Woman's Suffrage

Women's Activism

The term "first-wave feminism" describes the women's movements during the Gilded Age, which primarily focused on women's suffrage.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the major goals and accomplishments of first-wave feminism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Important activists in the women's movement included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Margaret Sanger, and Lucy Burns.
  • The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, led by Frances Willard, advocated prohibition against alcohol.
  • Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's National Woman Suffrage Association and Lucy Stone's American Woman Suffrage Association advocated a woman's right to vote.
  • Feminists also fought for women's rights within marriage, health care, higher education, and the workplace.
  • Feminists began to organize women's clubs that focused on both political and social issues of the day.
  • Sojourner Truth was a freed slave who worked for abolition, women's rights, and prison reform.
  • "Mother" Jones was a prominent labor and community organizer who helped coordinate major strikes and cofounded the Industrial Workers of the World.

Key Terms

  • First Wave Feminism: A period of feminist activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States that focused on de jure (officially mandated) inequalities, and on gaining women's suffrage (the right to vote).
  • American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA): An organization formed in 1869 in response to a split in the American Equal Rights Association over the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Its founders, who supported the Fifteenth Amendment, included Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. The founders were staunch abolitionists and strongly supported securing the right to vote for African Americans. They believed that the Fifteenth Amendment would fail to pass in Congress if it included the vote for women.
  • National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA): An organization created on May 15, 1869, in New York City, in response to a split in the American Equal Rights Association over whether the women's movement should support the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The group's founders, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless it included the vote for women.

First-Wave Feminism

"First-wave feminism" refers to a period of feminist activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States. It focused on remedying legal inequalities, and especially on gaining women's suffrage.

Prominent leaders of the first-wave feminist movement in the United States include Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth, "Mother" Jones, and Susan B. Anthony. Anthony and other activists, such as Victoria Woodhull and Matilda Joslyn Gage, made attempts to cast votes prior to their legal entitlement to do so and faced charges as a result.

Gage, of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), embodied the radicalism of much second-wave feminism. Some activists belonged to conservative Christian groups (for example, Frances Willard belonged to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union). The majority of first-wave feminists were more moderate and conservative than radical or revolutionary. The members of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), for example, were willing to work within the political system, and they chose to unite with sympathetic men in power to promote the cause of suffrage.

The limited membership of the NWSA was narrowly focused on gaining a federal amendment for women's suffrage, whereas the AWSA, with 10 times as many members, worked to gain suffrage on a state-by-state level as a necessary precursor to federal suffrage. The NWSA had broad goals, hoping to achieve a more equal social role for women, but the AWSA was aware of the divisive nature of many of those goals and instead chose to focus solely on suffrage. The NWSA was known for having more publicly aggressive tactics (such as picketing and hunger strikes), whereas the AWSA used more traditional strategies such as lobbying, delivering speeches, applying political pressure, and gathering signatures for petitions.

The first wave of feminists, in contrast to the second wave, focused very little on the subjects of abortion, birth control, and overall reproductive rights of women. Though she never married, Susan B. Anthony published her views about marriage, holding that a woman should be allowed to refuse sex with her husband. The American woman had no legal recourse at that time against rape by her husband.

In 1860, New York passed a revised Married Women's Property Act that gave women shared ownership of their children, allowing them to have a say in their children's wills and wages, and granting them the right to inherit property. Further advances and setbacks were experienced in New York and other states, but feminists were able to use each new win as motivation for applying more leverage on unyielding legislative bodies. The end of the first wave is often linked with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1920), which granted women the right to vote. This was the major victory of the movement, which also had achieved reforms in higher education, the workplace and professions, and health care.

Many white women excluded black women from their organizations and denied them the right to participate in events because they feared that the racist attitudes of Southern voters would impede their support of the women's movement.

Sojourner Truth

The carte to visite shows Sojourner Truth knitting, sitting next to a small table with a vase of flowers. The inscription at the bottom of the card says

Sojourner Truth: Truth's carte de visite, a small photograph, which she sold to raise money.

Sojourner Truth (born Isabella ["Bell"] Baumfree; ca. 1797–November 26, 1883) was an African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, Ulster County, New York, but escaped with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826. After going to court to recover her son, in 1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.

