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Ideas and Strategies of the Woman Suffrage Movement (Middle School)

by Roland Marchand: Adapted by Camille Leonhardt
Topic(s): Pro feminist and suffrage, Women, Women's organizations

Table of Contents


This collection of primary source documents addresses the arguments and strategies of the woman suffragists and their opponents during the early twentieth-century. Background information about the woman suffrage movement in the nineteenth-century is provided. This section is followed by excerpts from early twentieth-century primary source documents, along with questions to help students recognize important themes and points in the documents. These documents address two themes in the early twentieth-century woman suffrage movement: reasons why women should gain suffrage, and arguments about the most effective strategy for winning the right to vote. Teachers may want to select some or all of these documents for use with their students.



Prepared By Camille Leonhardt

The American women's rights movement was born out of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement. Nineteenth-century women joined male protesters in condemning slavery and calling for an end to the "peculiar institution." Through their involvement in the abolitionist movement, women acquired organizational skills necessary to orchestrate a successful reform movement. Many female abolitionists went on to become leaders in the women's movement.

Soon after the American women's rights movement formed, woman suffrage became its chief goal. After conference officials denied women access to the main meeting room of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott decided that a movement devoted to improving the status of American women needed to be formed . The first American women's rights convention was held eight years later in Seneca Falls, New York. Convention delegates ultimately passed a series of resolutions calling for an end to discrimination against women. Although the convention narrowly passed a resolution calling for woman suffrage, leaders of the women's rights movement pursued suffrage as the movement's primary goal. Movement leaders believed that all other rights could be attained after women gained the right to vote.

Following the Seneca Falls convention, women's rights activists encountered several divisive issues within their movement. Early activists embraced a philosophy of natural rights. Activists argued that since men and women were equal in the eyes of God, they should also be equal in all other areas. They believed that men and women should be treated equally and sought to eliminate all barriers that prevented women from standing on equal ground with men. Later in the nineteenth-century, and throughout most of the twentieth-century, some women's rights advocates, like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, espoused a philosophy of essentialism. According to this philosophy, men and women are inherently different and should therefore occupy different spheres and receive different treatment from society. Advocates of essentialism argued that women could improve their status through protective legislation and customs that accounted for their unique characteristics.

In addition to philosophical differences within the movement, women's rights activists disagreed about appropriate strategies to pursue. Initially, early activists -- many of whom were also abolitionists -- embraced William Lloyd Garrison's strategy of appealing to individuals' sense of morality and persuading them to accept new ideas before attempting to orchestrate institutional and legal reforms within society. Later, when change appeared to be too slow in coming, some activists sought institutional change. They feared that individuals would never change their way of thinking and voluntarily alter their behavior in accordance with new beliefs. In order to effect social change, these advocates argued that change needed to be legislated and that true social change would follow once individuals changed their behavior to comply with new laws.

The most divisive issue to face the women's movement in the nineteenth-century arose during Reconstruction when the nation was contemplating Constitutional changes to extend political and voting rights to newly freed slaves. Not only did the Constitutional changes create divisions within the women's movement, they also severed the connection between abolitionists and many women's rights activists. Abolitionist leaders celebrated the introduction of the fourteenth amendment to Congress in 1866 because it promised to define and protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Many female activists, led by Susan B. Anthony and Stanton, were opposed to the amendment because it failed to expand and protect the rights of women. Representing the Republican Party's strongest Reconstruction legislation, the five clauses of the fourteenth amendment promised to restructure the defeated Confederate states. The first clause defined any natural born man as a citizen and declared that he was entitled to all the rights and privileges commensurate with American citizenship. Stanton and Anthony fought unsuccessfully to remove the male delineation from the amendment during its ratification period and urged abolitionists and women's rights activists to support universal suffrage. Abolitionist leaders like Frederick Douglas and Wendell Phillips refused to fight for the inclusion of women in the amendment, declaring that it was the "Negro's hour." Douglas and others feared that the addition of women would raise too much opposition to the amendment and cause it to fail. Because Republican leaders and radical Reconstructionists were interested in restructuring the South with the fourteenth amendment, but not extending the rights of citizenship to women, Douglas' and Phillips' fears were well warranted. Nonetheless, the male abolitionists' position on the fourteenth amendment left many female activists feeling abandoned and betrayed.

