The US Constitution, along with the Bill of Rights, are the primary documents that stipulate the rights of American citizens and the protections they are afforded. Adopted in 1789, the Constitution ensures that “no man should be deprived of his unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. Though it is seen as a perfect opportunity for freedom and democracy, the American Constitution deliberately excluded segments of the population from the liberty the Founders wanted to ensure. Women, along with several other groups, were denied the simplest form of freedom: which is the right to vote. Women of all types had their freedoms limited due to outdated views of femininity and a woman’s place in society.
Coverture prevailed in the years leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. This derived from British common law, coverture was the legal principle “that dictated a woman’s subordinate legal status during marriage” (Britannica). The freedom that unwed women had to enter into contracts, sue, and exchange property was revoked under the status of “marital unity”. There was no unity. A woman who was wedded became the property of her husband. She could not make her own decisions. It was as if she was enslaved.
For those educated women who wanted a career as well as a family, this was a huge problem. A common way of thinking by Americans since the country’s founding, was known as Republican Motherhood. This term represented the role of being a caretaker, that was a prominent norm at the time. For a woman, her most important responsibility, according to those who adhered to the belief of the of Republican Motherhood, was the raising of her children. Whether a woman is educated or not, her job shouldn’t be to solely raise children. Another preference for women at the time was to have a male child. A women’s personal progress was not a matter of discussion. If a woman wanted to secure more rights for herself, the only thing she could do, would be to raise men, and hope that one day when they are adults, they would advocate for women. Even with this mindset being prominent, that suffragettes persisted. They did not conform to the then norms, nor did they let these obstacles to freedom set them back. They managed to put up a solid fight to receive the franchise. Taking a look at the grassroots, judicial, and legislative strategies these activists used to enact change, will not only help us to understand this movement, but also help us to comprehend how the the strategies they used are still of importance today.
The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is a master class in the importance of grassroots activism. The Seneca County Courier, a semi-weekly journal, contained this announcement: “Woman’s Right Convention — A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July, current; commencing at 10 o’clock AM. During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be present on the second day, when Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, and other ladies and gentlemen, will address the convention” (Stanton, 67).
In progressing toward their goal, nineteenth century suffragettes were sure to include a critical mass of people. When one conducts grassroots activism, they use the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for political and economic action. Even though Mott, Stanton, and others “were quite innocent of the herculean labors they proposed” (Stanton, 68), they knew the importance of creating a consensus among a wide group of people. The more agreement there was on the sentiments of women, the higher the possibility for change at the national level. They also understood the significance of having a diverse political block. A primary source on the convention recalls that “it had been decided to have no men present, but as they were already on the spot…it was decided…that this was an occasion when men might make themselves preeminently useful. It was agreed that they should remain and take the laboring oar through the convention” (Stanton, 69). These women recognized the privilege of men. Instead of excluding these people, they saw that the men would be useful to advocate for their cause among fellow men. This strategy that these women so haphazardly produced has become a bedrock of our American democracy. When one looks at the Black Lives Matter movement, or the fundraising of the Sanders campaign in 2016, one sees how grassroots movements have progressed in the advancement of technology. With the rise of twitter and social media, activists have been able to galvanize a critical mass more efficiently.
