The Fight for Women’s Rights


At the time of the American Revolution, women had few rights. Although single women were allowed to own property, married women were not. When women married, their separate legal identities were erased under the legal principle of coverture. Not only did women adopt their husbands’ names, but all personal property they owned legally became their husbands’ property. Husbands could not sell their wives’ real property—such as land or in some states slaves—without their permission, but they were allowed to manage it and retain the profits. If women worked outside the home, their husbands were entitled to their wages.Mary Beth Norton. 1980. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 46. So long as a man provided food, clothing, and shelter for his wife, she was not legally allowed to leave him. Divorce was difficult and in some places impossible to obtain.Ibid., 47. Higher education for women was not available, and women were barred from professional positions in medicine, law, and ministry.

Following the Revolution, women’s conditions did not improve. Women were not granted the right to vote by any of the states except New Jersey, which at first allowed all taxpaying property owners to vote. However, in 1807, the law changed to limit the vote to men.Jan Ellen Lewis. 2011. “Rethinking Women’s Suffrage in New Jersey, 1776–1807,” Rutgers Law Review 63, No. 3, Changes in property laws actually hurt women by making it easier for their husbands to sell their real property without their consent.

Although women had few rights, they nevertheless played an important role in transforming American society. This was especially true in the 1830s and 1840s, a time when numerous social reform movements swept across the United States. Many women were active in these causes, especially the abolition movement and the temperance movement, which tried to end the excessive consumption of liquor. They often found they were hindered in their efforts, however, either by the law or by widely held beliefs that they were weak, silly creatures who should leave important issues to men.Keyssar, 174. One of the leaders of the early women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Figure), was shocked and angered when she sought to attend an 1840 antislavery meeting in London, only to learn that women would not be allowed to participate and had to sit apart from the men. At this convention, she made the acquaintance of another American female abolitionist, Lucretia Mott (Figure), who was also appalled by the male reformers’ treatment of women.Elizabeth Cady Stanton. 1993. Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences, 1815–1897. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 148.

Image A is of Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her arms around two children who are seated on her lap. Image B is of Lucretia Mott standing with arms crossed.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a) and Lucretia Mott (b) both emerged from the abolitionist movement as strong advocates of women’s rights.

In 1848, Stanton and Mott called for a women’s rights convention, the first ever held specifically to address the subject, at Seneca Falls, New York. At the Seneca Falls Convention, Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence and proclaimed women were equal to men and deserved the same rights. Among the rights Stanton wished to see granted to women was suffrage, the right to vote. When called upon to sign the Declaration, many of the delegates feared that if women demanded the right to vote, the movement would be considered too radical and its members would become a laughingstock. The Declaration passed, but the resolution demanding suffrage was the only one that did not pass unanimously.Elizabeth Cady Stanton et al. 1887. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 73.

Along with other feminists (advocates of women’s equality), such as her friend and colleague Susan B. Anthony, Stanton fought for rights for women besides suffrage, including the right to seek higher education. As a result of their efforts, several states passed laws that allowed married women to retain control of their property and let divorced women keep custody of their children.Jean H. Baker. 2005. Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists. New York: Hill and Wang, 109. Amelia Bloomer, another activist, also campaigned for dress reform, believing women could lead better lives and be more useful to society if they were not restricted by voluminous heavy skirts and tight corsets.

The women’s rights movement attracted many women who, like Stanton and Anthony, were active in either the temperance movement, the abolition movement, or both movements. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, the daughters of a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, became first abolitionists and then women’s rights activists.Angelina Grimke. October 2, 1837. “Letter XII Human Rights Not Founded on Sex.” In Letters to Catherine E. Beecher: In Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism. Boston: Knapp, 114–121. Many of these women realized that their effectiveness as reformers was limited by laws that prohibited married women from signing contracts and by social proscriptions against women addressing male audiences. Without such rights, women found it difficult to rent halls in which to deliver lectures or to hire printers to produce antislavery literature.

Following the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the women’s rights movement fragmented. Stanton and Anthony denounced the Fifteenth Amendment because it granted voting rights only to black men and not to women of any race.Keyssar, 178. The fight for women’s rights did not die, however. In 1869, Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which demanded that the Constitution be amended to grant the right to vote to all women. It also called for more lenient divorce laws and an end to sex discrimination in employment. The less radical Lucy Stone formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in the same year; AWSA hoped to win the suffrage for women by working on a state-by-state basis instead of seeking to amend the Constitution.Keyssar, 184. Four western states—Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho—did extend the right to vote to women in the late nineteenth century, but no other states did.

Women were also granted the right to vote on matters involving liquor licenses, in school board elections, and in municipal elections in several states. However, this was often done because of stereotyped beliefs that associated women with moral reform and concern for children, not as a result of a belief in women’s equality. Furthermore, voting in municipal elections was restricted to women who owned property.Keyssar, 175, 186–187. In 1890, the two suffragist groups united to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). To call attention to their cause, members circulated petitions, lobbied politicians, and held parades in which hundreds of women and girls marched through the streets (Figure).

An image of a group of people marching down a street. Several pairs of people are carrying large signs between them. On both sides of the street is a crowd of observers.
In October 1917, suffragists marched down Fifth Avenue in New York demanding the right to vote. They carried a petition that had been signed by one million women.

The more radical National Woman’s Party (NWP), led by Alice Paul, advocated the use of stronger tactics. The NWP held public protests and picketed outside the White House (Figure).Keyssar, 214. Demonstrators were often beaten and arrested, and suffragists were subjected to cruel treatment in jail. When some, like Paul, began hunger strikes to call attention to their cause, their jailers force-fed them, an incredibly painful and invasive experience for the women.“Alice Paul,” (April 10, 2016). Finally, in 1920, the triumphant passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granted all women the right to vote.

An image of several people standing in front of a fence. Some people are holding banners. The banners read “Mr. President how long must women wait for liberty” and “Mr. President what will you do for woman sufferage”.
Members of the National Woman’s Party picketed outside the White House six days a week from January 10, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson took office, until June 4, 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress. The protesters wore banners proclaiming the name of the institution of higher learning they attended.