In the nineteenth century, women were considered citizens of the United States but they had no political or legal rights. The development of these rights was greatly affected by the federal system in the United States, which provided multiple access points for women’s organizations to influence policy.
In order to organize for women’s legal and political rights, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. As the movement continued, some in the movement supported a state-by-state approach to women’s suffrage rather than the U.S. constitutional amendment approach favored by Susan B. Anthony. In 1890 the factions merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which made women’s suffrage its major goal.
Suffrage came first in western states and some cities and towns. Wyoming was the first state to grant female suffrage in 1889. There was also some change at the local level, and by 1890, 16 states granted women the right to vote in city or school board elections. Women’s suffrage came in Colorado in 1893, and in Utah and Idaho in 1896. These early victories were closely related to local conditions in the West, so they did not translate quickly into change in the East and South. The Colorado case seemed to most closely foreshadow the changes to come, as the campaign there relied on a coalition of reformist third parties that included the People’s and Prohibition Parties. Thousands of women joined these parties and became avid speakers and advocates for women’s rights.
The transition to the Progressive era brought a new outlook to politics; women were very involved in reform efforts such as the temperance movement and the push for women and children’s labor protections. Women were already organized at the local grassroots level through the growth of women’s clubs, which helped strengthen the suffrage movement by bringing in new members who saw suffrage as a way to advance the social reform objectives that seemed to many a natural extension of women’s role in the home.
NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt pursued a two-pronged “winning plan” beginning in 1912, which focused on winning suffrage at both the state and national levels. The NAWSA approach took advantage of the different points of access in a federal system by which interest groups can influence government policy—what Morton Grodzins called federalism’s “multiple cracks”—to promote women’s suffrage. Several more states in the East and Midwest passed suffrage between 1913 and 1917. Some states, however, were not close to granting women’s suffrage when the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited citizens from being prohibited from voting “on account of sex,” was adopted after Tennessee ratified the amendment.
Unlike the later unsuccessful Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement of the 1970s, the suffrage movement was strengthened by strong state and local grassroots organizations that were absent in the later ERA movement. Despite the ERA’s failure to pass, women’s legal rights were further expanded in the 1960s and 1970s through the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) efforts to compel the federal government to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination. NOW also used a successful judicial strategy that prompted the Supreme Court to apply the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to gender cases and prevent states from engaging in gender discrimination in the case Reed v. Reed (1971). Protection against discriminatory state action was further expanded in Craig. v. Boren (1976).
Nancy E. McGlen, Karen O’Conner, Laura van Assendelft, and Wendy Gunther-Canada, Women, Politics and American Society, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 2004); and Sharon Hartman Storm, Women’s Rights (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004).
Maureen Rand Oakley
Last Updated: 2006