August 2020 includes an enormously important centenary, one that too few Americans will recognize. August 26 marks the hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, establishing the right to vote for women nationwide. Celebration of this milestone will be muted in large part because of the coronavirus pandemic. (That’s why the Center for Inquiry and the Freedom From Religion Foundation [FFRF] jointly canceled their Suffrage/Freethought Centennial conference scheduled for August in Washington, D.C.) But acclaim for the centenary had been facing obstacles long before the coronavirus raised its ugly spikes.
Many on the social-justice left raised a list of reasons the centenary might not merit enthusiasm:
In practice, adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment benefited mostly white women (true).
The nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century suffrage movement consisted mostly of upper-middle-class and upper-class white women (true).
The movement for woman suffrage1 sometimes stood in opposition to efforts to secure, and later to expand, the franchise for African Americans (true); and
During this conflict, at least one suffrage leader made appalling statements about race (true).
In my capacity as director of the Freethought Trail2, I networked with historians and museum administrators across New York State during 2018 and 2019 trying to muster energy for a more vigorous celebration of the suffrage centenary. It was clear that we were swimming against the current of objections such as those above. In part because of the strong historical links between the suffrage and freethought movements, the August convention CFI planned with FFRF was meant to push back against that critical sensibility and give the Nineteenth Amendment the celebration it deserves, if in a small way. Sadly, the pandemic put paid to that.
What about those accusations against the suffrage movement and its triumph? I’ve already admitted they’re true—at least to some degree. Given that, how can we best interpret the struggle for suffrage and the results of the Nineteenth Amendment? And can we do so in a way that preserves a justification for celebrating the events of August 26, 1920, and at least much of what led to them?
Bear with me – here comes a deep dive into suffrage history.
Let’s take the accusations one by one.
- Adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment benefited mostly white women. When the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted, significant barriers disenfranchised most African Americans and all Native Americans. It followed that African American and Native women could not vote until long after 1920. Obstacles to voting by African Americans fell in northern states in the early twentieth century; Jim Crow obstacles to black voting in the South persisted until as late as the 1980s. In recent years, some of this progress has been lost. Meanwhile, the law as it stood in 1920 expressly denied citizenship to all Native Americans. No citizenship, no right to vote. The Snyder Act of 1924 declared Natives born in the U.S. full citizens. You might think that would settle the matter. But the Constitution also leaves it to the states to determine voting eligibility. It took almost forty years before Native Americans won the franchise in all fifty states. (The last holdout, New Mexico, relented in 1962.) Even then, Natives in some jurisdictions faced Jim Crow–style strategies, such as poll taxes and literacy tests, some of which endured into the early 1980s but may be returning in places today. The situation was different for Hispanics, who faced few of the impediments to voting arrayed against African Americans and Native Americans.
It might be more strictly accurate, then, to say that the Nineteenth Amendment’s adoption in 1920 benefited mostly white and Hispanic women. “But,” as the Freethought Trail’s cause page on suffrage concludes, “the fact remains that once race-based barriers to voting were removed, it was because of the Nineteenth Amendment—and the suffrage movement which had won it—that women of color generally faced no further obstacles to voting because of their sex.”3 Once all African Americans or all Native Americans could finally vote in a particular jurisdiction, there was no significant effort to restrict the franchise to males.
I don’t know about you, but I think that is an accomplishment of the suffrage movement whose centenary merits celebration.
- As historian Judith Wellman notes in this issue, the impression that the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century suffrage movement consisted mostly of upper-middle-class and upper-class white women reflects historians’ reliance, until quite recently, on records compiled by mostly white organizations. Still, the suffrage movement was led conspicuously by women of exceptional education, wealth, or social standing. Then again, when have revolutions not been led by extraordinary individuals?
