A Short History of the American Woman Suffrage Movement

Origins (1830s-1860s)

The women’s rights movement grew out of the anti-slavery movement. Within abolitionist groups like the American Anti-Slavery Society, women often took active roles, and in turn, some of it leaders supported their causes, chief among them suffrage. Voting was the first among the women’s rights laid out in the Declaration of Sentiments emerging from the 1848 Seneca Falls convention — it was seen as the necessary first step to gaining other rights.

As the anti-slavery movement involved African American activists, so did the early woman suffrage movement. Many were among the regular speakers at the National Women’s Rights Conventions held in the 1850s across the northeast, helping solidify the movement’s central tenets.

Split (1870s-1880s)

After most suffrage activity was paused for the Civil War, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), the first woman suffrage organization in the U.S., was formed in 1866. However, in 1869 it dissolved over disagreements about the Fifteenth Amendment, which would ensure voting rights for ex-slaves and other African Americans.

The faction led by Lucy Stone was still in sympathy with the abolitionist movement and content to help Black men gain suffrage without pressing for women’s suffrage. It became the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). It remained tied to the Republican party, was more conservative in tactics, and focused on suffrage only. 

The other faction, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, became the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). It was independent, confrontational, and considered voting among a range of women’s rights issues.

Though AWSA was more popular early on, NWSA eventually drove the movement. Importantly, it also wrote the movement’s history, which is likely why Stanton and Anthony are household names, but Stone and Blackwell (her husband) not.

One seminal figure from this era wasn’t part of the organizational machine. Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for President of the United States, representing the Equal Rights Party in 1872. A longtime proponent of free love and women’s rights in general, she worked as a stockbroker and founded a newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, with her sister in 1870. She was a controversial figure for her radical politics and embrace of spiritualism, but she remains a powerful symbol of the early movement.

Reunion (1890s-1910s)

The two strands of the movement were woven back together in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), in part thanks to the intervention of the daughters of Stone and Stanton. Anthony had also grown more conservative over the years and was receptive to focusing on just suffrage as well as campaigning on the state level rather than putting all the group’s effort into a national amendment. This new organization, led in the 20th century by Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw, did, however, eventually focus on federal-level change.

The Race Question

From early on, NAWSA faced a particular challenge: bringing Southern whites, generally more conservative, into the fold.  It became increasingly willing to focus on white woman suffrage and to tolerate white supremacist arguments in its favor.

Black women were left to advocate for themselves, through African American woman suffrage organizations like Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s Alpha Suffrage Club (Chicago) and Sarah J. Garnet’s Equal Suffrage League (Brooklyn), but more often through civic groups like the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). 

Ironically, this kind of racism did not stop some Southern white women from breaking away anyway. Those who were still unwilling to join the national organization because it was campaigning for top-down change through a federal amendment formed the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference in 1913.

The Methods Question

Some within the suffrage movement felt parades and pleading were not enough. A group led by Lucy Burns and Alice Paul essentially took over NAWSA’s Congressional Committee in 1913. After being ejected from the organization, the group continued to evolve, ultimately spawning the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916.

The NWP was influenced by the U.K.’s radical woman suffrage group, Women’s Social and Political Union, whose members took direct action and were prepared to break laws and be arrested in pursuit of their rights.

Transformation (1920s)

Once women gained suffrage rights with the Nineteenth Amendment, certified as law in late August 1920, there was no need for woman suffrage organizations. But the need to educate women voters and advocate for their rights had just begun.

The NWP continued its work, now lobbying for an Equal Rights Amendment. This amendment was passed by both houses of Congress in 1972 but failed to be ratified by enough states. However, the NWP managed to get provisions protecting gender into other major legislation, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the middle of the ratification fight, NAWSA merged with the National Council of Women Voters (founded by Emma Smith DeVoe in 1911) to form the League of Women Voters. The organization was part of the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, and it was later instrumental in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

From Suffrage to Voting Rights (1920s-1960s)

Until the Civil Rights gains of the 1960s, especially the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black women were still regularly disenfranchised in the South. They continued to fight alongside Black men to use the suffrage rights already granted to them by not one but now two federal amendments.

Digital Exhibits & Further Reading


19th Amendment (National Park Service)

The 19th Amendment: 100 Years (Women’s Rights National Historic Park)

2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative

Crusade for the Vote (National Women’s History Museum)

The First Women in Congress (United States House of Representatives History, Art & Archives)

For Democracy: Celebrating 100 Years of the 19th Amendment (Alice Paul Institute)

Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote (National Archives Museum)

Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote (Library of Congress)

The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony: Not For Ourselves Alone (PBS)

Turning Point Suffragist Memorial

Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence (National Portrait Gallery)

Woman Suffrage Centennial (United States Senate)

Women Suffrage and the 19th Amendment (National Archives)

Women’s Suffrage (National WWI Museum & Memorial)

Militant Woman Suffrage

Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party (Library of Congress)

Susan Goodier, “Flexing Feminine Muscles: Strategies and Conflicts in the Suffrage Movement,” Series: The 19th Amendment and Women’s Access to the Vote Across America, National Park Service

Race & Woman Suffrage

Suffrage in America: The 15th and 19th Amendments (National Park Service)

Martha S. Jones, “How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect,” Humanities 40, no. 3 (2019)

Sharon Harley, “African American Women and the Nineteenth Amendment,” Series: The 19th Amendment and Women’s Access to the Vote Across America, National Park Service

Woman Suffrage in the South / Alabama

Sarah H. Case, “Woman Suffrage in the Southern States,” Series: The 19th Amendment and Women’s Access to the Vote Across America, National Park Service

Alabama Women’s Suffrage Centennial

Women’s Suffrage (Alabama Bicentennial Commission)

Women’s Suffrage History (Alabama State Bar)

Carla Davis, “History Professor Looks Back on Four Alabama Suffrage Leaders and Their Fight for the Vote,” Alabama News Center, March 3, 2020

Scholarly Sources in Print

Elna C. Green, Southern Strategies : Southern Women and the Woman Suffrage Question (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

Marjorie Julian Spruill, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Mary Martha Thomas, The New Woman in Alabama : Social Reforms, and Suffrage, 1890-1920. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1992).

Wayne Flynt, “On and off the Pedestal: Women,” Alabama in the Twentieth Century (Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2004), pg. 251-316.

Wayne Flint and Marlene Hunt Rickard, “Pattie Ruffner Jacobs: Personal Anxiety / Political Triumph,” Alabama Women: Their Lives and Times, edited by Susan Youngblood Ashmore and Lisa Lindquist Dorr (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2017), pg. 145-163.