The problem with white feminism is that it forgets that any real progress in America depends on weakening racism for racism keeps America politically conservative. White women are too much like white men. In fact, nothing disproved more the fears of conservative opponents of woman suffrage than the actual voting behavior of white women, whose votes are virtually indistinguishable from those of white men. Anti-racists cannot look to white feminism in its current forms as a source of much support for changing racist America. White feminist leaders are promoting the just interests of women, but like all American reform movements, the reform has to be seen within the context of equality-of-opportunity racism. Everyone should recognize that white racism will keep both black men and women economically deprived. (Ironically, the concern with feminism has made many forget that the most discriminated against group in America is black males, followed by black females.)

The gaining of the vote for women was an extension of the larger Progressive movement. Therefore, there was no separate middle-class squeeze regarding the woman's issue. In the area of ideas, women used the ideology of reform Lamarckianism, the same idea system employed by other Progressive thinkers. The fact that the extension of equality to women was an adjunct of a larger Progressive movement illustrates that both race and class are more influential factors than sex in determining the distribution of wealth and political power in America. (This in no way detracts from the importance of women gaining the right to vote.)



The number of women involved in the labor force increased slowly but steadily. In 1880, 2.6 million women were employed. In just ten years this grew to 4 million and then to 7.4 million by 1910 (Flexner 1975:197, 236). Many of these jobs were in the lowest- paying areas of the workforce, however, especially in the service sector. Another force working for greater equality of women was the scarcity of women in the far west of the United States. Males largely settled these areas, and in order to attract women to them, a number of western states passed woman suffrage.


American women obtained the right to vote in 1920. This was no easy struggle; the Woman's Rights party was established in 1848. Outstanding workers in the early movement included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. The Civil War slowed the women's movement as both men and women turned to face the slavery issue. After the war, women were not included in those entitled to the right to vote in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the women being consoled with the statement: "This is the Negro's hour."

Following the end of the war, the women's movement split into two groups. In 1869 Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony created the National Woman Suffrage Association. Later in the same year a second organization, called the American Woman Suffrage Association (the two are subsequently referred to as the "National" and the "American") came into being. The leaders of the latter organization were Lucy Stone, the Beecher clan (including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), and Julia Ward Howe (author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"). The two organizations had very different strategies. The National pushed for passage of a woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution, while the American concentrated its efforts on getting state legislatures to grant women the vote.

Neither strategy was very effective given the resistance of male voters (Flexner 1975: chap. 22). Those opposed to woman suffrage argued that giving women the vote would destroy the family, as women would be placed in an adversarial relation to men. The opponents thought women would vote differently from men, as if sex was a more important electoral influence than racial-ethnic, economic, and sectional divisions. Other negative arguments were that women were intellectually inferior to men and that women did not have the time to pay attention to politics because of their maternal and housewife duties. The South was especially afraid that black women would get the vote, for this might lead to black males regaining their electoral rights.


Formation of the National-American

The two women's organizations merged in 1890, the new organization being called the National-American Woman Suffrage Association. Even though Stanton was the first president (1890-1900), more conservative leaders dominated the new organization and it followed a state-by-state strategy.

In 1900 Carie Chapman Catt became president of the organization. When her husband became ill in 1904, she resigned her office in order to take him abroad. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, Susan B. Anthony's assistant and friend, assumed the presidency. Dr. Shaw took offense at many of the suggestions of the state organizations, which hurt her popularity and effectiveness. The movement settled into a respectable dullness, and at least for the moment, woman suffrage seemed to have reached a dead-end.

Renewal from Abroad -- The Women's Political Union

The atmosphere for woman suffrage became more favorable with the coming of the Progressive era. But the immediate impetus for renewed vigor in the woman suffrage movement came from Great Britain. In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst, widow of a prominent Manchester barrister, started the Women's Social and Political Union. She used more direct means, such as rallies, marches, and disorderly conduct, to confront the political opponents of suffrage. This gave her movement a great deal of visibility, which could not be ignored by the political parties.

The news from abroad caused hopes to rise in the faltering American movement. In 1907 Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, created the Equality League of Self- Supporting Women, later called the Women's Political Union. The new organization committed itself to reaching out to working-class women and using the more dramatic methods employed by English suffragettes. Two women of high Society also became active in the women's movement. Alva Belmont went to London for pointers and returned to form her own Political Equality Association, while Mrs. Mackay set up the Equal Franchise Society. These women poured money and energy into the movement for the vote.

