Wednesday, June 24, 2020
I have just published my article, More Than the Vote: The Nineteenth Amendment as Proxy for Gender Equality, 15 Stanford J. Civil Rights & Civil Liberties 349 (2020).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, pioneering leader of the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth century, famously declared the right of women to vote in 1848 at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York. She alone initially appreciated the importance of the vote both for women’s political power and participation in the governance of the country, as well as its symbolic meaning for women’s full citizenship. Her abolitionist and religious colleagues, however, were suspicious and a bit outraged by the suffrage demand, as these moralistic reformers were opposed to politics, which they viewed as fundamentally corrupt due to bribery, patronage, and abuse of power. Stanton’s friend and co-organizer Lucretia Mott was worried the demand would make the meeting “look ridiculous” and Stanton’s husband, Henry, dismissed the suffrage claim as a “farce.”
Nevertheless, they persisted. For seventy-two more years, women activists would fight for the right to vote by organizing annual conventions, creating associations, petitioning legislatures and constitutional conventions, writing editorials, delivering speeches, and campaigning door-to-door for what would become the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
This nearly century-long movement for suffrage, however, was never just about the vote. It originated as part of a comprehensive plan for women’s equality as proclaimed at Seneca Falls in the women’s Declaration of Sentiments. Stanton, the intellectual driver of the first women’s rights movement, conceptualized the vote as only one of the needed rights of women to access the political process. The elective franchise was a key piece of reform to provide women access to the right to make the laws that governed them, but it was never the sole goal. Rather, Stanton’s first-wave movement envisioned a full-scale reform of law and society to bring about women’s freedom and equal opportunity. Change was needed, she argued, in four venues: the state, family, industry, and church. She described women’s oppression as “a fourfold bondage” with “many cords tightly twisted together, strong for one purpose” of woman’s subordination.
Despite these broad equality efforts targeting multiple systems, the vote emerged as the primary demand for women’s rights. The Civil War “effectively killed the initial collectivity behind the broadly based humanitarian goals of the Seneca Falls Convention.” After the war, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Amendments focused the national conversation on federal constitutional change, and particularly on the power of the vote prioritized in the Fifteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment also highlighted the issue of the vote for women by explicitly inserting gender into the Constitution for the first time, enforcing the right to vote guaranteed to “male inhabitants” and “male citizens.” Women’s rights advocates were drawn into this constitutional debate, forced to
narrow their focus and react to the national dialogue on suffrage.***
Pulled into this national constitutional movement, women’s rights activists utilized the demand for the vote as a proxy for a greater comprehensive agenda of both equality and emancipation from oppression. As Stanton later recalled, the vote was not the central idea of Seneca Falls, but rather “the social wrongs of my sex occupied altogether the larger place” in the early movement. Her advocacy for the vote thus came to represent full citizenship rights, defined as full equality in civil rights and emancipation from oppressive social and religious norms.
This essay first details the origins of women’s political demand for the vote as part of a comprehensive social reform. It then discusses the four strands of the comprehensive early women’s rights agenda for gender equality focused on the political state, domestic family, economic industry, and religious church. Finally, it connects the suffrage activism with demands for an equal rights amendment to realize the full civil rights of equality envisioned by and for women. This long view of women’s rights shows it was never only about the
vote; rather, the vote stood as a shorthand for a complete revolution of the interlocking systems supporting women’s oppression and denying women equal rights.