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–by Leah Shafer, USCHS intern

Ironically, the women so willing to disguise themselves to fight in the Civil War and preserve American liberty had few rights of their own. The women’s suffrage movement, which most historians cite as beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, consequently gained a huge following in the years following the Civil War. Nevertheless, conflicts over the extent of universal suffrage soon split the movement.

Up until this point in history, only white men were guaranteed the right to vote in the United States. During the Civil War, the suffragists largely worked with the abolition movement to gain rights for both women and African Americans. After the war, as talk of the 14th and 15th amendments increased, many women hoped to be granted the same rights of citizenship that would be awarded to the freed slaves.

A quick look into the 15th amendment: ratified on February 3, 1870, the 15th amendment states, “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.” Although a monumental step forward in terms of African American rights, the passage of this amendment caused a deep divide in the women’s movement. When it became clear in the late 1860s that a voting rights amendment including both the words “race” and “sex” would be too radical to pass, the women’s movement broke into two distinct parties. On one side stood the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; on the other, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony near the end of the 19th century (Library of Congress)

Both the AWSA and the NWSA sprang from the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), an organization founded by Stanton and Anthony in 1866 to secure voting rights for all Americans. In May 1869, as the passage of the 15th amendment loomed closer, these two women left the group because it refused to endorse a separate 16th amendment which would give women the vote as well. Stanton and Anthony formed the NWSA in retaliation, and Lucy Stone helped create the AWSA to continue pursuing the AERA’s original goals.

The relationship between Stanton and Anthony is considered one of the most effective political partnerships of all time. Both women were stout abolitionists, but they both felt that suffrage for African American men should not take precedence over women’s suffrage. As a result, their organization, the NWSA, would not support the passage of the 15th amendment because it did not also enfranchise women. They campaigned for women’s suffrage following the belief that it could only be obtained through a constitutional amendment, and not through individual states

Stanton in particular believed in what was known as the “educated vote.” She did not agree that newly freed African American men, few of who knew how to read or had much knowledge of the government, should be able to vote when she, a well-educated and politically informed white woman, could not. In fact, some historians have argued that Stanton was “racist and elitist” and believed that only educated people should be enfranchised.

Mid-19th century photograph of Lucy Stone (Library of Congress)

Lucy Stone, on the other hand, followed the notion espoused by African American leaders, such as Frederick Douglass, that 1870 was “the negro’s hour.” While continuing to advocate for women’s suffrage, Stone supported the passage of the 15th amendment. She believed that both suffrage movements were closely tied and that progress for one was progress for the other. Her organization, the AWSA, was less radical than the NWSA, and it targeted individual states for suffrage rather than tackle the national government. Stone believed in universal voting rights, regardless of race, sex, or education.

As we know, the constitutional amendment providing women’s suffrage did not pass until 1920, fifty years after the women’s movement split. Today, all three of these women are regarded as great leaders of the women’s movement, and their ideological and tactical differences are largely forgotten. Although we cannot say with any certainty that women’s suffrage would have been achieved earlier if the movement hadn’t been so deeply divided, it is interesting to wonder if these women could have attracted more followers—and more credibility for their cause—if they had agreed to work together.
Works Cited

National Women’s History Museum and suffrage exhibit

National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House