Women’s Rights


Until relatively recently the traditional role of women in American society was to stay at home, clean, raise children, and in rural areas, help with the family farm. It was an accepted philosophy that women were possessions of their husbands, and therefore they must agree – in public – with everything they said. Also, because women were, for the most part, unschooled and generally ignorant of public affairs, it was assumed that they were incapable of voting for president and other high-level political office-seekers. This was a difficult philosophy for women to overturn. Male domination had kept women at home, but early in the nineteenth century legislatures and educators began expanding opportunities for them.

The major thing that started the wall crumbling was when women were allowed to enroll in colleges and universities. It was women's first step in breaking out of their traditional role. About the same time there was a shortage of school teachers on the frontier and in other remote locations. Many of these positions were filled by young women newly  educated in the seats of higher learning on the East. Soon thereafter women were also getting jobs in medicine and law. During the Civil War many ladies took over their husbands’ jobs, and at the end of hostilities some were reluctant to return to the kitchen.

The Women’s Rights Movement was launched in 1848 by Elizabeth B. Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and it was carried forward by the eloquence of Lucy Stone and the energy of Susan B. Anthony. As the movement grew it took up the cause of slavery as well. As early as 1869 there was a movement in Vermont to give women the right to vote. "After abolishing human slavery, the next great conquest of the United States over wrong and error will be to take woman from the feet of man and place her by his side."

A One Hundred Year Timeline Toward Suffrage:

1776: Abigail Adams writes to her husband, John, who is attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, asking that he and the other men--who were at work on the Declaration of Independence--"Remember the Ladies." John responds with humor. The Declaration's wording specifies that "all men are created equal."

1820 to 1880: Evidence from a variety of printed sources published during this period--advice manuals, poetry and literature, sermons, medical texts--reveals that Americans, in general, held highly stereotypical notions about women's and men's roles in society. Historians would later term this phenomenon "The Cult of Domesticity."

1821: Emma Hart Willard founds the Troy Female Seminary in New York--the first endowed school for girls.

1833: Oberlin College becomes the first coeducational college in the United States. In 1841, Oberlin awards the first academic degrees to three women. Early graduates include Lucy Stone and Antoinette Brown.

1836: Sarah Grimké begins her speaking career as an abolitionist and a women's rights advocate. She is eventually silenced by male abolitionists who consider her public speaking a liability.

1837: The first National Female Anti-Slavery Society convention meets in New York City. Eighty-one delegates from twelve states attend.

1837: Mary Lyon founds Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, eventually the first four-year college exclusively for women in the United States. Mt. Holyoke was followed by Vassar in 1861, and Wellesley and Smith Colleges, both in 1875. In 1873, the School Sisters of Notre Dame found a school in Baltimore, Maryland, which would eventually become the nation's first college for Catholic women.

1839: Mississippi passes the first Married Woman's Property Act.

1844: Female textile workers in Massachusetts organize the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association (LFLRA) and demand a ten-hour workday. This was one of the first permanent labor associations for working women in the United States.

1848: The first women's rights convention in the United States is held in Seneca Falls, New York. Many participants sign a "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" that outlines the main issues and goals for the emerging women's movement. Thereafter, women's rights meetings are held on a regular basis.

1849: Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery. Over the next ten years she leads many slaves to freedom by the Underground Railroad.

1850: Amelia Jenks Bloomer launches the dress reform movement with a costume bearing her name. The Bloomer costume was later abandoned by many suffragists who feared it detracted attention from more serious women's rights issues.

1851: Former slave Sojourner Truth delivers her "Ain't I a Woman?" speech before a spellbound audience at a women's rights convention in Akron, Ohio.

1852: Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin, which rapidly becomes a bestseller.

1859: The successful vulcanization of rubber provides women with reliable condoms for the first time. The birth rate in the United States continues its downward, century-long spiral. By the late 1900s, women will raise an average of only two to three children, in contrast to the five or six children they raised at the beginning of the century.

1861 to 1865: The American Civil War disrupts suffrage activity as women, North and South, divert their energies to "war work." The War itself, however, serves as a "training ground," as women gain important organizational and occupational skills they will later use in post-bellum organizational activity.

1865 to 1880: Southern white women create Confederate memorial societies to help preserve the memory of the "Lost Cause." This activity propels many white Southern women into the public sphere for the first time. During this same period, newly emancipated Southern black women form thousands of organizations aimed at "uplifting the race."

1866: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage.

1868: The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified, which extends to all citizens the protections of the Constitution against unjust state laws. This Amendment was the first to define "citizens" and "voters" as "male."

1869: The women's rights movement splits into two factions as a result of disagreements over the Fourteenth and soon-to-be-passed Fifteenth Amendments. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the more radical, New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe organize the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which is centered in Boston. In this same year, the Wyoming territory is organized with a woman suffrage provision. In 1890, Wyoming was admitted to the Union with its suffrage provision intact.

1870: The Fifteenth Amendment enfranchises black men. NWSA refuses to work for its ratification, arguing, instead, that it be "scrapped" in favor of a Sixteenth Amendment providing universal suffrage. Frederick Douglass breaks with Stanton and Anthony over NWSA's position.

