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Women's Suffrage & Early Feminism: Movement, 19th Amendment & Leaders

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  • 0:05 Early Feminists Seek…
  • 1:26 Challenging Women's Role
  • 3:28 Fight for Women's Suffrage
  • 6:12 Passage of the 19th Amendment
  • 7:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

The women's suffrage movement became one of the most prominent areas of reform during the Progressive movement. Learn about the work of early feminists, changing roles of women and notable women suffrage leaders who pushed for women's right to vote.

Early Feminists Seek Equal Rights

In the 21st century, there is not much I can't achieve when compared to my male counterparts. For instance, I can obtain an education, work in a career of my choice and exercise my right to vote. However, for many years, women did not enjoy the same basic rights as men in the United States.

Many historians point to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as the start of the women's suffrage movement. Early feminist leaders brought attention to women's rights by calling for improved legal status, economic opportunity and the right to vote. Another early women's rights leader who challenged existing social norms and inequalities between the sexes was Susan B. Anthony.

Anthony and Stanton first proposed a national women's suffrage amendment granting women the right to vote in 1878. Lucy Stone worked at the state level using a state-by-state approach to achieve voting rights for women. But it was not until 1920 when the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and National Woman's Party (NWP) finally secured the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Let's take a look to see how the ladies made it happen.

Challenging Women's Role

First of all, women had to tackle long-held beliefs about proper roles for their gender. Historically speaking, men and women were seen to have separate spheres of influence. Men's roles were predominately as the head of the household and outside the home. Middle-class women's roles were almost exclusively within the home and focused on the family. Women who worked outside of the home were usually young, unmarried and employed as domestic help or as factory workers. Some educated women worked as teachers, nurses and librarians.

During the Progressive Era, women's clubs helped expand middle-class women's roles outside of the home. Initially concentrated on education and literacy, women's clubs began working to alleviate social problems. Women were key players in the push for prohibition (meaning outlawing the sale and consumption of alcohol), improved housing standards, regulations of the food and drug industry and government inspections of factories. The settlement house movement provided assistance to immigrant communities and led to the rise of social work.

Women's organizations supported laws regarding women and children, such as public assistance for mothers with dependent children and a minimum wage law for women and children. Some middle class women joined laborers to push for laws protecting workers. Women joined labor unions, held meetings, picketed and raised money to support their causes.

Women's activism during the Progressive Era was a way many women began to enter public life. The idea of separate spheres for men and women was challenged as women became more involved in civic matters. As women began to address social issues, it seemed natural to many women that they should be able to vote. Some women's suffrage supporters stressed that if women were granted the right to vote, they would bring a sort of moral uplift to the country. For example, they argued that women would likely vote for prohibition or laws aimed at stopping prostitution.

Fight for Women's Suffrage

By the turn of the century, only four western states allowed women full suffrage. So why exactly did women's suffrage take so long to achieve? As with many controversial political issues, there was substantial opposition. Anti-suffrage organizations, newspapers and petitions were formed to stop women's suffrage gains. Some upper-class women opposed the women's suffrage movement, arguing that women were encroaching on men's territory. The anti-suffrage movement contended that granting women the right to vote was challenging the 'natural order' of society, and they attempted to associate women's suffrage with compromised morals, even leading to neglect of children and divorce. The most significant resistance to women's suffrage came from the South and East.

In 1900, Susan B. Anthony retired from the leadership of NAWSA and Carrie Chapman Catt became the organization's new president. A skilled political organizer, Catt called for organization at the local levels, while retaining firm national control. NAWSA worked steadily to gain women suffrage state by state, and slowly but surely, additional states joined the women's suffrage ranks.

The suffragists used modern publicity tactics, such as newspaper advertisements, parades, banners, posters, catchy slogans and playing cards, promoting the suffrage agenda. In 1913, thousands of women marched in a national women's suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., on the day before President Wilson's inauguration. These efforts by suffragists created hype around the movement.

Speaking of hype, let's talk about the more militant side of the women's suffrage movement. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns had spent time in Britain observing the women's suffrage movement and brought back to the States some of the militant tactics used over there. Upon their return, the women served on NAWSA's Congressional Committee, whose main purpose was to lobby Congress for a national suffrage amendment. Paul and Burns went on to form the National Woman's Party (NWP).

The NWP was more confrontational than NAWSA. Some of these tactics used by Paul and her followers included aggressive lobbying of government officials, civil disobedience, picketing the White House during wartime, demonstrations and even hunger strikes. Many members of the NWP were arrested and imprisoned. Some were even force fed to end hunger strikes. While not all of these tactics may seem extreme today, these activities were shocking and brought increased attention to the women's suffrage movement.

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