The credit for initiating a series of parades that brought the suffrage issue to the nation's attention goes to Blatch's organization. In 1910 the Women's Political Union announced a large parade down New York's Fifth Avenue. Belmont and Mackay thought this too radical an idea and bowed out, the former announcing that "ill health" prevented her from participating. With only a few hundred marchers, the demonstration was a disappointment. Adding to the letdown, the march leaders used automobiles to whisk down the avenue in what observers described as a "yellow blur" (yellow being the color of the movement). Not discouraged, the women tried again the next year, and this time about three thousand women marched. Subsequently, a group of ten thousand gathered for a meeting in Union Square.

The Woman Suffrage Party

Carie Chapman Catt returned from Europe. She thought the methods of the Women's Political Union so strident that they would create an extremist movement for suffrage. By 1911, she started a countermovement, forming in New York City the Woman Suffrage party. According to Coolidge (1966:104), this was the first systematic attempt to conquer a major city for suffrage. The strategy soon spread to other cities.

Just a few weeks before the 1912 march down New York City's Fifth Avenue, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. Many people called for a delay of the march (see Lord, 1960:254), thinking it was too early to march in the face of what both men and women declared was the great chivalry of the men of the doomed ship in sacrificing themselves to save more of the women. Nevertheless, on May 4, fifteen thousand paraders marched down the avenue. And this time both Belmont and Mackay participated. Much to the paraders' surprise, above the taunts of a few, they heard unaccustomed sounds of cheering.

Resistance To and Support For Woman Suffrage

Much of the resistance to woman suffrage varied by region. The South, with its conservative tradition and fear of blacks, heavily opposed it. In the Middle West a great deal of opposition came from the brewing industry, which feared that women would support Prohibition (Coolidge 1966:109). Since the 1880s the industry had started taxing beer and hard liquor in order to build a defense fund against prohibition. Using the cover of a German-American association, the brewers spent considerable sums in state legislatures to bribe or influence votes against woman suffrage. Lastly, eastern opposition came from industrial and business sources. Women in public life had worked hard for social betterment, and many industry leaders saw women as impractical idealists who would threaten prosperity by spreading ideas such as workers' rights.

The West was much more amenable to woman suffrage. Wyoming Territory had passed woman suffrage in the 1860s. In 1890 the territory gained admission to the union as the first woman suffrage state. In 1893 Colorado also became a woman suffrage state. Three years later, Idaho and Utah joined the group.

The growth of insurgent, reform-minded Progressive parties in mid-western and far western states was a factor in winning a number of state suffrage referendums. Washington passed woman suffrage in 1910. A California election passed woman suffrage the next year. In 1912, referendums for woman suffrage passed in Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon. This success in the West breathed life into the strategy of a state-by-state campaign. But these successes actually created a backlash, as opponents of woman suffrage vowed they would not again be caught napping. Disillusionment set into the women's movement as the state strategy fizzled. Two more states had granted suffrage by the end of 1912 making a total of eight; however, these states were not very important electorally and were all in the far west.

Many blacks had supported woman suffrage. Among those working for womens' rights were Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Despite this, white suffragettes largely agreed with the prevalent racism of the time and sought to "win woman suffrage through demonstrating their allegiance to white supremacy" (Allen 1974:128).


We have covered the overall roles of Congress and the Supreme Court in the previous chapter on Progressive reforms. Not surprisingly, neither Congress nor the Supreme Court took any major actions to push for woman suffrage.


A strong president is necessary in order to push through increases in equality. Fortunately for the women's movement, this occurred via the election of Woodrow Wilson. At first, the new president did not support woman suffrage. But when forcefully confronted with the issue, Wilson's idealism and commitment to the equality principle caused him to call for a woman suffrage amendment.

Again Renewal from Europe

Once again, a ray of hope for the women's movement came from England. While studying abroad for her doctorate in one of the social sciences, Alice Paul joined the suffragette movement and suffered the humiliations of jail and forced feedings. While in the movement, she met a fellow American, Lucy Burns, a Vassar graduate originally from Brooklyn. The two women established a solid friendship that enabled them to form a successful team similar to the one created by Stanton and Anthony. What they learned from the English suffragettes helped breathe life into the American movement for a federal woman suffrage amendment. In 1913, Paul and Burns, with the blessings of Dr. Shaw, formed the Congressional Union as an associate organization of the National-American. Its sole task was to work for passage of the federal suffrage amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment.

