The History of Womens’ History Month

Courtney Messersmith

The first calls for women’s suffrage came from a meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848. This conference set off more than seventy years of organizing, parading, fundraising, advertising, and petitioning until Congress and three-quarters of state legislatures passed the 19th amendment, safeguarding this privilege. After the 19th Amendment was enacted in 1920, women continued to fight for equality using the skills they had developed during the Suffrage movement.

The 19th Amendment was the consequence of centuries of struggle, culminating in a burst of public action and civil disobedience in the late nineteenth century that not only secured women’s voting rights, but also helped define new possibilities for women’s engagement in the public.

Women in New Jersey were allowed to vote legally early in the country’s history, as long as they met certain property criteria. In 1807, however, the State Assembly passed a legislation restricting suffrage to free white women. They would not get the ability to vote again until 1869, when the Wyoming Territory granted women over 21 years of age the right to vote in all elections.

In 1848, Seneca Falls, New York, at the aforementioned first big gathering of feminists the crafting and signing of the Declaration of Sentiments took place.  A declaration of women’s civil, social, political, and religious rights based after the Declaration of Independence was one of the convention’s many outcomes. Plenty of the Declaration’s signers, such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, went on to head a new generation of suffragists.

In addition to suffrage activities, suffrage activists were involved in other progressive initiatives before and after the Seneca Falls assembly. Susan B. Anthony was a well-known abolitionist as well as an outspoken activist for women’s suffrage. Anthony and other suffragists began their careers as anti-slavery speakers. Suffragists were also engaged in the temperance movement and the fashion reform movement. In addition, Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw suffrage as a way for women to have more equal marriages by allowing them to divorce and own property. For suffragists, all of these causes are intertwined. With the right to vote came extraordinary potential to influence change on these other social issues.

Supporters of universal suffrage used a variety of tactics in addition to forming formal suffrage groups and gathering at conventions and meetings. Suffrage campaigners used traditional strategies like lobbying lawmakers and later more radical — for the time — tactics like public picketing and refusing bail after detention to exercise their First Amendment rights to “peaceably assemble” and “petition for a government redress of grievances.” Individuals and groups established magazines such as The Revolution, a feminist publication that also covered politics and the labor movement. Activists campaigned in “unladylike” tactics, such as marching in parades and giving speeches on the street corners. Regular picketing of the White House was one extreme technique that had never been done before. Protesters hoisted banners accusing President Wilson of being an anti-suffrage opponent. The arrests that followed only served to draw attention to the suffrage cause. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, many women entered the workforce, escalating the campaign for suffrage rights.

Despite the fact that women’s right to vote was protected by a constitutional amendment in 1920, the suffragists’ legacy lives on today. Women founded national political organizations, developed new protest techniques, and drew women into the public sphere in new and more prominent ways in the fight for the right to vote. These achievements were not confined to their work for enfranchisement; they also created the foundation for civic engagement that has been copied by people working on other civil rights issues.