Ratification of the fourteenth amendment in 1868 proved disappointing to both male abolitionists and women's rights activists. To the disappointment of abolitionist leaders, white Southerners implemented local ordinances that restricted the voting rights of black men. Women's rights activists remained disappointed that women were excluded from the fourteenth amendment. After recognizing that the fourteenth amendment failed to protect the voting rights of newly freed slaves, Republican leaders introduced the fifteenth amendment that specifically forbid any state from denying voting rights to its citizens on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Female activists were outraged that the word "sex" was not included in the amendment. By the time the fifteenth amendment was ratified in 1870, a deep division within the women's movement separated supporters of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments from those who resented the exclusion of women from the wording of both amendments.

In 1869, Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, NWSA. Members of the NWSA argued that women should be given the right to vote and they opposed the fifteenth amendment because it omitted women. Stanton and others feared that it would be a long time before women gained the right to vote if they did not gain it during the Reconstruction era. In their urgency and effort to promote and increase support for woman suffrage, NWSA leaders affiliated with Democrats and white supremacists, like George Francis Train. Their strategy alienated other suffrage supporters like Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Abby Kelley Foster. Stone, Blackwell, and Foster pursued a strategy of supporting ratification of the fifteenth amendment, in return for future support of woman suffrage from black men. They went on to form the American Woman Suffrage Association, AWSA. Despite Stanton and Anthony's early efforts to unite the two associations, the two factions did not merge until 1890.

Although the two factions reunited in 1890, and formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the suffrage movement seemed to be at a standstill near the end of the first decade in the twentieth-century. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, President of the NAWSA, proved an accomplished orator, but ineffective organizer and administrator. Then, as a result of a relatively quiet grass roots campaign, the state of Washington voted nearly two-to-one for woman suffrage in 1910, breaking a fourteen-year stalemate and suddenly infusing new energy and confidence into the campaigns in other states. Meanwhile, and in striking contrast, the woman suffrage movement in Great Britain under such leaders as Emmaline Pankhurst, escalated its militant tactics. By 1910, it had moved from mass meetings, marches, and heckling of cabinet ministers, to arson, violence, and hunger strikes. The radical tactics enacted by British suffragists captured the media's attention and helped gain their victory.

Gradually, support for woman suffrage increased during the progressive era in the United States. Some reformers supported woman suffrage because they believed that women were morally superior to men and would vote for reforms. Proponents of woman suffrage convinced new followers to support them by using nativist arguments that compared the number of educated white women denied the right to vote with the number of enfranchised immigrant and black men. When California voted for woman suffrage in 1911, followed by Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912, the new momentum of the suffrage movement was confirmed. In 1913, the suffragists finally pushed east of the Mississippi River for the first time and gained the suffrage in the more industrialized and densely - populated state of Illinois. Having frequently lost popular referenda in the industrial states, the suffragists now had succeeded in Illinois by persuading the state legislature to give them the vote by legislative action. In 1912, the Progressive Party, headed by Theodore Roosevelt, endorsed woman suffrage as one of its platform planks. But the movement did not prove victorious everywhere, voters in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota failed to pass woman suffrage in elections. By 1914, twelve states permitted women to vote.

In the midst of this resurgent activity, new leaders came to the fore in the woman suffrage movement. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, returning from their experience in the British movement, rejuvenated the American movement. Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organized a small, more militant group in the United States under the title of the Women's Political Union. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the united National American Woman Suffrage Association, NAWSA, directed a "Winning Plan" that called for pursuing suffrage victories at the state and federal levels.

During the first world war, when the nation was fighting to make the world "safe for democracy," opposition to woman suffrage continued to disintegrate. The suffragists became increasingly aggressive and radical in their protests. Many suffrage leaders appeared loyal and patriotic in their support of the war effort and offers to help. After failing to offer firm support for woman suffrage, President Woodrow Wilson finally endorsed it. Both houses of congress finally approved granting women the right to vote in 1919. By 1920, the necessary thirty-six states ratified the nineteenth amendment, granting women the right to vote in all elections throughout the nation.



