Women's Suffrage: The Averted Triumph

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
How the Woman Suffrage Movement Began
That Adjective Male 1866

The Averted Triumph


It was not until 1848 that the compact, made in 1840 by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to call a woman's rights convention was carried out. Mrs. Mott was occupied with religious and reform obligations, Mrs. Stanton with a family of young children. The project was revived while Mrs. Mott was visiting her sister, Martha C. Wright, in Seneca Falls, New York, where Mrs. Stanton also had become a resident. Action followed so shortly upon the decision to call a convention that the news had not spread through the neighborhood when an astonished public read a notice in the town paper on July 14 that a Woman's Rights Convention would be held in the Wesleyan Chapel on the 19th and 20th of the month. The program of the first day as announced was to be exclusively for women, and of the second day for the general public, when “Lucretia Mott and others“ would speak. The call was unsigned.

The five days intervening were busy ones for the four sponsors, Mrs. Lucretia Mott, Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mrs. Ann McClintock and Mrs. Martha C. Wright. Having called the convention, they set themselves at work to compose a program and policy for it. In the McClintock parlor, around a small table now in the Smithsonian Institution, they discussed women's wrongs and how to lay them before the world in orderly fashion, until finally they hit upon the happy idea of framing their grievances against the nation in imitation of the Declaration of Independence. Finding as many grievances against the government of men as the Colonists had against the government of King George, they promptly drew up the Declaration of Women's Rights. Fortified by this document and four speeches, for each of the four had prepared one, they were on hand at the appointed hour.

Although the hurried and timid call had not been heard far away, the small Chapel was filled. At first the women were disconcerted to find that men had not taken their exclusion seriously and were present in considerable numbers, but when they reflected that no woman had ever presided over a convention they welcomed the men cordially and elected one of them, James Mott, chairman. The Declaration was adopted. It named as the first of the grievances, “the denial of the elective franchise,“ and it was signed by one hundred men and women. So inadequate did the two days prove for the discussion of a subject so extensive that the convention adjourned to meet in Rochester two weeks later. There the Declaration was again adopted and signed by large numbers of influential men and women.

These two conventions had in no sense been national in scope but newspapers throughout the country regarded them as an innovation worthy of comment and full press accounts were carried far and wide. Preceding events had prepared the country for controversy centered upon the subject of woman's rights apart from the anti-slavery and temperance causes, and a widespread discussion for and against the long list of liberties claimed was inaugurated by the two conventions.

Never in all history did so small a beginning produce so great an effect in so short a time.

Emily P. Collins immediately formed a local suffrage society at South Bristol, New York, the first in the world, and the baby club, wasting no time, sent a woman suffrage petition to the New York Legislature in January, 1849, with sixty-two signatures. Encouraged by the knowledge that other women were rising, organized groups sprang into being in all parts of the country with no other incentive than the ripeness of the time, and no other connection with the original movers than the announcements of the press.

Meantime year by year, and State by State, the legal disabilities of women had been seriously debated. Between 1844 and 1848 the Legislatures of Maine, Mississippi, New York and Pennsylvania, in the order named, granted property rights to women. The right to make a will had been granted in some States.

In the educational realm the graduation of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell from the Geneva Medical College made a tremendous sign-post for the year 1848. Public hostility to her course may be measured by the fact that the women at her boarding house refused to speak to her during her three years of study; on the streets they drew aside their skirts if they chanced to meet her, lest they be contaminated by contact. The controversy created by the events of the year was excited and widespread. Clergymen were alarmed and very generally denounced the “masculine, strong-minded women“ who were attempting to drive men from their God-ordained sphere. The press took sides and contributed, as usual, both understanding and confusion to the discussion.

From that date, some new wonder was continually emanating from the woman's camp to give fresh impulse and direction to the agitation. Three young women had been graduated from Oberlin in 1841, and each year brought the announcement of more graduates. Women were lecturing in all parts of the country on anti-slavery, temperance, physiology, and woman's rights, and were drawing and edifying large audiences. The most reckless escape from traditional discipline occurred in 1846, when, the license law having been repealed in New York, women alone or in groups entered saloons, “breaking windows, glasses, bottles, and emptying demijohns and barrels into the streets. Coming like whirlwinds of vengeance, drunkards and rum sellers stood paralyzed before them.“[1]* These episodes continued spasmodically for some years. A lively total abstinence movement conducted by men had been in progress for fifty years and out of it had grown the demand for various reforms, including legalized prohibition. Women circulated and presented petitions to town councils and the Legislatures, asking revision of liquor laws. What was called “the wave of temperance excitement“ passed over the country in 1852-1855, beginning in Maine, which passed a prohibition law.

