The Women’s Suffrage Movement: America and Britain

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: TURNING POINTS IN MODERN HISTORY

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The suffrage movement in Britain and the United States followed different strategies; while the suffragettes in the United States were restricted to an approach of organizing conventions and adopting declarations, the suffragettes of Britain adopted a far more forceful and combative approach to their proceedings.

A couple of women suffragettes covering a billboard to advertise their summit.
The movement for women’s rights started around 1840 in America.
(Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The movement for women’s rights revived in earnest around 1840 in America. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, a Quaker from Philadelphia, had actually met in the context of a different movement. They had met at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, which was part of a continuing worldwide struggle of abolitionists even after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

So it was surprising that it was in this reformist context that the two women experienced something brutal that galvanized them. They were both refused the right to participate in the Congress as members because they were women.

Learn more about the Treaty of Westphalia.

Seneca Falls Convention

It was this experience that propelled them to further activism when they returned to the United States as they helped organize the famous 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York. The convention had three hundred participants, both men and women. In the convention, a ringing resolution was passed: “It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the sacred right to the elective franchise.”

The convention also adopted a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which took the original words of the Declaration of Independence and adapted them for their cause. The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

Women’s Role in the Movement for the Abolition of Slavery

The cause that was championed at Seneca Falls also came at a time when women were active in the movement for the abolition of slavery in America. In 1851, Sojourner Truth, an African-American who had successfully escaped slavery, delivered a famous speech in Akron, Ohio at a women’s conference. The speech was titled “Ain’t I a Woman?” This was purposefully done as it was a deliberate echo of the famous motto of the British anti-slavery movement, “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

There are different versions of Sojourner Truth’s speech, which was extemporaneous, but in the best-known version, Truth asked the question, “Ain’t I a Woman?” as a refrain, while pointing out that this was an age in which there was much discussion of rights whether for those in slavery in the South or women in the North.

She pointed out that she had done the same hard labor as men, and that she had suffered as much or more than men while in slavery. She concluded with a religious overture that Christ had come from a woman and that “if the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now…the men better let them”.

The Early Success of Women Voting Rights Movement in America

A black and white portrait of Susan B. Anthony.
Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the presidential election. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In the decades that followed, Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked together with Susan B. Anthony to advance the cause. In 1866, Stanton stood for Congress and received 24 votes out of 12,000. In 1872, Anthony was actually arrested for voting in the presidential election. Together, these women founded the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Successes finally came at the local level in the American western territories. In the Wyoming territory, women’s votes were recognized from 1869—the first modern legislature to allow it. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, its leaders insisted that when it entered the union, it must do so with women’s votes. To this day, Wyoming’s nickname is the ‘Equality State’.

Other western states also recognized women’s right to vote: Utah followed Wyoming by two months, Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896.

Learn more about the British Slavery Abolition Act.

The Role of New Settlements in the Success

Why was the frontier West first in this regard? The fact that these were areas of new settlement seems to have been crucial, because there, out in the West, social roles were more fluid, institutions were inevitably less fixed and set in place, and experimentation was often viewed positively.

These frontier states already had women playing very active and indispensable roles in settlement and the building up of new institutions, especially educational institutions, so it was not surprising that women’s education was also seen as vital in this regard.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Women Suffragette Movement in Britain

Similarly, a mass movement for women’s votes was also evolving in Britain in dramatic ways. A Quaker, Anne Knight, published the first women’s suffrage pamphlet in 1847. In 1851, the first suffrage society was founded in Britain. A following generation of women’s activists founded the Women’s Social and Political Union and set out to engage in dramatic, militant action. They were led by Christabel Pankhurst, and they were known as the “suffragettes” (this was first a term of abuse, but one that soon gained respect).

The British suffragettes scuffled with the police in 1905; two militants even smashed the windows on the house of Britain’s prime minister. In 1912, the suffragettes organized a spectacular nationwide campaign of window breaking.

A British suffragette getting arrested by two police officers.
British suffragettes bombed the house of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to draw attention to their cause. (Image: Agence Rol/Public domain)

They also chained themselves to fences, set fire to mailboxes to call attention to their cause, and even bombed the house of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Once in prison, suffragettes engaged in hunger strikes which gained further publicity, and eventually sympathy.

Most dramatically and tragically, in 1913, a young activist named Emily Davison came to the famous Epsom Derby horse race. She timed her action exactly and stepped in front of the horse that was owned by none other than the British king, George V. Davison. She was hit with tremendous speed by the startled racehorse and thrown to the ground. She died of her injuries several days later. Her funeral procession through London, with 2,000 women activists, was testimony to the determination of these activists.

The Reactionary Anti-Suffrage Movements In the United States and Britain

In reaction, anti-suffrage movements rose up as well, both in the United States and in Britain. These protagonists (including both men and women) were convinced that allowing women’s votes would be a violation of natural order and of social cohesion, which they saw as necessarily relegating women to an entirely domestic sphere. In 1889, over a hundred American women signed a so-called Appeal Against Female Suffrage.

Common Questions about the Women’s Suffrage Movement: America and Britain

Q: What was the women’s suffrage movement and how did it change America?

The women’s suffrage movement was a voting rights movement for women that went on for decades. It eventually succeeded in providing women equal voting rights across America.

Q: Why was the women’s suffrage movement so important?

The women’s suffrage movement or the women’s voting rights movement was important because it directly led to the granting of voting rights to women.

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