She gave herself the name "Sojourner Truth" in 1843. Her best-known speech was delivered extemporaneously, in 1851, at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. The speech became widely known during the Civil War by the title "Ain't I a Woman?", which was a bastardization of the original speech, rewritten by someone else using a stereotypical Southern dialect. Sojourner Truth, in fact, was from New York and had grown up speaking Dutch as her first language. During the Civil War, Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. After the war, Truth tried to secure land grants from the federal government for former enslaved people, a project she pursued for seven years without success. While in Washington, D.C., she had a meeting with President Ulysses S. Grant in the White House. In 1872, she returned to Battle Creek and tried to vote in the presidential election, but was turned away at the polling place.

Truth spoke about abolition, women's rights, and prison reform, and preached against capital punishment to the Michigan legislature. Not everyone welcomed her lectures, but she had many friends and staunch support among many influential people at the time, including Amy Post, Parker Pillsbury, Frances Gage, Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Laura Smith Haviland, Lucretia Mott, Ellen G. White, and Susan B. Anthony.

"Mother" Jones

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was an American schoolteacher and dressmaker who became a prominent labor and community organizer. She helped coordinate major strikes and cofounded the Industrial Workers of the World.

After her husband and four children all died of yellow fever and her workshop was destroyed in a fire in 1871, she began working as an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. She was a very effective speaker, punctuating her speeches with stories, audience participation, humor, and dramatic stunts. From 1897 onward, she was known as "Mother" Jones, and in 1902, she was called, "the most dangerous woman in America" for her success in organizing mine workers and their families against the mine owners.

She joined the nascent labor movement and the Knights of Labor (a predecessor to the Industrial Workers of the World), an organization that was later dissolved after members were accused of anarchism after the Haymarket Affair. "Mother" Jones became largely affiliated with the UMW. With the UMW, she frequently led strikers in picketing and encouraged the striking workers to stay on strike when the management brought in strike-breakers and militias.

"Mother" Jones was ideologically separated from many of the other female activists in the days prior to the Nineteenth Amendment due to her aversion to female suffrage. She emphasized that, "You don't need the vote to raise hell!" Her opposition to women taking an active role in politics was based on her belief that the neglect of motherhood was a primary cause of juvenile delinquency.

The Campaign for Suffrage

The movement for women's suffrage gained new vitality during the Progressive Era.

Learning Objectives

Describe the women's suffrage movement at the end of the nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The demand for women's suffrage began to gather strength in the 1840s, emerging from the broader movement for women's rights.
  • The first national suffrage organizations were established in 1869, after the formation of two competing organizations, one led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other by Lucy Stone.
  • Several organizations opposed women's suffrage because they thought that granting women the right to vote would mean women would have greater control over social issues. Men worried that women would "close the saloons" with their votes.
  • By 1919, the women's suffrage movement saw its greatest success: Women were granted the right to vote through the Nineteenth Amendment.

Key Terms

  • Susan B. Anthony: An American social reformer and feminist who played a pivotal role in the women's suffrage movement.

Women's suffrage in the United States was established over the course of several decades, first in various states and localities, sometimes on a limited basis, and then nationally in 1920.

The demand for women's suffrage began to gather strength in the 1840s, emerging from the broader movement for women's rights. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention, passed a resolution in favor of women's suffrage despite opposition from some of its organizers, who believed the idea was too extreme. By the time of the first National Women's Rights Convention in 1850, however, gaining suffrage was becoming an increasingly important aspect of the movement's activities.

The first national suffrage organizations were established in 1869, after the formation of two competing organizations, one led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other by Lucy Stone. After years of rivalry, the organizations merged in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with Anthony as its leading force.

Hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that women had a constitutional right to vote, suffragists made several attempts to vote in the early 1870s and then filed lawsuits when they were turned away. Anthony actually succeeded in voting in 1872 but was arrested for that act and found guilty in a widely publicized trial that gave the movement fresh momentum. After the Supreme Court ruled against them in 1875, suffragists began the decades-long campaign for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enfranchise women. Much of the movement's energy, however, went toward working for suffrage on a state-by-state basis.


"The Steam Roller": This political cartoon about suffrage in the United States depicts four women supporting suffrage on a steamroller crushing rocks labeled "opposition."

The reform campaigns of the Progressive Era strengthened the suffrage movement. Beginning around 1900, this broad movement began at the grassroots level with such goals as combating corruption in government, eliminating child labor, and protecting workers and consumers. Many of its participants saw women's suffrage as yet another Progressive goal, and they believed that the addition of women to the electorate would help their movement achieve its other goals. In 1912, the Progressive Party, formed by Theodore Roosevelt, endorsed women's suffrage. The burgeoning Socialist movement also aided the drive for women's suffrage in some areas.