In 1840, the Sons of Temperance were organized and the Daughters of Temperance quickly followed. Argument on woman's place in human society was passing from the anti-slavery to the temperance societies. The Sons of Temperance, meeting at Albany in 1852, gallantly admitted delegates from the Daughters of Temperance, but when one of them, Susan B. Anthony, arose to speak to a motion, the chairman informed her that “the sisters were not invited there to speak but to listen and learn,“ a fact which led the women to withdraw and form the Woman's State Temperance Society, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as president, and Susan B. Anthony as secretary. It held important meetings during the next two years and was addressed by many distinguished men and women. The example set by New York was followed in other states and several similar societies came into existence.

Later in the same year, a New York State Temperance Convention was held in Syracuse. Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer, accredited delegates from the Woman's State Temperance Society, were refused admission, after a debate described as “a perfect pandemonium.“ The women had an unintentional revenge; a liberal clergyman publicly offered his church for a meeting and announced that the two rejected delegates would speak there; whereupon the convention was deserted and the church was packed.

In 1853 “the friends of temperance“ met in New York at the Brick Church to arrange for a World's Temperance Convention. Women delegates were present and were accepted by a vote. A motion was made that Susan B. Anthony should be added to the business committee, whereupon a discussion arose upon the right of women to such posts. The discussion was marked by the usual vituperation and insult and ended by the appointment of a committee to decide the matter. The committee recommended that the women be excluded from the convention and the report was adopted. Thomas Wentworth Higginson at once requested all persons who wished to call a whole world's Temperance Convention to meet elsewhere. The ten women delegates and a number of liberal-minded men left the room. After their departure a further discussion followed, condemning all public action of women, one reverend gentleman expressing pleasure at being “now rid of the scum of the convention.“

It therefore happened that there were two World's Temperance Conventions held in New York in September, one arranged and attended by men and women and the other held under the auspices of the Brick Church meeting. Antoinette Brown was sent by two societies to the last named convention. The credential committee omitted her name from the list of delegates, whereupon it was moved that she should be admitted. A furious discussion followed, in which every phase of the “Woman's Rights movement“ was given attention. The discussion covered the greater part of two days, ending in a vote upon the question. By a small majority Miss Brown was admitted. It was then moved and carried by the same majority that she be given ten minutes in which to address the convention. She came to the plat-form, cheered by a “Take courage!“ from Wendell Phillips, and a “God bless you!“ from Rev. William Henry Channing. The minority, however, were not to be overcome so easily. She was greeted with sneers, hisses, shouting and stamping. The confusion, appropriate only to a mob, continued for three hours, at which time the convention adjourned. During this period the courageous young woman stood firm and unshaken, although the fingers of men from all over the house were pointing at her and shouts of “Shame on the woman!“ assailed her continually.

When asked why she went to the convention, she replied: “I asked no favor as a woman or in behalf of women; no favor as a woman advocating temperance; no recognition of the cause of woman above the cause of humanity; the endorsement of no issue and of no measure; but I claimed, in the name of the world, the rights of a delegate in a world's convention.“ A clergyman (nearly all the delegates were clergymen) when asked why the convention acted as it did, replied that “it was the principle of the thing.“ Practically the whole time of this World's Convention was expended in rude and quarrelsome discussion over the question of permitting women to speak and work for temperance.

An Ohio Woman's Temperance Convention was called at Dayton the same year. The Sons of Temperance permitted the use of their hall, “provided no men were admitted to their meeting.“ No sooner had the first session opened than “A column of well dressed ladies, very fashionable and precise, marched in two and two and spread themselves in a half circle in front of the platform, requesting to be heard.“ Permission being granted they informed the delegates that they had come to read a remonstrance against the unseemly and un-Christian position assumed by women who called conventions, “taking places on platforms and seeking notoriety by making yourselves conspicuous before men.“ They condemned the disgraceful conduct of Antoinette Brown at the New York convention and, having presented their views, turned and walked out.

The convention went right on.

