Despite the American Revolution preparing the grounds for women’s participation in the government, the 1787 US Constitution and the subsequent first ten amendments including the Bill of Rights in 1789 were ambivalent about women’s rights.Judith Sargent Murray (17511820) and Abigail Adams (17441818), wife of John Adams, the second President of the US played a crucial role in analysing the women’s question in the 1790s. Abigail, through her letters to her husband and other leaders between 1775 and 1776, titled ‘Remember the Ladies’ pointed out that the laws of the new nation ought to protect women from the arbitrary and unrestrained powers of men. However,
the right to vote was not on their agenda.
The Constitution framers had left the decision to the people of each state to decide the eligibility of who would vote for the lower house of their state legislatures.
By 1821, most states except two, gave all white males the right to vote. As in Britain, even in the US, constitutional liberalism was restrictive, and it took over 100 years for these to become liberal democracies.
The Abolitionist movement from the 1820s gave rise to women’s struggle for rights including suffrage. Women actively participated in Abolitionism enabling them to acquire skills in petitioning, public speaking, writing editorials, campaigning and the like. For the first time, they stepped outside their homes. A parallel between their subjugation and that of the enslavement of blacks became evident. The men who opposed Abolitionism also opposed women’s rights.
“The two movements”, according to Stansell “remained strong throughout the antebellum period”. Other than the right to vote, the women’s rights movement in the early years focussed on equal access to education and employment, equality within marriage and a married woman’s right to her own property and wages, custody over her children in case of separation or divorce and control over her own body.
On being barred from attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), Mary M’Clintock (1800-84), Martha Coffin Wright (1806-75), Jane Hunt (1812-89) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) decided to hold a Women’s Convention in the US. Except for Stanton, the other four were seasoned veterans of the Female Anti-Slavery Society activism.
The first Women’s Right Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Its Declaration of Sentiments paraphrasing the American Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal”. It enumerated 18 grievances against men’s rule over women: denial of franchise, lack of property rights to married women and lack of legal personality for women. “The movement was never about just the vote; nor was it a single movement” according to Susan R. Wagner.
Women’s rights activists changed their stance during the debate that arose at the end of the Civil War over the 14th (1868) and 15th (1870) Amendments which granted citizenship and suffrage to African American men. Stanton, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) and many others campaigned against any suffrage amendment that excluded women while Lucy Stone (1818-93), Antionette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921), Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) and Frederick Douglass (1818-95) argued that this was “the Negro’s hour’ and that women’s suffrage
In response, Stanton and Anthony split the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) which was established in 1866 to fight for equality for all African Americans and women and founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 consisting of only women. They warned
against African- American men securing the right to vote as they feared postponement of women’s suffrage. Besides the demand for suffrage, the NWSA pressed for easy divorce and to end discrimination in employment and pay. It refused to work for the ratification of the 15th Amendment and began to advocate for a 16th Amendment that would grant universal suffrage.
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927) was the first woman to run for the presidency on behalf of the Equal Rights Party. In the same year, Anthony was arrested for voting in violation of laws permitting only men to do so. ‘Aunt Susan’ as she was referred to drew widespread applause for her defiant act and became an inspiration for many younger women. She is being pardoned by President Trump as part of the centennial celebrations this year. Along with Matilda Joslyn Gage (1828-98), Anthony also disrupted the official Centennial programme in 1876 at the Independence Hall in Philadelphia and presented A Declaration of Rights for Women.
In 1890, NWSA and AWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to present a united front to secure women’s suffrage at the state level. Stanton was the first president, but the NAWSA distanced itself from her following the publication of her The Woman’s Bible (1895-98) as it was radical and hence potentially damaging to the suffrage campaign.
In 1913, NAWSA suffragists organized a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC, the first of its kind. In 1915, 40,000 women marched in a NYC suffrage parade. In 1916, the National Women’s Party was established, patterning itself after Britain’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In 1916, Jennette Rankin (1880-1973) of Montana becme the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson lent his support for a federal women’s suffrage amendment and addressed the Senate about granting women suffrage at the end of World War I. In 1919, the Senate passed the 19th Amendment setting in motion the ratification process and finally on 26 August 1920 ~ 100 years ago ~ with three quarters of state legislatures ratifying the amendment, American women secured full voting rights.Women secured the vote in Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893) Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), Oregon (1912), Kansas (1912), Arizona (1912), Nevada (1914), Montana (1914), New York (1917), Michigan (1918), South Dakota (1918) and Oklahoma (1918).
The centennial celebrations will remain incomplete if the role of African American women in the suffrage movement is not acknowledged and rectified. The influential six volume magnus opus entitled The History of Women’s Suffrage (1876-85) written by Stanton, Anthony, Gage, Harriet Stanton Blatch (18561940) and Ida Husted Harper (1851-1931) ignored them completely. A few notable ones are Maria Stewart (1803-79) the first to espouse women’s rights and a pioneer in the same league as Mott, Stanton and Anthony. She wrote for the Abolitionist newspaper The Liberator.
Stewart pleaded in 1831 for the cessation of prejudices and animosities among women. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) delivered her memorable speech Ain’t I a Woman at the second National Women’s Rights convention in 1851 by focusing on intersectionality between gender and race. Frances Harper (1825-1911) explained the double burden of racism and sexism faced by African American women. She remarked in 1866 that she spoke of wrongs while the White women spoke of rights and did not prioritize racial equality in the fight for suffrage when the suffrage movement split over the 15th Amendment. She and Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964) campaigned against the prevailing
racism in the movement. As women’s cause was universal, she emphasized on the experiences of African American women as being different from their male counterparts.
Ida B. Wells Bennett (18621931), organizer of the Alpha Suffrage Club and her contingent were told to march separately at the end in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington DC. Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), professor and principal at Wilberforce University, the first African American woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895 co-founded the National Association of Colored Women with a motto “Lifting as we climb”. She persuaded the men from her community to support their cause after Alice Paul’s (1885-1977) attempt to marginalize them. She observed “The same arguments used to prove that the ballot be withheld from women are advanced to prove that coloured men should not be allowed to vote. Other African American suffragists and abolitionists were Margaretta Forten (1806-75), Harriet Forten Purvis (1810-75) and Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-93). “Racism” according to Wagner “was a way to maintain white, native-born supremacy since white women outnumbered African Americans and immigrants”.
It is often argued that the success of the American Revolution was primarily because its ambit was restricted to the political alone. Eighteenth century liberalism despite imbibing the spirit of the Enlightenment was essentially White male-centric denying women their rightful place as equal and free individuals. It took over a century to rectify this incompleteness with the 19th Amendment that granted one person one vote.
Despite this, the male-centred nature of US politics continues.
Women still have not made it to the top elected office though there was a presidential candidate in 2016 and a vice-presidential one now. Men continue
to have a disproportionate share in the political process putting the US far behind not only the Scandinavian countries but also some of the developing countries of South Asia and Africa.
The writer is Associate Professor of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi