Thursday, July 18, 2019
The Competing State and Federal Strategies for Winning Women's Right to Vote under the 19th Amendment
Lisa Tetrault, Winning the Vote: A Divided Movement Brought About the 19th Amendment, 40 Humanities (Summer 2019)
In 1869, a bold new idea was born. . . .“Woman’s Suffrage by the proposed Sixteenth Amendment is before the nation for consideration,” one newspaper heralded. Demanding their enfranchisement through a constitutional amendment, “women,” another column remarked, “strike out in a new path.” Women had been demanding the vote for some time, but this new approach was extremely far-fetched. ***
Although women demanded the vote as far back as the 1840s, they did not call for a federal amendment until after the Civil War, when a new battle over the status of recently emancipated freed people split the nation. What rights should former slaves have, if any? Rejecting most of African Americans’ demands upon freedom, a band of congressmen nevertheless supported freedmen’s demands to vote. They proposed to accomplish this through amending the Constitution.
Passing Congress in 1869, the Fifteenth Amendment declared that voting “shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” When ratified in 1870, the amendment struck down state requirements that voters be “white,” enfranchising black men nationwide. This creation of voters through federal amendment had never before been tried.
Congressional passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, however, tore apart the feminist-abolitionist community and split the movement. Often working together in the same prewar coalitions, women’s rights and antislavery advocates regrouped after the Civil War to form the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). The AERA advocated the enfranchisement of both African Americans and women, as twin demands.
When the Fifteenth Amendment advanced only one of those goals, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—leading suffragists—balked. At the group’s 1869 annual convention, the pair refused to support the amendment’s ratification because it omitted women. ***
Angrily, Stanton and Anthony bolted from the AERA and formed a new organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association. Stanton and Anthony used their National Association to oppose the Fifteenth Amendment and advocate for their newly conceived idea for a Sixteenth Amendment, granting women’s suffrage.
In their eyes, the Fifteenth Amendment had only one redeeming feature: It had nationalized suffrage, shifting voting regulation from the states to the federal government. This meant suffragists no longer had to labor at the state level, attempting to remove the word “male” from the voting qualifications in each and every state—an excruciatingly onerous fight. Now they could focus all their energies on a single citadel, the U.S. Constitution.
Not all suffragists agreed with Stanton and Anthony’s constitutional logic, however. Their rivals in the AERA, which included most of its leading membership, countered the pair by forming an opposing American Woman Suffrage Association. Overseen by Lucy Stone—a prominent white reformer and peer of Stanton and Anthony—the American Association not only supported the Fifteenth Amendment, but also insisted the vote must still be won in the individual states. They rejected Stanton and Anthony’s arguments that constitutional authority around voting in the U.S. had been remade. The Fifteenth Amendment had been no more than a postwar exigency, ratified in order to redress the evil legacies of slavery.