The right of women to work for temperance was now a dominating question of the temperance movement, as a decade before it had been a mooted question of the abolition movement. The conflict over women's rights, however, was by no means confined to these two great reforms. The same year Susan B. Anthony attended the New York Teacher's Convention in Rochester. Although a member on equal footing with others, she caused a sensation by rising to speak to the question, “Why the profession of teacher was not as much respected as that of minister, lawyer or doctor,“ which had been discussed for some hours. It had been the custom in these conventions for men to discuss all motions and to vote upon them, although women composed a large portion of the membership. “At length President Davis of West Point, in full dress, buff vest, blue coat, gilt buttons, stepped to the front and said in tremulous mocking tone 'What will the lady have?'-'I wish, Sir, to speak to the question under discussion,' Miss Anthony replied. The Professor, still more perplexed, said, 'What is the pleasure of the convention?' A gentleman moved that she should be heard, another seconded the motion, whereupon a discussion pro and con followed, lasting fully half an hour, when a vote of the men only was taken and permission granted by a small majority.“[2]* Miss Anthony arose and said: “Do you not see, gentlemen, that so long as society says a woman is incompetent to be a lawyer, minister, or doctor, but has ample ability to be a teacher, that every man of you who chooses this profession tacitly acknowledges that he has no more brains than a woman?“ For this speech she was bitterly denounced by nearly all the men and women present, but the next morning's Rochester Democrat said: “Whatever the schoolmasters may think of Miss Anthony, it is evident that she hit the nail on the head.“

While much discussion within other organizations was centring about Woman's Rights, the movement was rapidly solidifying into an organization of its own. The first National Woman's Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts, October, 1850. Unlike that of 1848, which was not heralded as national, it was carefully arranged and well advertised. The call was signed by 89 prominent men and women. Eleven States were represented at the convention, which provided for another the following year. The importance of the persons connected with it, and the high tone of all its deliberations secured widespread comment. A report of the convention reaching England, Mrs. Taylor (afterwards Mrs. John Stuart Mill) sent an account to the Westminster Review, from which dates the organized woman suffrage movement in England.

From 1850 to 1860, a national suffrage convention was held in the United States each year, with one exception.[3]* State conventions, attended by some of the leading spirits, were held in Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, out of which grew State organizations with local auxiliaries. Indiana boasts the first State organization.

The New York convention of 1853 was afterwards called the Mob Convention. The week had begun with an anti-slavery meeting, opened on Sunday morning when Antoinette Brown addressed five thousand people, and the fact that she had done so “called out the denunciations of the religious press.“ During the week many meetings devoted to reforms were held, public condemnation growing in hostility until it broke in rampant violence upon the suffrage issue, which was last of the series. The mob was present at every session and met each motion and each speaker with hisses, yells and stamping of feet. The suffragists themselves said that “owing to the turmoil we have no fair report of the proceedings“ and even “the representatives of the press could not catch what was said.“

The contrasting comment on the convention was well presented by the Tribune and the Herald. Said the Tribune (Horace Greeley), September 7, 1853: “It was never so transparent that a hiss or a blackguard yell was the only answer that the case admitted of, and when Lucy Stone closed the discussion with some pungent, yet pathetic remarks on the sort of opposition that had been manifest, it was evident that if any of the rowdies had had an ant hole in the bottom of his boot he would inevitably have sunk through it and disappeared forever.“ Said the Herald (James Gordon Bennett) September 7, 1853: “The assemblage of rampant women which convened at the Tabernacle yesterday was an interesting phase in the comic history of the Nineteenth Century . . . a gathering of unsexed women, unsexed in mind, all of them publicly propounding the doctrine that they should be allowed to step out of their appropriate sphere to the neglect of those duties which both human and divine law have assigned to them. Is the world to be depopulated?“ There was one immediate redeeming feature of the occasion for, at 25 cents per admission, the mob had not only paid the entire expenses of the convention, but it had left a surplus in the treasury with which to continue suffrage work.[4]*

The experiences of that week had not intimidated the women but had, instead, stirred their minds to clearer conviction and united their hands to more constructive action. Mobs seem a divine instrument for the furtherance of good causes. No mob ever destroyed an idea, but many a mob has given one a fresh impulse, and this one sent every delegate home with her soul afire.

Lucy Stone, silver-voiced, gentle to look upon but with the courage of a lioness, had graduated from Oberlin in 1847 and started forth single-handed and alone to conquer the world for Woman's Rights. She now went through Massachusetts from town to town engaging the town hall, nailing up her own advertising and conducting her own meetings. Her auditors came “to scorn and went away to praise.“ The press gave her such titles as “she hyena“; the clergy thundered at her; the average man and woman regarded her as a freak; but the liberal-minded listened and endorsed. In time she formed committees to carry the work forward. From Massachu-setts as a centre, lecturing and organizing spread all over New England, and in 1854 a New England convention was held in Boston, and became an annual feature of the May anniversaries for sixty years thereafter.

