In this first installment of a three-part series, discover how the early women's movement formed and later divided over race and tactics after the Civil War. Trace the movement through the Reconstruction era (1865-1877), as women experimented with new strategies to secure the ballot.
“All men are created equal...”
Throughout the women's rights movement, advocates invoked the Declaration of Independence (1776), encouraging America to live up to its founding ideals. In 1787, the U.S. Constitution would create the world’s largest experiment in representative democracy—while letting states determine who could vote. Generations of diverse women and men embarked on a decades-long journey to ensure that all men—and women—would be treated equally.
New Jersey state constitution (1776) by Provincial Congress of New JerseyOriginal Source: New Jersey State Archives
Who could vote?
In the early republic, most state constitutions included property and tax-paying qualifications—often limiting voting rights to white male property-holders. Under this system, only a minority of the population could vote. By the 1840s, almost all states had eliminated earlier property and taxpaying requirements—but increasingly limited voting based on race, gender, and citizenship status. Women’s lives were governed by male heads of household. They had virtually no political voice.
Did you know?
Under New Jersey's state constitution from 1776, some women and free Black men voted (if they held sufficient property). This continued until 1807, when the legislature restricted voting to “free, white, male citizen[s].”
Fighting for Rights
In the early 1800s, some women pursued a variety of rights, including the right to inherit property and speak in public—challenging the notion that they belonged in the home. After the Civil War, women focused on voting as the key to securing equal rights. They petitioned Congress and turned to the 14th and 15th Amendments to justify their right to vote, but their work was just getting started.
Learn more in the upcoming video, as Exhibition Developer Elena Popchock walks through the first section of the exhibit. Discover how women fought for equality—and initiated their suffrage fight. (Please note that the audio and video will play automatically.)
Origins of a Movement
An outgrowth of anti-slavery activity, the pre-Civil War women’s movement focused on a broad range of equality issues. It was small and consisted primarily of educated white women.
By the 1850s, the movement assumed a distinct shape. Americans began referring to—and debating—the new women’s rights campaign. As free Black women joined these small circles of reform activity, biracial coalitions developed in the Northeast. Reformers organized conventions and lectures, circulated ideas in newspapers, and petitioned state governments to recognize their rights.
Lucretia Mott (ca. 1860-1880)Original Source: Library of Congress
The First Generation
The first generation of women’s rights advocates emerged from abolitionist circles in the Northeast, including Lucretia Mott (pictured here), a Philadelphia Quaker and orator. Although these women faced gender discrimination and scrutiny upon entering the public sphere, they had the advantage of education and class privilege. Poverty and illiteracy prevented many women—both white and Black—from joining the early campaign.
"Family Devotion" (ca. 1871)Original Source: Library of Congress
Marriage and the Family
The early movement prioritized the rights of married women. After all, most women were married, and they were denied rights to inherit property, make contracts, and enter certain occupations. Under the concept of “virtual representation,” a husband represented his wife and children in public life and voted on their behalf. Some women rejected this male dominance—and pushed for their right to self-representation. They instantly met resistance.
George S. Boutwell (ca. 1870-1880) by Mathew B. Brady StudioOriginal Source: Library of Congress
“[The family] can have but one will; and the man, who, by nature, is placed at the head of that government, is the only authorized exponent of that will. . . . [Because] the will of the whole family is represented by the man, who is the head of the family . . . woman has no right to be directly consulted in public affairs.” (1853)
Note: This is a modern recording.
Amelia Bloomer (mid-1800s)National Constitution Center
“Men argue as though if women were granted an equal voice in the government all our nurseries would be abandoned, the little ones left to take care of themselves, and the country become depopulated. They have frightened themselves with the belief that kitchens would be deserted and dinners left uncooked. . . . When the truth is, mothers have as much regard for the home and the welfare of the children as have the fathers.” (undated speech)
Note: This is a modern recording.
The Seneca Falls Convention
In 1848, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (pictured here) organized a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss women’s issues. The local gathering attracted nearly 300 people. Stanton prepared a manifesto known as the Declaration of Sentiments—a rewriting of the Declaration of Independence—to draw attention to the inequalities and oppressive laws that women endured. Although the Declaration of Sentiments included a suffrage resolution, voting was only one demand among many.
Signed by 68 women and 32 men at Seneca Falls, the Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed “that all men and women are created equal.” It closed with 12 demands, including equal education, equal pay, property rights, and the “sacred right to the elective franchise.” As news of the convention circulated, some voiced their support, while others criticized the reformers for operating outside of the domestic sphere.
