Introduction to “The Women’s Suffrage Movement”

“To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pulseless campaign . . . During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write women suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

— Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie R. Shuler
Woman Suffrage and Politics (1926)

Mr. Halfhill: Now, gentlemen, this question of franchise is not, as is been sometimes debated and urged, an inalienable right; it is a conferred right, and it must be conferred under our theory of government and under our organization of society.

Mr. Fackler: If suffrage is a conferred right and not a natural one, who conferred that right on us?

— Ohio Constitutional Convention, 1912

The almost century-long struggle for women’s suffrage was one of the largest sustained social and political movements in American history. Beginning in the midst of the fervor for democratic expansion during the Antebellum period, and extending through the turn of the century until its culmination with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the women’s suffrage movement has had a profound impact on American political life. Women were the largest group of citizens excluded from the polls from the time of the ratification of the Constitution. Their movement to gain the right to vote occurred alongside, and often intersected with, all of the other changes in the franchise that were occurring at the same time. The enfranchisement and the disenfranchisement of African Americans in the South as well as constrictions of the franchise along ethnic and class lines in the North influenced the arguments made about female voting rights, and affected the progress of the movement. The women’s suffrage movement, which at one point hoped to work in time to win the right to vote alongside African Americans, ultimately had to make the case that women deserved the right to vote on their own as much as anyone else.

Relationships played a key role in the tenor of the women’s suffrage movement. After all, women (white women, at least) enjoyed close relationship with the men who held the power to enfranchise them. They appealed to their fathers, husbands, and brothers for the right to vote, and many of the arguments oft-repeated during the movement from both sides had to do with the position held by women in families and in society. The debates sparked by the women’s suffrage movement had unusual features—arguments about political rights and capabilities clashed with deeply felt and publicly voiced fears that female participation in electoral politics would undermine family life and harm women themselves.