Regrouping: 1870-1900

After Reconstruction and the failure of the women’s suffrage movement to secure the right to vote at that crucial juncture in American history, leaders in the movement needed to devise new strategies for moving forward. Three major strategies emerged: a national strategy, a sate-by-state strategy, and one aimed at securing some limited voting rights for women in local elections. 

National Woman Suffrage Association and the National Strategy

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869, which quickly became the most prominent women’s suffrage organization in the country. A national organization led by and for women, the NWSA adopted a national strategy, aiming to pressure the federal government into enfranchising women throughout the nation.  

The NWSA proposed a constitutional amendment for women’s voting rights on several occasions throughout the 1870s and 1880s. The text was usually modeled after the 15th Amendment, prohibiting discrimination of the basis of sex. Supporters of the amendment introduced it to the floor of Congress several times, but it never came close to passing. It was finally decisively defeated in January 1887 by a margin of 34 to 16 in the Senate (with 26 abstentions)—a long way from the two thirds vote required for passage. A constitutional amendment would not get serious consideration again until the 1910s.

American Woman Suffrage Association and the State-by-State Strategy

Alongside the NWSA was another organization founded at almost the same time by Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell: the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). This organization, while national in scope, adopted a state-by-state strategy, which aimed to secure voting rights for women by convincing state legislatures and Constitutional Conventions to amend state constitutions one at a time, recognizing the central role that states still played in defining the franchise. 

The state-by-state strategy of the AWSA was not very successful either. Although women’s voting rights were debated in numerous constitutional conventions, and referenda were held in 11 states—eight of them west of the Mississippi—between 1870 and 1910, only a few states took any real steps to enfranchise women. The territory of Wyoming enfranchised women in 1869 and kept women enfranchised when it became a state in 1889. The territory of Utah enfranchised women in 1870 and kept women enfranchised when it became a state in 1896. The nearby states of Idaho and Colorado enfranchised women in the mid-1890s. Everywhere else repeated attempts at state constitutional amendments and numerous referenda failed, usually by wide margins. By 1900, despite the decades of work on the part of suffragists, only four states had granted women the right to vote. 

Partial Suffrage
The third strategy which was pursued in large part by local organizations and political leaders, but which complemented the state-by-state strategy of the AWSA, was to secure “partial” or “limited” suffrage for women—on issues such as schooling, prohibition, and municipal taxes. This could usually be done by legislation rather than constitutional amendment, and so provided suffragists with more attainable victories in their pursuit of voting rights. This somewhat anomalous development was made possible by the complex architecture of voting laws. State constitutions, as a rule, restricted suffrage only for elections to the offices names specifically in the constitution. 

While partial suffrage was not the true goal of the women’s suffrage movement, it was a step in the right direction. And women in most places had more success securing partial suffrage than they did with complete enfranchisement. A significant number of states and localities adopted some form of limited suffrage for women. 

Partial suffrage had a certain logic to it—permitting women to vote for things like local school boards or on liquor laws lent them a voice on the issues that were supposedly most appropriate or of interest to women. 

The limited successes of the women’s suffrage movement following Reconstruction undersold the strength of the movement as a whole. Its growth during this time was remarkable—it could now claim two national organizations and hundreds more state and local organizations under the banner of women’s suffrage. And while they were still in the minority, hundreds of thousands of men had voted in favor of enfranchising women in the numerous referenda and state constitutional conventions that had taken up the issue. That the issue was being discussed at all was an accomplishment; such debates would not have been possible 30 to 40 years earlier.