Chafe, William H. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the Twentieth-Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dubois, Carol Ellen. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America. New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Revised Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975.


Document #1 Molly Elliot Seawell, The Ladies' Battle, 1911

Men were not the only opponents of woman suffrage during the early twentieth-century, many women opposed gaining the right to vote. Molly Elliot Seawell shared her opposition to suffrage in The Ladies' Battle. 1911.
What problems did Seawell predict would arise if women gained the right to vote?

....women voters would inevitably become a privileged class, their mere exemption from military and naval duty making them such. The first fundamental of our present form of government is, that there shall be no privileged classes among voters.... Already, the State of Washington, in adopting suffrage, has violated a principle of republican government, by exempting women from jury duty.....

....there seems to be a close relation between suffrage and divorce. The five suffrage states show that their abnormal rate of divorces prevails under conditions which are usually adverse to divorce....

But that woman suffrage tends to divorce, is plain to all who know anything of men and women. Political differences in families, between brothers for example, who vote on differing sides, do not promote harmony. How much more inharmonious must be the political differences between a husband and wife, each of whom has a vote which may be used as a weapon against the other?


Document #2 Theodore Roosevelt, The Outlook, February 3, 1912

Theodore Roosevelt expressed his support for woman suffrage in an editorial entitled "Women's Rights; and the Duties of Both Men and Women," in The Outlook, February 3, 1912.
Why did Roosevelt think some men opposed woman suffrage even though they favored treating men and women equally?
According to Roosevelt, which women would be best served by gaining suffrage?

I believe in women's rights.... Perhaps one reason why so many men who believe as emphatically as I do in woman's full equality with man take little interest in the suffrage movement is to be found in the very unfortunate actions of certain leaders in that movement, who seem desirous of associating it with disorderly conduct in public and with thoroughly degrading and vicious assaults upon the morality and the duty of women within and without marriage....

....I believe in woman suffrage wherever the women wish it. I would not force it upon them where, as a body, they do not wish it.... Most of the women who I know best are against woman suffrage precisely because they approach life from the standpoint of duty. They are not interested in their "rights" so much as in their obligations. It is, however, with me a question whether these women, busy, happy, duty-filled lives, are really typical of those other women who are more or less defenseless. These other women, wage-earning girls for instance, and wives whose husbands are brutal or inconsiderate, would, I believe, be helped by the suffrage, if they used it wisely and honorably.


Document #3 Jane Addams, The Annuals of the American Academy of Social and Political Science, November 1914

Jane Addams, an active progressive era reformer, was the founder of Hull House, a settlement house in Chicago where upper-class men and women tried to befriend and provide social services to poor immigrants. She presented her arguments in favor of woman suffrage in "The Larger Aspects of the Woman's Movement," The Annuals of the American Academy of Social and Political Science. November 1914.
According to Adamms, what social and economic changes made woman suffrage necessary?

The new demand of women for political enfranchisement comes at a time when unsatisfactory and degraded social conditions are held responsible for so much wretchedness and when the fate of all the unfortunate, the suffering and the criminal, is daily forced upon woman's attention in painful and intimate ways....

...is it not obvious that as, industrial changes took spinning out of private houses, so political changes are taking out of the home humanitarian activities, not to mention the teaching of children?...

The woman who wishes to be a teacher or a nurse takes her training in public institutions, as she formerly went to the factory to spin, not because she wishes primarily to leave home but because her work has been transferred. As she was helpless, without the franchise to keep little children from walking all night in the early textile mills ... so she is powerless now to regulate the administration of the schoolhouse of hospital.


Document #4 Anna Howard Shaw, NAWSA Convention, 1913

Anna Howard Shaw, President of the NAWSA, addressed opponents' claims that women were too emotional to exercise the right to vote in her speech delivered to the NAWSA Convention in 1913.
How did Shaw respond to opponents' claim that women were too emotional to vote?