After Seneca Falls, the movement spread as local conventions popped up across states. More Black women joined the fight by attending—and speaking at—conventions held in the 1850s. The minutes shown here capture the first national women’s convention held in Worcester, Massachusetts, which drew 1,000 attendees in 1850. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist preacher, spoke at the gathering.
Prioritizing the Vote
During the Civil War (1861-1865), women’s rights advocates paused their campaign to focus on the war effort and the ongoing fight to end slavery. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, pushed equal rights to the center of American politics. After the war, women resumed their campaign during the period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) and emphasized voting as the key to securing broader rights and reforms. Black and white reformers united around a vision of universal suffrage—one that promoted voting rights for both women and African American men.
Robert Purvis (ca. 1840-1849)Original Source: Boston Public Library
“Our simple yet imperative demand, founded upon a just conception of the true idea of our republican government, is equality of rights for all, without regard to color, sex, or race; and, inseparable from the citizen, the possession of that power, that protection, that primal element of republican freedom—the ballot.” (1867)
Note: This is a modern recording.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Published 1898)Original Source: Library of Congress
“When they are reconstructing the government why not lay the whole foundation anew, and base the right of suffrage not on the claims of service or sex, but on the broader basis of our common humanity[?]" (1869)
Note: This is a modern recording.
Petition for universal suffrage (1866)Original Source: National Archives
Petition for Universal Suffrage
Biracial coalitions of abolitionists and suffragists worked together to promote voting rights for women and Black men. They mobilized around the concept of universal suffrage and flooded Congress with petitions, like the one seen here. However, many politicians believed it wasn’t the right time to discuss women’s rights.
The 14th Amendment
In 1866, Congress passed the 14th Amendment, expanding the rights of equal protection and due process of the law to all persons living in the United States. While the amendment promoted equal citizenship, it also introduced gender into the Constitution for the first time. Some suffragists fought against this discriminatory language, but the amendment was ratified by the states in 1868. Fissures started to form over how to secure rights—and for whom.
The 15th Amendment
Congress ultimately prioritized the voting rights of newly freed Black men and passed the 15th Amendment in 1869. Some white suffragists—appalled by their exclusion—refused to support the amendment. Others embraced it. As racist arguments intensified, some suffragists broke away to fight exclusively for women’s voting rights. Others remained fully committed to achieving universal suffrage. In 1870, enough states had ratified the amendment, making it a part of the U.S. Constitution.
"Meet the Suffragists" interactive (2020) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center
The Movement Splits
In 1866, abolitionists and women's rights advocates had united around a vision of universal rights, forming the American Equal Rights Association. As tensions grew over race, purpose, and tactics during the debates over the 15th Amendment, the group dissolved in 1869. Suffragists reorganized into two factions, utilizing different approaches to pursue the vote.
In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton broke with their abolitionist allies to create an independent women’s suffrage movement—forming the National Woman Suffrage Association to focus exclusively on achieving votes for women.
Another group of reformers—led by Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Browne Blackwell—formed the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. They prioritized African American rights, remained committed to a vision of universal rights, and supported the 15th Amendment.
They were joined by Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in supporting the 15th Amendment, for it represented progress on their path to securing voting rights for all.
From the Ballot Box to the Courts
During the Reconstruction era, some suffrage leaders developed a plan that relied on the Constitution’s text to get women to the polls. They argued that voting was a “privilege” of American citizenship protected by the 14th Amendment. From 1868 to 1875, hundreds of women—both Black and white—embraced this argument. Some women successfully voted, while most were turned away, arrested, or fined. Discover some of their stories in the next few slides.
"Try to Vote" interactive (2020) by National Constitution CenterNational Constitution Center
1871: Two hundred Black women successfully register and vote in a local election in North Carolina. They were dressed in men’s clothing.
Photograph, Susan B. Anthony by UnknownNational Women’s History Museum
1872: Susan B. Anthony successfully registers and votes in the presidential election in New York. However, authorities later arrest her, and her case goes to federal court.
“In a true democracy, in a genuine republic, every citizen who lives under the government must have the right of representation. You remember the maxim, 'Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.' This is the fundamental principle of democracy; . . . before our republic can be placed upon lasting and enduring foundations—the civil and political rights of every citizen must be practically established.” (1863)
Note: This is a modern recording.
Susan B. Anthony reflects upon her attempt to vote (1873) by Susan B. AnthonyOriginal Source: Smith College Special Collections
Two months after illegally voting, Susan B. Anthony wrote this letter to her fellow suffragist Martha Coffin Wright (the sister of Lucretia Mott). Anthony confessed, “I never dreamed of the U.S. officers prosecuting me for voting.”