1870 to 1875: Several women--including Virginia Louisa Minor, Victoria Woodhull, and Myra Bradwell--attempt to use the Fourteenth Amendment in the courts to secure the vote (Minor and Woodhull) or the right to practice law (Bradwell). They all are unsuccessful.

1872: Susan B. Anthony is arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. At the same time, Sojourner Truth appears at a polling booth in Grand Rapids, Michigan, demanding a ballot; she is turned away.

1874: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is founded by Annie Wittenmyer. With Frances Willard at its head (1876), the WCTU became an important force in the fight for woman suffrage. Not surprisingly, one of the most vehement opponents to women's enfranchisement was the liquor lobby, which feared women might use the franchise to prohibit the sale of liquor.

1878: A Woman Suffrage Amendment is introduced in the United States Congress. The wording is unchanged in 1919, when the amendment finally passes both houses.

1890: The NWSA and the AWSA are reunited as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this same year, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found Hull House, a settlement house project in Chicago's 19th Ward. Within one year, there are more than a hundred settlement houses--largely operated by women--throughout the United States. The settlement house movement and the Progressive campaign of which it was a part propelled thousands of college-educated white women and a number of women of color into lifetime careers in social work. It also made women an important voice to be reckoned with in American politics.

1891: Ida B. Wells launches her nation-wide anti-lynching campaign after the murder of three black businessmen in Memphis, Tennessee.

1893: Hannah Greenbaum Solomon founds the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) after a meeting of the Jewish Women's Congress at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In that same year, Colorado becomes the first state to adopt a state amendment enfranchising women.

1895: Elizabeth Cady Stanton publishes The Woman's Bible. After its publication, NAWSA moves to distance itself from this venerable suffrage pioneer because many conservative suffragists considered her to be too radical and, thus, potentially damaging to the suffrage campaign. From this time, Stanton--who had resigned as NAWSA president in 1892--was no onger invited to sit on the stage at NAWSA conventions.

1896: Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Margaret Murray Washington, Fanny Jackson Coppin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and former slave Harriet Tubman meet in Washington, D.C. to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).

1903: Mary Dreier, Rheta Childe Dorr, Leonora O'Reilly, and others form the Women's Trade Union League of New York, an organization of middle- and working-class women dedicated to unionization for working women and to woman suffrage. This group later became a nucleus of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).

1911: The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS) is organized. Led by Mrs. Arthur Dodge, its members included wealthy, influential women and some Catholic clergymen--including Cardinal Gibbons who, in 1916, sent an address to NAOWS's convention in Washington, D.C. In addition to the distillers and brewers, who worked largely behind the scenes, the "antis" also drew support from urban political machines, Southern congressmen, and corporate capitalists--like railroad magnates and meatpackers--who supported the "antis" by contributing to their "war chests."

1912: Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive (Bull Moose/Republican) Party becomes the first national political party to adopt a woman suffrage plank.

1913: Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organize the Congressional Union, later known as the National Women's Party (1916). Borrowing the tactics of the radical, militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England, members of the Woman's Party participate in hunger strikes, picket the White House, and engage in other forms of civil disobedience to publicize the suffrage cause.

1914: The National Federation of Women's Clubs--which by this time included more than two million white women and women of color throughout the United States--formally endorses the suffrage campaign.

1916: NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt unveils her "winning plan" for suffrage victory at a convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

1916: Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first American woman elected to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives.

1918 to 1920: The Great War (World War I) intervenes to slow down the suffrage campaign as some--but not all--suffragists decide to shelve their suffrage activism in favor of "war

work." In the long run, however, this decision proves to be a prudent one as it adds yet another reason to why women deserve the vote.

August 26, 1920: The Nineteenth Amendment is ratified.

Certain states, such as Wyoming, gave women the right to vote in state elections as early as 1869. The first bill seeking to give women the right to vote in the traditional town meeting was introduced in the Vermont House in 1884. It finally passed in 1917, making Vermont the first state to pass a municipal suffrage bill. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified in 1920, making women’s suffrage national.

Many women, especially the older ones, never exercised their newly legislated right. Hazel Hayworth Erwin, my mother, was comfortable with her previous role. As far as I know she only voted one time. With my Dad’s encouragement she voted in the November 1953 National Election when General Dwight D. Eisenhower was swept into office.

Many people assume that the United States was the first country to allow women equal rights where suffrage is concerned, but it is not so. New Zealand, in 1893, granted women the right to participate in national elections on the same basis as men. In the years prior to 1940, twenty-six  countries followed suit.

The great multitude of countries spanning the globe have slowly come to recognize and preserve women’s voting rights. The right to vote has a direct impact on women’s rights in many other areas as well, as women can participate in the formation of government and law.

While women’s suffrage is now almost universal, history shows long delays between men and women gaining the right to vote in individual countries; the time elapsed between men’s suffrage and women’s suffrage ranged from one to one hundred thirty-four years, with the average delay for women amounting to forty-seven years. As of 2005 women have a legal right to vote everywhere in the world except in six countries in the Middle East—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates—as well as in Brunei, a small oil-rich monarchy in Southeast Asia.

You’ve come a long way baby...                                    

                                                                                                           Researched by Don Erwin