Regrouping: 1870-1900

A Mass Movement

Starting in 1905, there were marked improvements in the way that the women’s suffrage movement was run. It secured better funding and became more aggressive in its tactics. Local organizations affiliated with the national movement staged demonstrations, rallies, and protests that generated more attention for the movement and put pressure on local and national political leaders for change. Importantly, the movement started to move beyond its brief turn towards conservatism, becoming socially and ideologically more diverse, attracting both elite and working-class supporters to complement its middle-class base.

The engagement of working-class women brought with it stronger support for women’s suffrage from trade unions and socialist organizations. The American Federation of Labor had endorsed women suffrage as early as 1892, but once suffrage organizations themselves begin to appeal to working class interests, the organization lent its lobbying and organizational power to the cause—a boon for the movement.

Thanks in part to bringing working-class interests into the fold, the campaign for women’s suffrage had become a mass movement by 1910. With support far broader than it had ever enjoyed before, the movement also began to win new victories. Several new states permitted women to vote:   

Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Oregon (1912), Montana (1914), and Nevada (1914)

In 1912 Congress authorized the territory of Alaska to enfranchise women if its legislature so chose, and in 1913, Illinois voted to allow women to vote in presidential elections and in elections for all state and local offices not provided for in its constitution.

There were other tangible signs of progress. In 1910, President William Howard Taft addressed the annual convention of the NAWSA, endorsing the cause for women’s suffrage. Though his endorsement was weak and in many ways deprecating to women, he was the first President to come out publicly in favor of the right to vote for women—a major victory for the cause. 

Leaders of the movement used their growing profile to put pressure on the federal government, and in 1910 delivered a petition to Congress calling for a federal amendment that had been signed by more than 400,000 women. During the 1912 presidential election, the Progressive Party endorsed women’s suffrage, and the suffragists kept the pressure on by parading more than 5,000 strong at Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913. 

The mounting pressure seemed to be working. In 1914, a Senate committee reported favorably on a federal amendment, and even though it failed, it was the first time since the 1880s that a draft amendment had been brought to the floor of Congress for a vote.

But opposition to women’s suffrage remained strong, particularly in the eastern half of the country. Defeats were more common than victories, and alongside the seven states that adopted enfranchised women from 1910 to 1915, referenda and constitutional amendments were defeated in 11 states during the same time period, sometimes more than once. 

1912: Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan 

1913: Michigan

1914: North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Missouri, and Ohio

1915: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts

Notably, no referenda for women’s suffrage were held in the South during this span of time. Even though the movement was gaining strength there, as it was everywhere else, women’s suffrage faced a steeper climb in the South than it did in other parts of the country. Democratic political dominance made if difficult to introduce new ideas, and the traditional base of support for women’s suffrage, the middle-class, was small in the South. Antisuffrage forces were strong and well organized. Race played a major role; any expansion of the franchise in the South threatened to disrupt the delicate web of voting laws that had been constructed to keep African Americans from the polls.  

Calls for a federal amendment also undercut the women’s suffrage in the South. Most white southerners felt that any federal amendment on suffrage would threaten white political dominance by opening the doors to federal intervention in elections, and enforcement of the hollow 15th amendment.