Facing a continued lack of concrete victories in the fight for women’s suffrage, the two competing national suffragist organizations merged in 1890 to form the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Although Stanton and Anthony served as the first two presidents of the merged association, a younger generation of leaders like Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt began to take up the mantle. But it would be several years before the movement could point to concrete progress again.
A Class-based Franchise
In both the North and South, the notion that enfranchising women could have the positive effect of outweighing the votes of African Americans and immigrants led many suffragists, including Stanton, to call for literacy tests. Abandoning the principles of universal suffrage, Stanton and others began to favor class-based restrictions on the franchise. Not everyone agreed—Stanton’s own daughter, Harriet Stanton Blatch, was public critical of her mother’s stance, but the idea of educated suffrage had taken a strong hold in the women’s suffrage movement.
Ultimately, this argument in favor of women’s suffrage was inescapably weakened by its own internal contradictions. It seemed antithetical to the idea that voting was a right, and politically it alienated the support of large groups of actual and potential voters.
Embracing class-based restrictions on the franchise did not help to advance the causes. Despite the unification of the movement under one organization—the NAWSA—and new, energetic leadership from Carrie Chapman Catt, the movement witnessed few concrete gains during the 1890s and 1900s, and the period came to be known among suffragists as “the doldrums.” During this period, only four states held referenda on the issue of women’s suffrage, and in all four they were soundly defeated. Although the issue was raised repeatedly in state legislatures and constitutional conventions, for almost twenty years, no new states enfranchised women.