My Thoughts About the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Official program - Woman suffrage procession March 3, 1913 - crop

For today’s Write Anything Wednesday post, I just wanted to shoot from the hip a bit. I cannot make one of my posts like I did for Madam C.J. Walker or Sojourner Truth, but I am doing my own research with regards to feminism and the women’s suffrage movement.  And since today is International Women’s Day, I wanted to make a post about the women’s suffrage movement.

From what I’ve already read, the women’s suffrage movement alone was fairly complex. There were generally three phases of it and each had a “moderate” and “radical” faction. The part about the factions is what interested me the most.


What Caused the Splits in the Movement?

There were two notable splits in the women’s suffrage movement: one in 1869 and another in 1914.

The 1869 Split

When the women’s suffrage movement first split in 1869, two groups had already been formed: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association; Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell (her husband), and Julia Ward Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association.

The factions appeared due to another important aspect of the fight for women’s rights: how it intersected with the rights of African Americans. As I mentioned in my post about Sojourner Truth, there were fractures in the women’s rights movement based along race.

The women’s rights movement gained steam in the 1830’s and women made some gains in the 1850’s, but by the time the Civil War was fought, women’s rights took a back seat. In 1868 and 1870, the 14th and 15th Amendments were ratified, respectively, but both extended the voting rights of men. Unbeknownst to the women’s rights activists, it would take another 50 years since the ratification of the 15th Amendment for women to be granted the right to vote.

For a time, this angered women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The women one their side of the argument felt that there should be no right to vote for black men without women being granted the same right.

There were also middle class whites who helped them in the hopes that granting white women the right to vote would neutralize the vote of black men. And there were southern women in the overall movement who only wanted white women to vote.

Those on Lucy Stone’s side of the argument were more inclusive. They felt that black men should be given the right to vote. At the same time, they worked toward the goal of granting women the same right.

The 1914 Split

The split in 1914 was based on moderate and “radical” tactics to bring attention to the movement.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (then the combined organization of NWSA and AWSA) was the moderate side. Led by Carrie Chapman Catt, the NAWSA sought to win women the suffrage at the state level while also applying pressure on President Woodrow Wilson to push for a constitutional amendment.

The National Women’s Party (NWP) was led by Alice Paul. It was formed from what remained of the Congressional Union. The NWP employed “radical” tactics like picketing in front of the White House. Eventually, after alienating the NAWSA, the CU parted ways with the larger organization.

Paul had been in England from 1907-1910. She had first arrived in England to attend a training school for Quakers in Woodbridge. She stayed and eventually joined the Suffragettes, a group formed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters.

The Suffragettes were not averse to resorting to violence and vandalism and employed tactics like hunger strikes when its members were arrested. It was generally agreed that they did more harm than good.

Paul (and Lucy Burns, who Paul had met in England) took the tactics they learned from the suffragists and employed them in their protests. After World War I began, members of the NWP were arrested for “blocking traffic.” While in prison, a number of the women took part in a hunger strike. As they were force fed, they gained sympathy for their movement.


Where Would I Stand Where the Factions Were Concerned?

I would generally stand on Stone’s side of the argument as it pertains to the first factions. And I will admit that I might be biased as a black woman. And I think I could kinda see where women like Sojourner Truth were coming from.

To deny rights to one group in order to advance your own is like a betrayal. That is not to say that is what Cady Stanton and Anthony did, because their activism started with abolitionism. However, after the split of the women’s movement, they used racist elements to advance their cause.

In the case of the suffrage, it made sense to extend rights for all men, but it also made sense to work towards the women’s suffrage at the same time.

Another thing I liked about Stone & Co’s approach was how they developed a state-by-state strategy. They had little success, but it signified a multi-pronged approach.

I could also find things I like about Cady Stanton and Anthony’s approach. They focused on many other women’s issues besides the right to vote and they consistently lobbied the Congress to approve a constitutional amendment.

Both factions utilized their own press in order to educate people about the suffrage and to make a case for granting women the right to vote. The NWSA had The Revolution and the AWSA had The Women’s Journal.


What Lessons Can Be Learned from the Women’s Suffrage Movement?

Fairly quickly, I realized — and this was stated by the National Women’s History Museum in its Rights for Women exhibit — that the factions were needed in order for the overall movement to advance.

While the “radical” factions made the moderate factions look “more reasonable” but comparison, they were effective at bringing attention to the women’s suffrage movement as a whole. And the women who had been influenced by the Suffragettes in England ultimately used their treatment by authorities to win sympathy for their movement.

I would say that “radicals” are important for any movement, provided they are non-violent and refrain from destroying property. Sometimes, we need aggressive activists who make others uncomfortable and are willing to risk imprisonment. As they long as they remain non-violent, are organized, and make sure enough people are educated about their movement, members will gain sympathy and clout.

At the same time, we need people to form a rapport with officials in power in order to gain a wider audience.

Overall, I am a person who appreciates a holistic approach. When effecting change, all options need to be considered and the best ones should be employed simultaneously. These are lessons we can use today.

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