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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Fight Begins

After New Jersey disenfranchised women in 1807, no women in the United States had voting rights. But organized efforts to win women’s suffrage did not begin for quite some time. Long before women were fighting for the vote, they were fighting for human rights.

The fight for women’s rights has its roots in the Abolitionist Movement. In the 1830s, many women formed and joined female antislavery associations. Although Angelina and Sarah Grimke had been raised on a slave-owning plantation in South Carolina, the sisters were among the first women to speak publicly against slavery. In 1836, Angelina published a pamphlet, An Appeal to Christian Women of the South, calling on all southern women to join the effort to abolish slavery. This did not go over well, and South Carolina leaders threatened to put Angelina in prison if she returned home.    
The Grimke Sisters
The next year, the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts issued a pastoral letter, primarily directed at the Grimke sisters, denouncing women preachers and reformers. This epistle prompted the Grimkes and other female activists to crusade for women’s rights in addition to abolition of slavery.

In the same year, at age 17, Susan B. Anthony collected anti-slavery petitions. She had grown up in a Quaker family that was strongly committed to social equality. Anthony became the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1856, while she was active in the women’s rights movement.

Anthony wasn’t alone in fighting for women’s rights and against slavery. In 1840, Elizabeth Cady married reformer Henry Stanton and immediately went to London to attend the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. Upon her arrival, she was shocked to learn that women were barred from attending the assembly. She joined with Lucretia Mott and other women in objecting to their exclusion on account of their sex.

This was just the beginning for Stanton. At the first Women’s Rights convention in the United States held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, she proposed a long list of reforms to protect women and to give them equal rights. Among these rights, was equal suffrage, an idea so radical that it spurred heated debate. In the end, inclusion of women’s suffrage was adopted, and this convention is often seen as the birthplace of the movement for Woman Suffrage (as it was originally called). A report of this convention was published as the Declaration of Sentiments.

Although Woman Suffrage was now on the agenda, the fight for women’s rights was much broader. And, over the next two decades, the cause became inextricably linked to temperance and abolition of slavery.

In 1851, Susan B. Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and they formed a partnership for social reform that would last for the rest of their lives. The following year, they founded the New York Women's State Temperance Society after Anthony was not allowed to speak at a temperance conference because she was female. At the time, women were considered the property of their husbands. Consequently, women had no legal recourse when their husbands beat or abused them. Because such abuse commonly occurred when men were drunk, abstinence was seen as a way to curb intoxication and thus make women safer.

When the Civil War began in 1861, most women put aside women’s rights and woman suffrage activities to help the war effort. However, Anthony and Stanton continued their work for social justice. In 1863, they organized the Women’s Loyal National League to work for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. The league accomplished the largest petition drive in United States history up to that time, collecting nearly 400,000 signatures in support of the abolition of slavery.

Anthony and Stanton’s efforts intensified after the war. In 1866, they joined with Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass to establish the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. This group campaigned for equal rights both for women and African Americans. 


Congress introduced the Fourteenth Amendment, extending the liberties and rights granted by the Bill of Rights to former slaves. This amendment included the first use of the word male in the Constitution, defining citizens as “male.” Women’s rights activists strongly objected and petitioned Congress to change the language. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote, “If that word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.”

The amendment passed Congress and was sent to the states for ratification with the qualification of ‘male’ intact. This posed a dilemma for the advocates for women’s rights. Did they support the rights of freedman citizenship at the expense of their own cause? Although they objected to the exclusion of women, they stopped short of calling for non-ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment.

 In 1868, the fourteenth amendment was ratified.

Coming next month: The women’s suffrage movement crystalizes.

Previous installments:
Voting in Colonial America:


Ann Markim

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  1. Very interesting, Ann, and relevant to today with women's rights being threatened.

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. This history has been fascinating to research.

  2. Well done, and I'm thrilled you are doing this series. Thank you. Doris

  3. Very timely post. How frustrating life must have been for intelligent women in the past! We owe them so much.

  4. Yes, we do owe them a lot. Many women gave their whole lives to the cause and never had the legal right to vote. I have a so much respect for them.