By some objections, women are supposed to be unfit to vote because they are hysterical and emotional and of course men would not like to have emotion enter into a political campaign. They want to cut out all emotion and so they would like to cut us out. I had heard so much about our emotionalism that I went to the last Democratic national convention, held at Baltimore, to observe the calm repose of the male politicians. I saw some men take a picture of one gentleman whom they wanted elected and it was so big they had to walk sideways as they carried it forward; they were followed by hundreds of other men screaming and yelling, shouting and singing the "Houn' Dawg;" then, when there was a lull, another set of men would start forward under another man's picture, not to be outdone by the "Houn' Dawg" melody, whooping an howling still louder. I saw men jump up on the seats and throw their hats in the air.... Then, when those hats came down, other men would kick them back into the air, shouting at the top of their voices. No hysteria about it - just patriotic loyalty, splendid manly devotion to principle. And so they went on an on until 5 o' clock in the morning. I saw men jump up on their seats and jump down again and run around in a ring. I saw two men run towards another man to hug him both at once and they split his coat up the middle of his back and sent him spinning around like a wheel. All this with the perfect poise of the legal male mind in politics!

I have been to many women's conventions in my day but I never saw a woman leap up on a chair and take off her bonnet and toss it in the air and shout.... I never heard a body of women whooping and yelling for five minutes when somebody's name was mentioned in the convention....


Document #5 Carrie Chapman Cat, NAWSA Convention, 1916

Carrie Chapman Catt assumed the leadership role of the NAWSA and presented her "Winning Plan" strategy at the NAWSA Convention in 1916.
What approach did Catt think would be most effective in gaining suffrage for women?

... When thirty-six state associations, or preferably more, enter into a solemn compact to get the [Federal] Amendment submitted by Congress and ratified by their respective legislatures; when they live up to their compact by running a red-hot, never ceasing campaign in their own states designed to create sentiment behind the political leaders of the states and to aim both these forces at the men in Congress as well as the legislatures, we can get the Amendment through, and ratified. We cannot do it by any other process....

Any other policy than this is weak, inefficient, illogical, silly, inane and ridiculous! Any other policy would fail success.


Document #6 "Suffrage Heckling"

The following editorial, "Suffrage Heckling," appeared in the Washington Post on December 7, 1916. American women became more radical in their protests and campaigns as time passed. During President Wilson's speech before Congress, woman suffragists displayed a banner promoting their cause in the House of Representatives.
Does the editorialist object more to the suffragists' cause or to their strategy?

What possible benefit was achieved for the cause of woman suffrage by the unfurling of a banner in the House, with its heckling inscription addressed to the President of the United States? ... the only result was a discourteous interruption of the President while he [read] his annual message.....

The President has previously stated where he stands with respect to woman suffrage. ... President Wilson said that he believed the right way for the women to get the vote was through individual State action.

... The suffragists have won notable victories.... Their progress has been due to the dignified methods pursued in the past.


Document #7 Washington Post, January 10 and 11, 1917

Advocates for woman suffrage continued to engage in more radical protests in order to persuade the President and others to support a federal amendment granting women the right to vote. The following news articles appeared in the Washington Post on January 10 and 11, 1917, respectively.
What tactics were suffragists using in their efforts to persuade President Wilson to support a federal amendment granting women the right to vote?

...Women suffragists, after another futile appeal to President Wilson yesterday for his support of the Susan B. Anthony amendment, announced plans for retaliation by picketing the White House grounds with "silent sentinels." Their purpose is to make it impossible for the President to enter or leave the White House without encountering a sentinel bearing some device pleading the suffrage cause.

The move was acknowledged to be a step in the new policy of mild militancy which began with the coup in the House gallery on December 6, when a party of suffragists unfurled a votes for women banner while the President was making his opening address.

January 11, 1917:

...It was stated yesterday that the silent sentinels would be gradually increased until 3,000 will be surrounding the executive mansion grounds.

The women, wearing yellow, purple and white ribbons across their chests, stood three on either side of the gates, over each of which was held a banner, inscribed, "Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?"

White House officials and the city police made no effort to interfere, and it was said that as long as the women created no disorder no official attention would be paid to them.