In the period from August, 1854 to 1855, Miss Anthony had held meetings in 54 of the 61 counties of New York, and conventions at Saratoga, then a favorite summer resort of the leisurely well-to-do, had already become an established and exceedingly popular feature. In 1854, the first convention designed to influence suffrage legislative action was held in Albany, and petitions of 10,000 names asking for woman suffrage were presented from two counties alone, Onondaga and Warren. Mrs. Stanton addressed the Legislature with so masterly a speech that the legislators pronounced it unanswerable. In 1856, Legislative Committees in Ohio and Wisconsin reported favorably “right to suffrage“ bills, recommending that they “do pass,“ and legislators in many other States publicly pronounced their conversion.

Lecture courses were organized in many States by these women, in which Anti-Slavery, Temperance and Woman's Rights were presented, the speakers endorsing all three. Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, George William Curtis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, were among those who spoke.

After one convention, Grace Greenwood, a distinguished writer, said: “Lucretia Mott may be said to be the soul of this movement, and Mrs. Stanton the mind, the swift, keen intelligence. Miss Anthony alert, aggressive and indefatigable, is its nervous energy, its propulsive force.“ All three were at work, lecturing, inspiring, organizing, planning, raising money. There were many others-Paulina Wright Davis, Ernestine L. Rose, Clarinda I. Nichols, Lucy Stone, Frances D. Gage, Hannah Tracy Cutler,-all able advocates of the cause. On the Anti-Slavery and the Temperance platforms still other women were speaking, and giving sledge-hammer blows at the old prejudices. There were few towns of consequence which were not reached by one or more of these resolute souls in the North and West. One by one the States were fast amending the “woman laws.“ Wisconsin, California, Minnesota, Oregon and Kansas, coming into statehood during this period, began with liberal codes of law for women and their example proved so infectious that no new State thereafter went back to the old legal sources for its guidance concerning women.

At the tenth annual national suffrage convention held in New York, May, 1860, Miss Anthony, chairman of the Finance Committee, made an elaborate report and announced that “the press has changed its tone. Instead of ridicule we now have grave debate.“ She reported the many legal changes already made, the aroused and sympathetic public opinion, and predicted that New York would “enfranchise its women when it revises its constitution six years hence.“ Already, said she, the State has been thoroughly canvassed and “every county visited by lecturers, and tracts and petitions by the hundreds of thousands have been sent to the Legislature asking for the right to vote, the right to her person, her wages, her children. During the past year we have had six women lecturing in New York for several months each. Conventions have been held in 40 counties and one or more lectures delivered in one hundred and fifty towns and villages.“

Many bills for women's rights had by now been passed by State Legislatures, including women's right to their earnings, their property and their children. Men of prominence in large numbers had publicly espoused the cause, and hope for continued triumph of the movement was exuberant.

No cause ever made such rapid strides as that of Woman's Rights from 1850 to 1860. Women had proved their value as reform propagandists, and apparently all the leaders of the abolition and temperance movements were at length united in recognizing that fact, and all espoused their cause. “The more reflection I give, the more my mind becomes convinced that in a Republican Government, we have no right to deny to woman the privileges she claims,“ wrote a member of the New York Legislature, and his views were reported by suffrage workers as becoming common. Anti-Slavery and Anti-Liquor had fought their way to the centre of the nation's thought, and Woman's Rights had sprung from the two “full armed“ and exceeded both in legislative concessions.

Jubilant with success, despite the hard work and unhappy experiences of the early days, suffragists pushed on expectantly. The goal was in sight. The race was all but run. Few of this generation, even among suffragists, realize how close to victory were the women of that earlier suffrage crisis. Through disrepute and abuse and mob violence, they had brought the woman suffrage question out upon a new plane. The rotten eggs, the jeers, the hisses and vile epithets of the beginning were by-gones. Able and widely influential men had come to the support of the suffrage cause. Suffrage meetings wherever held were calling forth enthusiastic crowds and favorable reports by the press, with editorials pro and con. The whole world had grown friendly and tolerant. In political interest woman suffrage was ranking second only to the question of slavery. Both were fairly up to the doors of the national congress. Had the nation moved forward in the mood of those times, women assuredly would have been enfranchised soon, consistently with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the liberal progressive spirit which inspired the period.

Alas, before the date for the next annual suffrage convention the nation was plunged into the tragic depths of Civil War over the slavery issue; and thereafter woman suffrage was so hopelessly enmeshed in the politics of the Negro question as to be inextricable for long years to come.


* “History of Woman Suffrage,“ Volume I, page 475.


* “History of Woman suffrage,“ Volume I, page 515.


* 1850 and 1851, Worcester; 1852, Syracuse; 1853, Cleveland; 1854, Philadelphia; 1855, Cincinnati; 1856, New York; 1857, none; 1858, 1859 and 1860, New York.


* “History of Woman Suffrage,“ Volume I, page 567.

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