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What is the Women's Suffrage Movement?

By Bill C.
Updated May 17, 2024
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The women's suffrage movement was the crusade to gain women the same rights as men to vote and run for public office. Some accounts trace origins of the movement back to France during the 18th century. In the United States, women's dedication to the cause probably began with the birth of the nation. Slow growing at first, the women's suffrage movement began to build momentum in the mid-1800s but did not achieve its ultimate goal until ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.

After the Declaration of Independence, women of the new nation had limited voting rights. Then states began stripping the rights away, starting with New York in 1777, Massachusetts in 1780, and New Hampshire in 1784. When the U.S. Constitutional Convention in 1787 gave states the power to set voting standards, all states except New Jersey revoked voting rights for women. New Jersey eventually followed suit in 1807.

Women offered little significant resistance until some began joining anti-slavery associations as part of the Abolitionist movement. Some abolitionists also began championing women's rights. That led a group of women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to call for a convention devoted specifically to the rights of women. The convention, which met in Seneca Falls, New York July 19-20, 1848, is generally considered the inception of the women's suffrage movement in the United States.

Although the women's suffrage movement grew steadily at first, its progress was slowed considerably by the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. It was put on hold for the duration over the objections of Susan B. Anthony who had by then also become a leader of the movement. After the war, it split into two separate movements: one, founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, held that suffrage should be ensured by amending the U.S. Constitution; the other, which favored lobbying state legislatures for amendments to state constitutions, was led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward. The two groups reconciled in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the first president. The new organization applied both strategies in tandem.

The woman suffrage association changed the image its predecessors had gained by departing from a message of militancy to one stressing that giving women the vote was likely to begin an era of greater moral authority. From 1890 to 1917, states gradually began granting women the right to vote. The association, however, continued its federal constitutional amendment strategy, which ensured that suffrage legislation was put to a vote by every congress. The amendment continued to fail over the years, usually by considerable margins, until 1918. That year — likely because of suffragists' active involvement in World War I, then-President Wilson's announcement of a pro-suffrage stand, and a court ruling that the arrest and jailing 168 women's suffrage movement protesters the previous year had been illegal — the amendment fell just two votes short.

The amendment eventually did get enough congressional votes to pass on June 4, 1919. It then had to be ratified by 36 states before becoming law. Tennessee became the state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, and the 19th Amendment, also called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, became law on August 26 of the same year. The woman's suffrage association subsequently changed its name to the League of Women's Voters. In 1948, the United Nations gave women's suffrage the status of international law by adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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Discussion Comments
By Crispety — On Feb 19, 2011

Latte - Wow, I can’t believe that China granted voting rights to women before a country like Switzerland did.

That is really surprising. I also can’t believe that there had to be a distinction between men and women with respect for voting rights.

This also has me thinking about how we could have possibly made a distinction between blacks and whites. It is just incredible. The civil rights movement really took off in the sixties which was not too long ago.

Whatever happened to, "All men are created equal and are granted inalienable rights”? We have come a long way, but I think that all people should have been given the same rights from the onset.

By latte31 — On Feb 17, 2011

I think that it was amazing to think that it was only in the 20th century that women had the right to vote.

The international women’s suffrage timeline dates back to the 1800’s and New Zealand was the first county in the world to grant women the right to vote.

They did so in 1893, which was shortly followed by Australia in 1902. Norway followed in 1913 and Denmark and Iceland offered women the right to vote in 1915. Both the Netherlands and the Soviet Union granted women the right to vote in 1917, which was followed by Poland and Sweden in 1918.

Many of the other countries that offered women the right to vote were Cuba in 1934, Spain in 1931, France in 1944, Italy and Belgium in 1946, China in 1947, Uganda in 1958, Switzerland in 1971, and Kuwait in 2005. Many Middle-eastern countries still do not allow women to vote in their countries so the fact that Kuwait does is significant.

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