Consider Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, who with Susan B. Anthony formed the “Triumvirate” that led the New York–based, more radical wing of the suffrage movement after the Civil War. Both Stanton’s and Gage’s fathers raised and educated them as if they were boys. That included exposure to academic disciplines above basic literacy that were not then part of curricula for girls. Gage’s father did so more radically than Stanton’s—a country doctor, he not only taught her anatomy, he often had her accompany her when he rode to make house calls. But both women benefited from upbringings that were enormously unusual for their time and uniquely equipped them for activism and leadership. Or consider a lesser-known figure: Eliza Wright Osborne, an Auburn, New York, widow who was one of the largest financial contributors to the suffrage movement, specifically to the work of Susan B. Anthony. She hailed from a radical-reform background: her aunt was Lucretia Mott and her mother was Martha Coffin Wright, both Quakers who played significant roles in organizing the 1848 convention at Seneca Falls, New York, that launched the women’s movement.
Eliza’s husband built a significant fortune manufacturing agricultural harvesting equipment. After his death in 1886, Eliza threw herself into suffrage activism. In October 1904, the thirty-sixth annual convention of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association (NYSWSA) was held in Auburn. Then in her seventies, Eliza had much to do with bringing the convention to her city. On October 17, she held a reception at her mansion. It was attended by Susan B. Anthony; minister-suffragist Anna Howard Shaw; and Eliza’s son, Thomas Mott Osborne, then Auburn’s mayor.4
The takeaway from this is that yes, Eliza enjoyed exceptional wealth and social status. But how could it have been otherwise? Given the pervasive misogyny of post–Civil War society, only women of above-average education, wealth, social standing—or some combination of the three—could have the time and resources to take part in suffrage work above the local level. (In addition, it was hugely helpful to have a husband liberal enough not to discourage such a commitment—or to be unmarried or a widow. Consider Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose husband Henry Brewster Stanton was a leader in the abolition movement; Eliza Wright Osborne, who came into her own as a suffrage activist only when widowhood made her time her own and gave her full control of the family fortune; and Susan B. Anthony, who never married.) On any ordinary understanding of American life between 1865 and 1920, it was all but inevitable that the suffrage movement would come to be led—and its ranks to be dominated—by women of relative privilege on such indices as race, education, wealth, social standing, and with the simple ability to undertake a major commitment outside the home, which millions of women did not possess.
That said, it’s worth noting that a significant number of African Americans played significant roles in the woman’s rights and suffrage movement. They included Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, who had already built towering reputations in their antislavery work; the similarly prominent Frederick Douglass, one of very few men who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; and women such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Hattie Purvis, and Mary Church Terell, who emerged as prominent suffrage spokeswomen in the post–Civil War era. (See Wellman’s article in this issue for more on African American suffragists.)
- The movement for woman suffrage sometimes stood in opposition to efforts to secure, and later to expand, the franchise for African Americans. Before the Civil War, reformers clashed over allocation of resources. Should the fight for women’s votes be subordinated to the goal of freeing blacks from the objectively greater indignity of slavery? Should disenfranchisement, which at least theoretically disadvantaged women of every race, receive the greater emphasis? Or could both objectives be pursued without depriving either cause of essential resources? “The split in ideology between those who supported black men’s rights and those who sought universal rights fractured the women’s movement for more than two decades,” wrote historians Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello.5
After the Civil War, the terms of the dispute shifted because African Americans and women now suffered the same deficit: disenfranchisement. After 1865, strategic disagreements and regional factionalism led to a bifurcation in the woman’s movement. The dominant wing was based in Central New York and led by Stanton, Anthony, and Gage. It charted a radical course: demanding federal action for immediate enfranchisement of women, criticizing the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not extend the vote to women (see below), and pursuing reforms, including an eight-hour work day, equal pay, and greater rights in marriage and divorce. In other words, the New York wing pursued a broad slate of foundational reforms intended to benefit women alone. The movement’s other, smaller wing was based in New England and led by Lucy Stone, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and others. In contrast to the New York wing’s insistence on a federal solution, the New England wing was willing to pursue suffrage state by state. Where the New York wing pursued a broad range of reforms, the New Englanders sought suffrage alone, resisting entanglement with additional reform causes. Perhaps most important, it was willing to pursue suffrage writ large—that is, for women and African Americans alike.
