among women and politicians. Anthony, especially, wanted to change this.

Anthony began to meet with the leader of the American Women Suffrage Association to talk of a merger between the American and the National Associations. Although some women from the National Association were against this in fears that the new organizations would not focus on a federal Amendment, the women put their trust in Anthony. Anthony was convinced that “the best good for women’s enfranchisement…surely will from through the union of all the friends of women suffrage into one great and grand National Association.” In February of 1890 Anthony was successful and the two organizations merged and became the National American Women Suffrage Association.

Although the merger came late in the 1890s, it was one of the main organizations that helped influence the government to accept the federal amendment. Anthony was again ahead of her time; coming to the conclusion that one association was needed in order to fully complete the women’s goal of suffrage and equality. Anthony saw that with the separation of organizations and with the change of focus, no steps were being taken that would in actuality put the women closer to a federal amendment. Although Anthony took actions to change this, it was too late and she would not be able to see what path would be taken in response to her actions. The actions taken by Anthony and the influence that she had over others, affected women for years to come, and would be the base behind the ratification of a federal women’s suffrage amendment. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were highly intelligent women. They knew what was truly best for the country decades before the rest of the country knew. The fact that the politicians not citizens had the largest influence in government is why women did not obtain suffrage. They were held back by the ideas and words of these men. It would not be until 1920, when the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified, that the country and government came to the same conclusion that Anthony and Stanton had professed decades before. It took the United States decades to accept the reasoning that in order to have true equality and a truly democratic government, women needed the right to vote.


Gordon, Ann D., Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth C. Stanton. “The Trial of Susan B. Anthony.” The Trial of Susan B. Anthony. Federal Judicial Center, n.d. Web. <>.


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