The 6th of February 1918 marks a pivotal date in British history as people across the country will rejoice in celebrating the centennial anniversary of the enfranchisement of women over the age of thirty being granted the right to vote. This important landmark in British history may have happened over three generations ago, but it is plain that the spirit of these women lives on in my generation all across the world. America in particular, presents an even larger stage for women’s rights and liberation with massive successes such as the recent internet sensation of the #metoo and #timesup campaign that raised worldwide awareness of sexual harassment and rape within Hollywood that gave women a safe space to air their experiences and receive the support they so desperately need and deserve. The Women’s Marchs’ in January that took place across America and Europe showed the strength and unity of society, as people from every background came together to celebrate the amazing past year of female empowerment. As the WU Hstry Blogs’ American Month begins, the celebration of the women’s movement in America seemed like a momentous occasion to begin with. Alongside the Women’s Movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century in Britain, America has experienced two waves of feminism and is currently revolutionising in its third. This post in particular will focus upon the first wave of feminism that America saw in their endeavour to gain female suffrage.
Going back to where it arguably all began in the nineteenth-century, the political factions that ultimately came together to fight for the right for women to vote in America are diverse in their aims, members and focuses. The first faction that advocated the fight for suffrage was the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) founded in 1866, that’s main purpose was to secure equal rights for all American citizens, regardless of race, colour or sex. The AERA was most known for its two campaigns in 1867 in New York City that collected petitions in favour of woman’s suffrage and the removal of property requirements that discriminated against black voters and in Kansas that campaigned for referenda that would enfranchise African Americans and women. However, both campaigns experienced backlash from abolitionists that believed securing enfranchisement for African American men should be the main priority. Ultimately, frictions within the organisation towards the fifteenth amendment would split the group in two.
Out of this split emerged two of the most prominent factions for suffrage; the more radical National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA).
NWSA was founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in opposition to the fifteenth amendment and adopted a constitution of five articles:
1. Stated the name of the organization of the National Woman Suffrage Association
2. Emphasized the object of the organization to secure the right to vote for women of the nation on equal terms with men ]
3. One dollar annual membership fee. Membership fees were mandatory for those who wanted to actively participate and vote within the national
4. Named the officers of the national to consist of president, a vice0president from each state and territory. Corresponding and recording secretaries, treasurer, and an executive committee of five or more member located in New York City, and an advisory council from each state and territory. Officers were to be chosen at each annual meeting of the national association
5. Addressed that all other women suffrage societies were welcome auxiliaries, and their officers would be recognised as members of the national association
The aim of the NSWA was to secure women’s enfranchisement through a federal constitutional amendment and acted as a platform in supporting individual liberties of women, focusing on social, economic and political issues. The NSWA pointed out that women were taxed without representation, governed without their consent and punished without a jury of their peers and as citizens, women has the right to suffrage. Stanton and Anthony were prepared to work with anybody no matter what their beliefs, as long as they championed women’s suffrage. This approach often led to people labelling them as radical, unorthodox and aggressive.
AWSA leaders were in support of the fifteenth amendment and were stanch abolitionists claiming that the amendment had less chance of passing in Congress if it included women. The AWSA was solely focused on the securing the vote and did not believe in campaigning for any other issues. In 1870, AWSA founded their own magazine Woman’s Journal by Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Browne Blackwell that refused to carry advertisement or tobacco, liquor or drugs, which would eventually merge with The Woman Voter, the official journal of the Women Suffrage Journal to become known as The Woman Citizen.
These groups however would reunite in 1890 top form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) that would grow from an educational group to a politically aware institution.
Other factions included the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), that created a more traditionally feminine and appropriate organisation for women to join to gain suffrage; the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC) which worked on issues of civil rights and injustices such as women’s suffrage, lynching and Jim crow laws, the Women’s
Bureau of the Department of Labour existed to Formulate standards and policies which promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase efficiency and advance their opportunities for profitable employment. The Congressional Union (CU) would emerge as a later, militant inspired faction led by Alice Paul, a former NAWSA member, and Lucy Burns. Both women spent time in England amongst the Pankhurst’s and were inspired by their methods, appealing more to younger women claiming that they should not have to beg for their rights.
