An Overview of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1848-1920


Seneca Falls, 1848 / Library of Congress, Public Domain

It was the single largest extension of voting rights in our nation’s history.


The woman suffrage movement actually began in 1848, when a women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. The Seneca Falls meeting was not the first in support of women’s rights, but suffragists later viewed it as the meeting that launched the suffrage movement. For the next 50 years, woman suffrage supporters worked to educate the public about the validity of woman suffrage. Under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women’s rights pioneers, suffragists circulated petitions and lobbied Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women.

Susan B. Anthony (L) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (R) / Library of Congress, Public Domain

At the turn of the century, women reformers in the club movement and in the settlement house movement wanted to pass reform legislation. However, many politicians were unwilling to listen to a disenfranchised group. Thus, over time women began to realize that in order to achieve reform, they needed to win the right to vote. For these reasons, at the turn of the century, the woman suffrage movement became a mass movement.

Alice Paul / Library of Congress, Public Domain

In the 20th century leadership of the suffrage movement passed to two organizations. The first, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, was a moderate organization. The NAWSA undertook campaigns to enfranchise women in individual states, and simultaneously lobbied President Wilson and Congress to pass a woman suffrage Constitutional Amendment. In the 1910s, NAWSA’s membership numbered in the millions.

The second group, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), under the leadership of Alice Paul, was a more militant organization. The NWP undertook radical actions, including picketing the White House, in order to convince Wilson and Congress to pass a woman suffrage amendment.

College day in the picket line / Library of Congress, Public Domain

In 1920, due to the combined efforts of the NAWSA and the NWP, the 19th Amendment, enfranchising women, was finally ratified. This victory is considered the most significant achievement of women in the Progressive Era. It was the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in our nation’s history, and it was achieved peacefully, through democratic processes.

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Originally published by the National Women’s History Museum, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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