In 1869, the two wings formally separated. The New York wing formed the relatively radical National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while the New England wing formed the more moderate American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). (See Wellman for more details on this process, particularly the responses to the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870.) Only in 1890 was the breach healed, if clumsily, with the creation of a unity organization: the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The merger had been engineered by Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone; Anthony had chosen not to consult Stanton and Gage. In many ways, Stone and her New England moderates got the better of the deal. NAWSA took up AWSA’s moderate agenda almost unchanged, abandoning more-radical social objectives such as legalizing divorce and fighting abuse of working-class women. Stanton and Gage found themselves frozen out of NAWSA decision-making—though for appearances’ sake, Anthony arranged for the immensely prominent Stanton to be named to a figurehead presidency. Outraged, Gage withdrew from the woman’s movement, focusing instead on freethought and anticlericalism. She had always regarded the Christian church as the principal architect of woman’s oppression. Down this path Gage would form a short-lived freethought organization, the Woman’s National Liberal Union. More enduringly, she would write her masterwork, the 1893 Woman, Church and State, still viewed as a classic work of feminism and freethought.
To the degree that the New York wing, later NWSA, had focused on reforms that would benefit women only—and to the degree that its activism demonstrated a willingness to devote resources to pursuing greater rights for women without concern for the impact on freed blacks—it can accurately be said that the wing of the movement led by Anthony, Stanton, and Gage “sometimes stood in opposition to efforts to secure, and later to expand, the franchise for African Americans.”
If only that were all that could be said.
- In the course of [the] conflict [between advocates of women’s enfranchisement and that of African Americans], at least one suffrage leader made appalling statements about race. That would be Stanton, who responded to the conflict over reform goals with statements whose racism was stark even by the standards of her time. One of Stanton’s outbursts even earned an immediate rebuke from Frederick Douglass, with whom she happened to be sharing the stage.
Stanton and many others in the movement’s New York wing had ample reason for concern. Immediately after the end of the Civil War, the American reform community was swept by an impulse to prioritize winning the vote for freed African Americans. Its watchword was “This is the negro’s hour.” Of course, shifting every resource to the cause of blacks would mean forsaking the fight for woman suffrage. Woman’s-rights activists were understandably anxious. Stanton felt strongly that women should not delay their pursuit of the vote. Quite the contrary: if black men were enfranchised before women, she urged that women demand their right to vote at once, writing in 1866 that women should “press in the constitutional door the moment it is open for the admission of Sambo.” This was one of several occasions when Stanton used disparaging racial language. In 1867, she predicted that black male enfranchisement would harm the country as “2,000,000 ignorant men”—whom she had just described as “the lowest strata of manhood”—would be “ushered into the halls of legislation.” There were other occasions, too, when Stanton made explicit her view that women should be enfranchised before African Americans because women were far better equipped for the responsibilities of citizenship. Stanton is a complex figure, but this blot on her escutcheon must not be ignored.
However repellently Stanton expressed her misgivings, her apprehension that that African Americans might win suffrage before women did come true. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1868) guaranteed citizenship (and the vote) to all males regardless of race. This was the first time the word male was included in the Constitution, a dismaying setback for woman suffragists. “Woman’s cause is in deep water,” Stanton wrote to Anthony.
As mentioned above, the New York and New England wings of the movement formalized their split a year later. NWSA (led by Anthony, Stanton, and Gage) decried the Fourteenth Amendment as a betrayal of women; AWSA (led by the New Englanders) found it irrelevant because AWSA’s strategy was to pursue the vote for blacks and women one state at a time rather than obtaining woman suffrage through a change to the U.S. Constitution.
