A Movement Divided: Many Paths Toward Women's Suffrage

Black Women's Intersectional Demands

Suffrage for Black women took on a new meaning in the 1870s and 1880s. Keeping the same “universal suffrage” mindset from the years before the 15th Amendment Amendment to grant voting rights to African American men (ratified in 1870), their strategy included both demands for Black women’s right to vote and for civil rights for all Black people. 

Historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn considers this time period to be a turning point for Black women because of how their actions reflected their unique status as women of color.

The NWSA, "New Departure" and Radical Black Feminism

The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, also focused on more than just women’s suffrage. The NWSA had a controversial reputation because of their more radical tactics and because they would debate important and contentious social issues, including marriage and divorce.

For the suffrage cause, their first strategy was to reinterpret the 14th Amendment ratified on July 9, 1868; granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed to claim their right to vote on the basis of their citizenship.

The tactics used were called the “new departure” which involved attempts to register to vote and cast ballots, and to take their case to court and even to jail. Three Black women are known by name to have been involved in the “new departure” strategy: Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth and Mrs. Beatty (first name unknown). However, they did not limit themselves to only official NWSA suffrage activities.


Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth

Cary, for example, worked for Frederick Douglass’ Black newspaper The New National Era. Her writing included her feminist opinions and critiques of the conditions of African Americans. In the summers she traveled from D.C. to the South to give speeches focused in part on why Black women needed the right to vote. She also called for an amendment to strike “male” from the Constitution.

Cary is an example of a radical, independent suffragist working in “new departure” form but with a race-specific platform. Despite her solo crusades, she attended every NWSA convention held in her state and served on the business committee in 1877.

Pervasive Racism in the NWSA

Even with Black membership, NWSA strategies were often racist.

With the new plan for a 16th Amendment based on the language of the 15th Amendment, one tactic included working with Southern Democrats. Ties had been broken with the Republican Party leading into the passage of the 15th Amendment, so the Southern Democrats became NWSA allies around a racist idea that white women’s votes could be used to cancel out the the votes of newly enfranchised Black men.

AWSA Uses a Different Strategy

The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was a more conventional organization.

They allowed male officers, generally supported the Republican Party, kept their abolitionist base and only sought enfranchisement for women — not advocating for changes on the other issues being addressed by the NWSA.  Its members believed in organizing on the state and local level, and they worked to win the ballot for women on a state-by-state basis.

Despite AWSA’s singular focus, suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper used her platform as the closing speaker of the 1873 AWSA convention to call attention to the broader needs of African Americans.

In her speech she condemned the supremacy of white men over Black women in the South, and she called for equal rights and equal educational opportunities.  

Small Gains are Made - Equality is Still Out of Reach

At first, neither organization had much success. During the 1870s and 1880s, neither group attracted broad support from women or convinced enough male politicians to work for women’s voting rights.

On the national level, Congress appointed some committees to debate women’s suffrage and even considered an amendment guaranteeing votes for women, but no measures moved forward.

The state-by-state strategy was also unsuccessful. Eleven states included women’s suffrage on their ballots between 1870 and 1910, but gains were few.

However, there were some victories in these years. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho granted suffrage to women, under pressure from women’s rights groups and other progressive organizations.

In 1894, the year following the Colorado women’s suffrage referendum, three Colorado women - Clara Cressingham, Carrie Clyde Holly and Frances Klock - became the first women to be elected to any legislature in U.S. history when they were elected to the Colorado House of Representatives.

In addition to these state victories, at least 20 states created some form of partial suffrage for women by 1890. The most common forms of partial suffrage were granting women the right to vote on matters concerning schooling, municipal city or town elections or liquor licensing.

Male legislators justified these provisions by saying these referendums Questions or policies that are put on a ballot for citizens to vote on directly were appropriate to “women’s role in society” and somehow different from “politics.”