Beyond utilizing grassroots activism to affect political change, the suffragettes also advocated at the state level for the franchise. What is significant about this action is that the suffragettes, women who were excluded from American Political Society, were knowledgeable about the systems of power that did not include them. In American government, laws and amendments can be changed in two ways. The first way is completely legislative: two-thirds of both the house and the Senate can vote to bring an amendment to the floor. Three-fourths of states would then have to approve the amendment for it to be become ratified. The second, more democratizing way of getting an amendment ratified relies on state legislatures, If two-thirds of state legislatures favor a law or principle, the quorum can request that Congress call a national convention to propose potential amendments. The suffragettes recognized the need for political activity at various levels of government. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was extremely interested in change at the national level. Other, more militant associations, such as the Alice Paul-led National Woman’s Party, also shared interest in national bodies like Congress. Some groups, like the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), eschewed the lobbying of Congress. Led by Lucy Stone, her husband Henry Brown Blackwell, and others, the AWSA was established in 1869 as a more moderate suffrage organization than the NWSA. While the NWSA did not support the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and rights for formerly enslaved peoples, the AWSA supported general abolition. The AWSA, unlike the NWSA, was a single-issue organization, and only focused on expanding the vote to women. Because the AWSA was a single-issue organization, and because they lobbied states instead of Congress, they were more able to efficiently enact change before merging with the NWSA in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Organization (NAWSA). The AWSA had their own publication, the Woman’s Journal, that relied on a state-by-state strategy to increase consideration about the female franchise. They wanted to initiate change in a way that they believed would help get everyone involved. The front page of a 1917 copy of the Journal illuminates the work that these women were trying to do. It’s lead stories primarily focus on things happening at the state level. In particular, it features two stories on Indiana and Arkansas. Under a story with the title “Arkansas is First Southern State in Suffrage Ranks”, it is written, “Gov. Brough Signs Riggs Bill Permitting Women to Vote in Primaries-means practically full suffrage-Fifth Big Suffrage Victory for 1917” (Woman’s Journal, 1). There is also a story on Indiana, covering Governor Godrich’s signing of a state bill “extending nine-tenths of the full franchise to all women of the state” (Woman’s Journal, 1). It is important to note that even though these victories do not completely grant the franchise, they are significant, incremental steps to change. Every movement made towards implementing a new way mattered. Though women in Arkansas were not allowed to vote in national elections, suffragettes could use the primary vote as an argument to eventually vote in bigger elections. “Democratic Primaries are so large,” the article goes on to say, “primaries are really elections” (Woman’s Journal, 1). During the two-decade run of the AWSA, Wyoming and Utah women won the right to vote. Though this change seems small, only 33 states need to approve the female franchise in order for an amendment to be proposed. The political organization at the state level is also a focal point of American democracy. In the wake of a possible repeal of Roe v. Wade, several state leaders vowed to put abortion protections into state law. In July of 2018, Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo said, “Roe v. Wade has the protections that we now rely on in New York. We never passed the New York State law because we relied on Roe v. Wade…we now need to codify Roe v. Wade, which will actually increase the protections in New York” (Cuomo). In the years after the passage of the nineteenth amendment, we see federalism being the avenue by which citizens and states advocate and secure protections for all Americans.
Beyond grassroots organizing at the national and local levels, suffragettes attempted to utilize the courts and the judicial branch to receive political freedoms. Two prominent leaders of the movement, Susan B. Anthony and Virginia Minor, went through legal proceedings in their respective states aimed at expanding the franchise. In 1872, Anthony and other members of the NWSA registered, or attempt to register to vote. Because Anthony successfully registered and voted in New York, she and 13 other women were arrested and they were fined $100. Anthony was the only woman who pleaded not guilty to this charge. At her trial, she said, “the only chance women have for justice in this country is to violate the law, as I have and as I shall continue to do” (Stalcup, 132), beyond Anthony’s conscientious objection, other cases were brought to higher courts. Virginia Minor, a popular suffragette leader in Missouri, sued Reese Happersett, a voting registrar, for denying her the right to vote. She argued to the Missouri Supreme Court and later the US Supreme Court that the prohibition of her voting was in direct violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The clause reads that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States…”. As a citizen, Minor contested the refusal to allow her to vote violated her fourteenth amendment rights. Eventually, both courts rejected Minor’s opinion. Even though she was a citizen, her status as female did not grant her the privilege of voting. Though many judicial measures to secure the franchise were generally unsuccessful, they are important for a couple of reasons. These suffragettes tried to change legislation at the legal level through establishing precedent. Precedent is a legal term that states that legal rulings impact future laws and legislation. That is to say, if the Supreme Court repealed Missouri’s ruling, women across the country would be allowed to vote, because the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction is national. Beyond the issue of suffrage, the utilization of the courts has been used to advocate for the rights of enslaved African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and other marginalized groups. In the summer of 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-to-4 that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. In response to several state rulings that allowed businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. The supreme court’s ruling makes individual, state-based rulings null and void. Advocating though courts is a central feature of American democracy. It will continue to be used in the future.
In conclusion, when people are excluded from their rights, they will go through a variety of methods in order to enact positive change for themselves. Marginalized peoples will advocate for themselves at the social level. They will, as in the case of suffragettes, create petitions to develop critical masses and coalitions. They will picket and protest to galvanize more citizens to join their causes. They will lobby state legislatures, engaging in significant political action to meet their goals. They will update the American public on the actions of their elected officials, so that their representatives know that people are watching. Lastly, when options in the social and political sphere are exhausted, people will attempt to advocate for themselves judicially. The Suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century is crucial because the tactics and techniques used by suffragettes are still used today. To better understand current political movements, the actions of the past must be analyzed. If we do not know our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
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