The two leaders moved to Washington, D.C., in order to organize the national thrust. The day before Wilson's inauguration, Paul led a march of five thousand demonstrators in the nation's capital. Opponents of the demonstration started heckling the women. This soon degenerated into spitting at, slapping, and tripping the marchers. A virtual riot broke out, and troops from Fort Knox had to be called in to restore order.

President Wilson was curious about all the hullabaloo. Ms. Paul asked him about his attitude toward the issue. When he said it had never been brought to his attention, she vowed to keep the pressure on the president and besieged him with all manner of visitors and other supporters for woman suffrage.

When the Democratic Congress and the president failed to push for the amendment, Paul vowed to work for the defeat of the Democrats. This caused a split in the movement with Paul organizing the Woman's party. Alva Belmont gave the new group a great deal of monetary support. This enabled them to establish a headquarters very close to the White House in order to pressure the president.

The Winning Strategy -- Carrie Chapman Catt Becomes President Again

Morale in the National-American never seemed lower. The state campaigns had not produced victory, and the future looked dim. In desperation, the organization finally asked Dr. Shaw to step down. The members then turned to Carrie Chapman Catt. In 1915 she became president of the National-American. In this position, she pushed through a renewed focus on the federal amendment, while still applying pressure on state legislatures. Another state victory came when New York state adopted woman suffrage. Fortunately for the woman suffrage movement, the brewing industry suddenly became less of an opponent. A national Prohibition amendment came to the fore, and the liquor interests turned to fight it.

The 1916 Election

In the 1916 election campaign woman suffrage was such a hot issue that the candidates had to take positions. Republican candidate Hughes endorsed the amendment, but the Republican party, although favoring suffrage, decided that such endorsement should come from the states. Coolidge (1966:139) writes that the Democrats were divided by the South. That region still looked on suffrage as a northern cause, connected in the past with antislavery and forming part of the changes by which the North was still attempting to reconstruct the South. President Wilson would not commit himself, saying that women should work for passage state by state. So Paul's organization decided to work against Wilson in the suffrage states. In 1917 women from the association started picketing the White House. They kept picketing despite America's entry into World War I, the attack of "patriotic" war supporters, arrests, and imprisonment. Even Burns and Paul found themselves in prison. The picketers persisted and, eventually, the police gave in and left the women alone.

Wars have a way of putting reform issues on the back burner. This was no less true of World War I. However, during the war, the National-American had so wholeheartedly supported women's entrance into the labor force and encouraged women's war work, that the nation had to be grateful. Moreover, the thousands of new women in the work force also began to make an impression. The 1917 New York parade for woman suffrage was smaller than that of 1915, but the sight of working women in their various work uniforms was an inspiring sight. In December 1917 Burns and Paul gained their release from prison. Great news awaited them. President Wilson had changed his mind and now favored the woman suffrage amendment.

Passage of Woman Suffrage in the House, But Defeat in the Senate

Momentum was building for the amendment. North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Michigan gave women the vote in presidential elections, while Arkansas granted it in primaries. Then in January 1918 the Anthony suffrage amendment passed the House with exactly the two-thirds majority required to pass a constitutional amendment. The bulk of the no votes came from the South and the industrial states of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio. The vote cut across party lines, but the Republicans voted for it in greater proportion.

In August the Woman's Party began a fresh series of demonstrations opposite the White House. Wilson was by now a complete convert to the cause, but the women still wanted more support from him despite his assurances that he would do all he could to assist the passage of the amendment. Frankly, the women's demonstrations were embarrassing the president. He talked about a just peace and democracy, and yet the women in his own country did not have democracy. Germany was on the point of passing woman suffrage, Canada already possessed it, and England promised it after the war. Wilson told the Senate that the amendment was necessary both for the prosecution of the war and for a just peace. Prior to sailing for Europe, President Wilson made another demand for suffrage before a joint session of Congress. The amendment failed to pass the Senate in February 1919.

Final Victory

In May 1919 Wilson called into special session the Sixty-sixth Congress. By an overwhelming majority, the House passed the amendment again, this time in less than a week. In June 1919 sixty-six senators voted for the amendment, two more than needed for passage. The amendment then went to the states for ratification. Woman suffrage was finally ratified on August 18, 1920.


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