"The Woman Who Dared" (June 5, 1873) by Thomas WustOriginal Source: Library of Congress
“The Woman Who Dared”
In this cartoon printed right before her 1873 trial, Anthony is depicted with accessories associated with both men and women.
Atop her head is Uncle Sam’s hat, a masculine symbol that represents her desire to take over male political power by voting.
She wears spurs on her boots, another symbol of masculinity. She also carries a parasol (an umbrella) by her side—a feminine accessory that she could brandish as a weapon.
Also take note of the swapped gender roles, which are depicted on either side of Anthony. On the left is a female police officer.
On the right are two men caring for a baby and holding a basket of food. People who opposed women's suffrage believed that gender norms would be disrupted and women would abandon their domestic duties in order to participate in public life.
1873: Susan B. Anthony appears before a federal court in New York. At her trial, she argues that the 14th Amendment protects her right to vote. She is found guilty of voting illegally. Although she refused to pay the fine, she was never punished.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary (ca. 1845-1855) by UnknownOriginal Source: Library and Archives Canada
1874: Mary Ann Shadd Cary and 63 D.C. women fail to cast a ballot on Election Day. However, they successfully obtain affidavits signed by election officials, acknowledging their attempt to vote. As a newspaper editor, teacher, and lawyer, Mary Ann Shadd Cary fought both racism and sexism. She established the Colored Woman’s Franchise Association in Washington, D.C. In 1874, she argued before the House Judiciary Committee: “The crowning glory of American citizenship is that it may be shared equally.”
Virginia Minor (Published ca. 1850-1893) by John Chester Buttre (engraver) and John A. Scholten (photographer)Original Source: Library of Congress
1875: Virginia Minor, a St. Louis suffragist, takes her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. After her failed voter registration attempt, Minor argues that women are U.S. citizens and that voting is a “privilege” of national citizenship protected by the 14th Amendment. In its unanimous decision in Minor v. Happersett (1875), the Supreme Court agrees that women are U.S. citizens—but leaves the question of women’s suffrage to the states.
State Campaigns Begin
In 1867, the universal suffrage movement campaigned for two referenda in Kansas. Advocates sought to secure suffrage for women and Black men, but both proposals ultimately failed. Suffragists ramped up their efforts after 1875, when the Supreme Court ruled in Virginia Minor's case that voting was not a right of citizenship. Women campaigned for different levels of voting rights—from full suffrage (in all elections) to partial suffrage (in local or state elections). They believed that if enough states allowed women to vote, national change might follow. These state campaigns continued for the rest of the movement.
Wyoming is the First
Beginning in 1869, Wyoming women could vote in all elections—the first in the nation to achieve full voting rights. The legislature granted women the vote, in part, to attract female settlers to the predominantly male territory.
Democratic politicians hoped that women would remember which party had granted them suffrage—and later reward them with their political support. Some legislators also believed that white women could cancel the votes of Black men voting under the 15th Amendment.
During the late 1800s, some states allowed women to vote in local elections but not in state or federal ones. Women were instructed to place their ballots in separate boxes—like this one from a town named Elwood—to ensure they didn’t vote in any other race.
This sheet music, “We'll Show You When We Come to Vote,” was written in 1869 and dedicated to the wife of Rep. James Ashley, a Congressional Republican and ardent abolitionist. The lyrics read: “Sad is the life of womankind / Trod under foot we’ve always been / But when we vote, you soon will find / That we’ll fix these terrible men.”
Women's Work is Never Done
Women fought for a variety of rights in the early 1800s. When the Civil War ended in 1865, the movement embraced universal suffrage but eventually split over race and strategy—utilizing different tactics to pursue the vote. Some women focused on a constitutional amendment, while others concentrated on suffrage at the state level. Their efforts followed separate tracks but fed into one common goal: national voting rights for women. As a new century dawned, the next generation of suffragists would pick up the fight, experimenting with new tactics and securing the 19th Amendment in 1920. However, many women continued their fight beyond 1920 to ensure equal access to the ballot box.
This online exhibit was developed by the National Constitution Center—the first installment in a three-part series based on its exhibit, “The 19th Amendment: How Women Won the Vote.“ To learn more, including how to visit, go to our website.
Want to learn more about the state campaigns? Visit our interactive map to explore each state's suffrage story.
To hear more audio from the debates surrounding women's suffrage, check out our online interactive experience.
Find out how the 19th Amendment was drafted and explore a timeline of key events through the Interactive Constitution's Drafting Table.