In 1916, Alice Paul formed the National Woman's Party (NWP), a militant group focused on the passage of a national suffrage amendment. More than 200 NWP supporters, known as the "Silent Sentinels," were arrested in 1917 while picketing the White House. Some of the protestors went on a hunger strike and endured forced feeding after being sent to prison. Under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, the two-million-member NAWSA also made a national suffrage amendment its top priority. After a hard-fought series of votes in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. It 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 sex."


Brewers and distillers, typically rooted in the German -American community, opposed women's suffrage, fearing that women voters would favor the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. German Lutherans and German Catholics typically opposed prohibition and women's suffrage; they favored paternalistic families in which the husband decided the family position on public affairs. Their opposition to women's suffrage was subsequently used as an argument in favor of suffrage when German Americans became pariahs during World War I.


Opposed to women's suffrage: Men looking in the window of the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters.

Some other businesses, such as Southern cotton mills, opposed suffrage because they feared that women voters would support the drive to eliminate child labor. Political machines, such as Tammany Hall in New York City, opposed it because they feared that the addition of female voters would dilute the control they had established over groups of male voters.

Anti-suffrage forces, initially called the "remonstrants," organized as early as 1870 when the Women's Anti-Suffrage Association of Washington was formed. Widely known as the "antis," they eventually created organizations in some 20 states. In 1911, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage was created. It claimed 350,000 members and opposed women's suffrage, feminism, and socialism. It argued that woman suffrage, "would reduce the special protections and routes of influence available to women, destroy the family, and increase the number of socialist-leaning voters."

Middle- and upper-class anti-suffrage women were conservatives with several motivations. Society women in particular had personal access to powerful politicians, and were reluctant to surrender that advantage. Most often the "antis" believed that politics was dirty and that women's involvement would surrender the moral high ground that women had claimed, and that partisanship would disrupt local club work for civic betterment, as represented by the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The best organized movement was the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NYSAOWS).

The New Feminism

After attaining suffrage, women extended their activism to focus on contraception, sexual autonomy, and economic rights.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the development of the feminist movement in the early twentieth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • First-wave feminism concerned itself with obtaining equal rights for women, especially the right to vote. Women's suffrage was granted by the Nineteenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1920.
  • With suffrage secured, feminists focused their work on other issues, such as reproductive rights and contraception.
  • Women in the early twentieth century had limited access to contraception and family planning information, which were illegal under anti-obscenity laws.
  • Nurse Margaret Sanger was a major figure in the contraception movement and freely distributed her pamphlet about family planning. She went into exile to escape arrest for her pamphlet.
  • Sanger opened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn, New York, in order to legally prescribe birth control to New York women. A provision in the New York laws stated that birth control could be prescribed to prevent disease.

Key Terms

  • Comstock Act: A collection of state and federal restrictions that made it illegal to send any, "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" materials through the mail, including contraceptive devices and information. In addition to banning contraceptives, this act also banned the distribution of educational information about abortion.
  • Free Speech League: A progressive organization in the United States that fought to support freedom of speech in the early years of the twentieth century. It focused on combatting government censorship, particularly relating to political speech and sexual material.

The nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century feminist activity that worked for the abolition of gender double standards and sought to win women's suffrage, female education rights, and better working conditions is known as "first-wave feminism." The term "first-wave" was coined retrospectively when the term "second-wave feminism" was used to describe a newer feminist movement that fought social and cultural inequalities beyond basic political inequalities.

Feminists did not recognize separate waves of feminism until the second wave was so named by journalist Martha Lear, according to Jennifer Baumgardner. Baumgardner, a writer, activist, filmmaker, and lecturer,  discusses criticism of the division of feminism into waves and the difficulty of associating some feminists with specific waves. She argues that the main critics of a wave are likely to be members of the previous wave who remain vital, and that waves are coming faster. The "waves debate" has influenced how historians and other scholars have established the chronologies of women's political activism. Despite the controversy over labeling these interconnected movements, it is clear that after women's suffrage was secured, feminists continued to fight for equality that included a wider range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. One especially important movement of the time concerned birth control and was led in large part by Margaret Sanger.