Within British women’s history, examples of activism are a well-known factor of the suffragette movement with many viewing them as radical and unnecessary. Activism in the American Women’s Movement was arguably heavily influenced by women like Paul and Burns who has spent and extended amount of time in England and their experiences led to the adoption of protest methods that were increasingly public, encouraging women to engage with the man in the street through events such as parades. Paul followed the Pankhurst motto, “deeds, not words” and implemented what is now seen as the movements most radical strategies including picketing the white house and encouraging protest via hunger strikes with many viewing these protests during World War 1 as unpatriotic. The parade, as mentioned, brought to the U.S by suffragettes who had spent time in England and although some women chose to quit the movement rather than march in public, others embraced the parade as a way publicising their cause and combating the idea that women should be relegated to the home therefore uniting women of different social and economic backgrounds. Two of the most famous parades before women gained suffrage were in New York in 1912 and 1917, where thousands of women marched through the streets. The 1917 parade was largely more aimed at showing that patriotism of the suffragettes with banners displaying their support for their president along with over one million signatures of women in New York who wanted the suffrage referendum passed.
A theme that is possible to see throughout much of the latter struggle for female suffrage is the increasing influence from the British movement. Founded 1903 was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), which was controlled by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. The WSPU specialized in public campaigns, such as large parades, and aimed to publicize that the Liberal Party, ruling party in parliament, refused to allow a vote on the issue of women’s suffrage despite there being a majority of support in parliament. The “Cat and Mouse Act” was passed in an attempt to prevent suffragettes becoming martyrs in prison resulting in the release of those whose hunger strikes had caused them illness and re-imprisonment upon recovery. This however backfired and resulted in increased public support and awareness for the movement. Tactics used by the WSPU included shouting down speakers, hunger strikes, stone-throwing, window-smashing, arson of unoccupied churches and country houses, many of which were reflected by their American counterparts. However, it was argued through much of Britain that these aggressive strategies hindered the campaign more than helped and cast negative shadows upon those within the movement, setting it back rather than propelling it forward.
In August 1920, American women would be granted the right to suffrage with the nineteenth amendment granting them the right to vote and thus the first wave of feminism in America claimed their victory!
Feminism did not just stop there however, as the second wave would rise up with Betty Friedan and her bestselling book The Feminine Mystique that objected to the mainstream media image of women enforcing that the place of a woman was at home which limited their possibilities and wasted their potential; the nuclear family did not promote happiness and was degrading to women. Gloria Steinem’s diary describing her time as an undercover as a waitress at the playboy club raised allegations that the club was mistreating waitresses in order to gain male customers; exploiting the bunnies as symbols of male chauvinism; by 1968 Steinem was arguably the most influential figure in the movement and supported legalized abortion and free daycare. Influential writers would not be the only victory for women in the second wave as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 promoted female advancement and the momentum increased in the 1970’s; Family Planning Programmes came into effect, application of equal protection clause to 14th amendment to strike down laws that discriminated against women, education amendments 1972 amended the equal pay act to cover high up positions, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 illegalised sex discrimination in public schools and colleges, legalisation of birth control for unmarried people and criminalisation of marital rape to name just a few developments. The third wave of feminism began in the 1990s after the sexual harassment case of Anita Hill voted in favour of Clarence Thomas. Rebecca Walker wrote “I am not post-feminist feminist, I am the third-wave.” The aim of the third wave was to question, reclaim and redefine the ideas, words and media that transmit ideas about gender, sexuality, gender roles, womanhood and beauty with the emergence of new icons such as Lady Gaga, Queen Latifah and Emma Watson.
At this time, it is important to remember what the early suffragettes worked so hard to accomplish; give women the vote to give women a voice. With the world experiencing such
politically turbulent times, it’s vital that women express the voice that was given to them where and when they can, and to stand up for those who don’t have the same opportunities.
I truly believe the suffragettes would be proud to see how their legacy lives on.