Document #8 Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, 1917

Following the more radical strategy pursued by British women, American suffragists became more assertive and radical in their protests. Doris Stevens explained the authorities' reaction to the more radical protesters in her book Jailed for Freedom.
What protest strategy did the suffragists use?
How did authorities respond to their changing strategy?


June 26, 1917:

There was criticism in the press and on the lips of men that we were embarrassing our government before the eyes of foreign visitors.... Of course it was embarrassing. We meant it to be. The truth must be told at all costs. This was not a time for manners.

Hurried conferences behind closed doors! Summoning of the military to discuss declaring a military zone around the White House!... Closing the Woman's Party headquarters was discussed. Perhaps a raid! And all for what? Because women were holding banners asking for the precious principle at home that men were supposed to be dying for abroad.

...The following day Miss Lucy Burns and Miss Katharine Morey of Boston carried to the White House gates [a banner reading] "We shall fight for the things we have always held nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government," and were arrested...

Miss Burns and Miss Morey upon arriving at the police station, insisted to the great surprise of all the officials, upon knowing the charge against them. Major Pullman and his entire staff were utterly at a loss to know what to answer. The Administration had looked ahead only as far as threatening arrest. They doubtless thought this was all they would have to do. People could not be arrested for picketing....

Doors opened and closed mysteriously. Officials and sub-officials passed hurriedly to and fro. Whispered conversations were heard.... Hours passed. Finally the two prisoners were pompously told that they had "obstructed the traffic" on Pennsylvania Avenue.


Document # 9 Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom, 1917, Hunger Strikes

In her book Jailed for Freedom, Doris Stevens discusses the impact of hunger strikes. Government officials wanted to prevent imprisoned women from engaging in hunger strikes and resorted to forcibly feeding some women. Many in the public were alarmed when they read accounts of imprisoned women engaging in hunger strikes and being subjected to brutal, forcible - feedings.
Why did the American suffragists begin hunger strikes?

When the Administration refused to grant the demands of the prisoners and of that portion of the public which supported them, for the rights of political prisoners, it was decided to resort to the ultimate protest-weapon inside prison. A hunger strike was undertaken....

Little is known in this country about the weapon of the hunger strike. And so at first it aroused tremendous indignation. "Let them starve to death," said the thoughtless one, who did not perceive that that was the very thing a political administration could least afford to do. "Mad fanatics," said a kindlier critic. The general opinion was that the hunger strike was "foolish."

During the suffrage campaign in England this weapon was used for the double purpose of forcing the release of imprisoned militant suffragists and of compelling the British government to act.


Document # 10 Doris Stevens, 1917

In a July, 1917, letter to her husband, Doris Stevens, provides a description of her personal experience with engaging in a hunger strike and being forcibly fed.
What do you think motivated Stevens to continue with her hunger strike?

My fainting probably means nothing except that I am not strong after these weeks. I know you won't be alarmed. Alice Paul is in the psychopathic ward. She dreaded forcible feeding frightfully, and I hate to think how she must be feeling. I have a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward, and my stomach rejecting during the process. I spent a bad, restless night, but otherwise I am all right. The poor soul who fed me got liberally besprinkled during the process. I heard myself making the most hideous sounds.... This morning, but for an astounding tiredness, I am all right. I am waiting to see what happens when the President realizes that brutal bullying isn't quite a statesmanlike method for settling a demand for justice at home.


Document #11 "Note to President and Government," 1917

Resistance to granting women suffrage began to disintegrate more rapidly as World War I waged on and suffragists expressed their patriotic support for the United States during this international crisis. The Executive Council of the National American Woman Suffrage Association published this statement, "Note to President and Government," in The Woman's Journal, March 3, 1917.
Do you think the suffragists' support for the United States and its possible entry into World War I influenced President Wilson?

We devoutly hope and pray that our country's crisis may be passed without recourse to war.... If, however, our nation is drawn into the maelstrom, we stand ready to serve our country.... With no intention of laying aside our constructive, forward work to secure the vote for the womanhood of this country and the right protective of all rights, we offer our services to our country in the event they should be needed... that the executive ability, industry and devotion of our women, trained through years of arduous endeavor, may be utilized, with all other national resources, for the protection of our country in its time of stress.