Birth Control

For many feminists, legalizing contraception became a central issue in the campaign for equal social and political rights. In the nineteenth century, contraception often was under attack from various religious groups (loosely known as the "purity movement"), which were composed primarily of Protestant moral reformers and middle-class women. This Victorian-era anti-contraception campaign attacked birth control as an immoral practice that promoted prostitution and venereal disease. Anthony Comstock, a postal inspector and leader in the purity movement, successfully lobbied for the passage of the 1873 Comstock Act, a federal law prohibiting the mailing of, "any article or thing designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion," as well as any form of contraceptive information. Many states also passed similar laws (collectively known as the Comstock laws), that extended the federal law by outlawing the use of contraceptives as well as their distribution. In response, contraception went underground. Drugstores continued to sell condoms as "rubber goods" and cervical caps as "womb supporters."

image Margaret Sanger: Portrait of Margaret Sanger, leader of the U.S. birth-control movement.

At the turn of the century, an energetic movement arose that sought to overturn anti-obscenity laws and the Comstock Acts. Centered in Greenwich Village, this movement was largely composed of radicals, feminists, anarchists, and atheists such as Ezra Heywood, Moses Harman, D.M. Bennett, Emma Goldman, and Margaret Sanger. In 1913, Sanger worked in New York's Lower East Side, often with poor women who were suffering severe medical problems due to frequent childbirth and self-induced abortions.

Under the influence of Goldman and the Free Speech League, Sanger became determined to challenge the Comstock Acts that outlawed the dissemination of contraceptive information. In 1914, she launched "The Woman Rebel," an eight-page monthly newsletter that promoted contraception using the slogan, "No Gods, No Masters," and proclaimed that each woman should be, "the absolute mistress of her own body." Sanger coined the term "birth control," which first appeared in her newsletter. Sanger's goal of challenging the law was fulfilled when she was indicted in August, 1914, but the prosecution focused their attention on articles Sanger had written about marriage, rather than those about contraception. Afraid that she might be sent to prison without an opportunity to argue for birth control in court, Sanger fled to England to escape arrest. While Sanger was in Europe, her husband continued her work, which led to his arrest after he distributed a copy of a birth-control pamphlet to an undercover postal worker.

image Front page of "The Woman Rebel": The first issue of "The Woman Rebel," March 1914. Click to view a larger version of this image.

New York state law prohibited the distribution of contraceptives or even contraceptive information, but Sanger hoped to exploit a provision in the law that permitted doctors to prescribe contraceptives for the prevention of disease. On October 16, 1916, she opened the Brownsville Clinic in Brooklyn. It was an immediate success, with more than 100 women visiting on the first day. A few days after the clinic's opening, an undercover policewoman purchased a cervical cap at the clinic, and Sanger was arrested. Refusing to walk, Sanger and a coworker were dragged out of the clinic by police officers. The clinic was shut down, and no other birth-control clinics were opened in the United States until the 1920s. However, the publicity from Sanger's trial generated immense enthusiasm for the cause, and by the end of 1917, there were more than 30 birth-control organizations in the United States.

In the aftermath of Sanger's trial, the birth-control movement began to grow from its radical, working-class roots into a campaign backed by society women and liberal professionals. Sanger and her fellow advocates began to deliberately tone down their radical rhetoric and instead emphasized the socioeconomic benefits of birth control, a policy that led to increasing acceptance by mainstream Americans. Media coverage increased, and several silent motion pictures produced in the 1910s featured birth control as a theme (including Birth Control, produced by and starring Sanger).

The birth-control movement received an unexpected political boost during World War I, as hundreds of U.S. soldiers were diagnosed with syphilis or gonorrhea while overseas. The military undertook an extensive education campaign, focusing on abstinence, but also offering some contraceptive guidance. Previously, the military did not distribute condoms, or even endorse their use, making the United States the only military force in World War I that did not supply condoms to its troops. When U.S. soldiers were in Europe, they found rubber condoms readily available, and when they returned to America, they continued to use condoms as their preferred method of birth control. The military's anti-venereal-disease campaign marked a major turning point for the movement: It was the first time a government institution had engaged in a sustained, public discussion of sexual matters. The government's public discourse changed sex into a legitimate topic of scientific research, and it transformed contraception from an issue of morals to an issue of public health.


Margaret Sanger on courthouse steps: Margaret Sanger leaving a courthouse in New York in 1917.

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