The Fight for Suffrage
The women’s rights movement in the United States began in 1848 when a group of women and men met in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the status of women. The group called for the right to vote for women. At the time, it was a radical idea. In 1878, U.S. Senator Aaron Sargent of California introduced a suffrage amendment. It 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 sex." It was known as the Anthony Amendment, for famed early suffragist Susan B. Anthony.
In the late 1800s, women had increasing access to higher education as more colleges opened to them. At the same time, rising industrialization was creating new opportunities for women to enter the workforce. However, industrialization also spurred a number of social problems, such as dirty, overcrowded living conditions in cities. Women’s clubs saw a need for reform and began working for issues such as pure food laws, better education, a ban on child labor, city beautification, and more. By the early 1900s, a powerful women’s club movement had developed. As more women were entering the public sphere through college, work, or reform efforts, more women began calling for the right to vote. The fight for the vote, or suffrage, would prove a long, hard struggle. It included lobbying politicians, speeches, marches, and even imprisonment for women who picketed for suffrage in front of the White House.
Opposition to votes for women was strong, especially in the South. Southern anti-suffrage whites feared the Black vote and saw it as a threat to white supremacy. In the late 1800s, southern states had begun passing measures limiting Black males’ access to the ballot box, such as the poll tax and literacy tests. Southern whites worried that a federal women’s suffrage amendment would interfere with these laws. Many southern white suffragists did not want Black people to vote, either, but argued that Black women would be barred through the same laws that prevented Black men from voting. Largely excluded from white suffrage organizations, Black women organized for the vote in their own institutions. They saw the vote as a tool to help work towards racial justice and improve the lives of Black people.
Other anti-suffrage sentiments existed, also. Many southern men saw women as moral and pure and thought politics would taint them. Some anti-suffragists in the South and elsewhere argued that states should decide who could vote, not the federal government. Some clubwomen opposed suffrage, believing that women’s clubs would lose their influence if women became involved in party politics. Liquor interests worried that women would vote to ban alcohol, and industries feared that women voters would try to impose labor reforms.
Report of the Woman's Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848, Seneca Falls Historical Society, https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p16694coll96/id/52
Anti-suffrage button, Collection of the Museum of Florida History