Conclusion. After all this, how can we best interpret the struggle for suffrage and the results of the Nineteenth Amendment? And can we do so in a way that preserves a justification for celebrating the events of August 26, 1920? I think we can—and should.
As I noted above, the Nineteenth Amendment did ultimately secure the vote for all women, even though African American and Native American women were largely blocked from voting in 1920 because of their ethnicity. The suffrage organizers who labored patiently throughout the seventy-two years separating Seneca Falls from the Nineteenth Amendment had built well. However long it took until African Americans and Native Americans could cast a ballot—which varied by municipality and in a few cases did not come until the early 1980s—whenever black men could vote in a particular place, black women could too. The moment Native men could vote, Native women could likewise. The suffrage campaign and the Nineteenth Amendment changed the country for the better, such that whenever outdated obstacles to black or Native voting were removed, there was never a suggestion that further obstacles should remain in women’s path.
If the suffrage movement’s leaders have, in various ways, feet of clay—if too many were white, if too many hailed from elite backgrounds, even if some of them were racist (and let’s be frank, Stanton was scarcely the only suffragist to hold such views)—I think these considerations must be balanced against the times in which they lived and against what they achieved. Let no one conceal flaws of the suffrage movement or of individual suffragists. Let the historical record be viewed unstintingly. The fact remains that a society in which women are full citizens is hugely superior to one in which women have no voice in the life of the state. It is to the suffrage movement, with all its imperfections, that the credit for this triumph belongs.
For secular humanists, atheists, and freethinkers, suffrage’s victory is additionally sweet. For opening the vote to women was a deeply secularizing change to American life. Like abolitionism before it, the suffrage campaign attracted activists (including Stanton and Gage) who decried traditional religion, as well as others whose religious beliefs were more traditional. (See Sue Boland’s article in this issue for more on the importance of divergent views of religion in the movement.) Nonetheless, one of the bedrock tenets of traditional Christianity had always been that women were inferior—that they were lesser beings, foundationally unsuited for authority. Whatever theology a particular suffragist might embrace, the fight to prove women equal to men in the most solemn obligation of citizenship fiercely undercut orthodox views of woman’s nature and woman’s place.
To the extent we can among a pandemic’s embers, then, let us celebrate the centenary of U.S. women’s suffrage. Yet as we do, let none forget that it was a single step—albeit a colossal one—toward the dream of a more perfect union whose full achievement still lies ahead of us.
1 There was an interesting shift in the language between the suffrage movement’s beginnings and its triumph in 1920. Nineteenth-century usage saw the suffrage movement as seeking to benefit “woman” as a class; activists spoke of “woman suffrage.” Early in the twentieth century, emphasis shifted from benefiting woman as a class to benefiting women, that is, a multitude of actual persons. So historical suffrage materials can seem strange to us in their emphasis on the singular woman as a class label. We can see the change in microcosm when the Nineteenth Amendment came into force in 1920. At that time, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (formed in 1890) changed its name to the League of Women Voters.
2 The Freethought Trail (www.freethought-trail.org) is the Council for Secular Humanism’s online celebration of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century radical reform activism in west-central New York State, a region that was then a national bellwether for social experimentation in much the way Southern California was in the later twentieth century. The Trail comprises 151 historic sites, marked and unmarked, linked to 125 significant events involving 42 persons and organizations who campaigned for eight causes, including abolition, anarchism, birth control/sex radicalism, dress reform, Fourierist Utopianism, freethought/atheism/secular humanism, scientific knowledge, and woman’s rights/suffrage. It is anchored by the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum in Dresden, N.Y., and the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville.
3 https://freethought-trail.org/causes/cause:womans-rights-suffrage/ .
4 For more on the 1904 NYSWSA convention, including site photos, see “Honoring Suffrage’s Centenary/Ingersoll Spoke Here,” FI, June/July 2020.
5 Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote (Ithaca, N.Y.: Three Hills Press, 2017).