The women were shocked and dismayed. They felt the cause of women’s rights was set back terribly.
“Where do we go from here?”, they asked. Some of you may think this is about 2016, but history shares with us the example of two women’s rights giants of the 19th century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who suffered defeat after defeat and came back stronger after every setback.
The year was 1866, and the Civil War had finally come to an end. The question of citizenship and voting rights was front and center in Washington, D.C. and in the newspapers of the day. Women working for expanded legal and political rights wanted universal suffrage for all after the war. They were disappointed when women were specifically excluded when voting rights were given only to the freed male slaves.
From the time they had met in 1851, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had formed a partnership of friendship and political collaboration for women’s rights. Both women had worked in the abolitionist movements, and were vocal supporters of the abolition of slavery in the United States.
As the Civil War approached, the two friends disagreed on how to handle women’s rights reform work during the war. Elizabeth argued that they should set aside activism, and surely, after the war ended, their male allies would support universal suffrage, and include all women, freed or previously enslaved. Susan disagreed, and argued that they should keep up the pressure.
During the war, women did put aside reform work for women’s rights, and their efforts turned to freeing the slaves. They gathered and sent to Congress petitions to end slavery, with over three hundred thousand signatures, and two thirds of them were from women. This was the first grass roots effort for a constitutional amendment. The next year, 1865, the war finally ended, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution was passed, abolishing slavery.
It was the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment that would leave women bitterly defeated in their quest for the right to vote. The intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was to make the freed slaves citizens. As proposed, the first section of this amendment stated that any person “born or naturalized in the United States” is a citizen. The second section defined ‘citizen’ as male. This was the first insertion of gender into the constitution. Elizabeth was outraged at the language. “If that word ‘male’ be inserted as now proposed . . .it will take us a century at least to get it out again.”
The president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Wendell Phillips, declared that it was “the Negroes’ hour”, which was his way of saying that enfranchising freed slaves should come before women’s enfranchisement.
Elizabeth wrote to Phillips “Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?”
Elizabeth and Susan valiantly lobbied for support for adding female suffrage into the proposed Amendment, but they found their abolitionist allies firmly resolved to take the narrow focus, thinking that including suffrage for women as well as freed Black males would lead to defeat of the Amendment.
More defeats for women’s rights would follow. Later that year, Elizabeth ran for congress in New York and lost, only gaining 24 votes. The next year, the two women would work hard in Kansas and New York for issues related to women’s suffrage and rights as citizens. In both arenas, the women ‘s issues were defeated.
In 1869, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, to protect voters from terrorist organizations, such as the Klu Klux Klan. It prohibited the government of the United States or of any individual state from denying a citizen the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Because the word ‘sex’ had been omitted in this amendment, the women felt this was encoding into law an “aristocracy of sex.” Elizabeth railed, “Women will then know [if the amendment passes] with what power she has to contend. It will be male versus female, the land over.” Another defeat was handed to the women.
On March 15, 1869, congressman George Washington Julian introduced a joint resolution proposing a Sixteenth Amendment, a woman suffrage amendment. It looked like this amendment would pass, and it had the support of Julia Dent Grant, President Grant’s wife, and petitions signed by over 80,000 women. However, the joint judiciary committee, on January 30th, 1871 declared that Congress did not have the authority to act, because women were not citizens, they were only “members of the state.” Therefore, each individual state would have to decide on women’s suffrage.
This was “the crowning insult” Elizabeth wrote to Susan. But then she concluded her letter with, “We will win this battle yet, Susan!”
Elizabeth and Susan suffered the financial collapse of their publication, “The Revolution” and a splinter in the women’s movement over the Fifteenth Amendment debate, which saw the rise of a rival woman’s organization that excluded Susan and Elizabeth.
These brilliant and persistent pioneers did not let these, and more defeats, stop them. They went on to lecture coast to coast, recruited converts to the cause, build an organization of dedicated female ‘suffragists’ and wrote a history of the movement. Each defeat seemed to strengthen their resolve and embolden them further. Both women died before gaining the legal right to vote, but they laid the foundation of a movement that could not be stopped.
As we look at the story of these two remarkable women, let the lesson learned be that defeat can move us from despair to determined action.
Let’s Celebrate Our History!