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Women's Suffrage Movement  
 
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Deriving from the word for the pieces of broken pottery once used to cast votes, suffrage means the right to vote in elections. Full suffrage is usually defined as not only the right to vote but to run for office as well.

Since most governments, even democratic ones, developed along patriarchal principles, many early republics permitted only men to vote. Even in the often-idealized Athenian democracy of fifth-century B. C. E. Greece, neither slaves nor women were permitted to vote.

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Many women have spoken out against the gender-biased policies of their governments, and during the second half of the nineteenth century American women began an organized struggle to gain the right to vote in national elections. Though the fight to gain suffrage would last for several generations, the actions of U. S. suffragists, as those fighting for female suffrage called themselves, were part of a movement to improve women's rights throughout the Western world.

The women's suffrage movement, which began during a time of great social change in the mid-1800s, was closely linked with a women's rights movement, sometimes called the first wave of feminism. As they would during the women's liberation movement, which peaked during the 1970s, almost a hundred years later, lesbian and bisexual women led the American movement for women's suffrage.

Nineteenth-Century Beginnings

As long as men have made laws abridging the rights of women, there have no doubt been women who spoke out against those laws. Many of their voices have been lost. However, one important early statement was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792. This work exerted great influence on the nineteenth-century suffragists.

The atmosphere of social reform that characterized the nineteenth century was fertile ground for an organized women's movement. This movement flourished throughout Europe, but was especially energized by the work of women in the United States and Great Britain.

The event that marked the beginning of the women's suffrage movement in the U. S. was the Seneca Falls Convention, held in New York state on July 19 and 20, 1848. Organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and attended by about 250 women and 40 men, the convention addressed many issues of women's rights, including the right to vote.

Close to a hundred of the attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments drawn up by Stanton, which outlined women's oppression and demanded equality with men. Reports of the convention in the press were mostly condescending and contemptuous, with the exception of those by some progressive journalists such as the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had attended the event himself.

Many of the activists in the budding women's suffrage movement were also strong abolitionists, who worked to end slavery in the United States. During the Civil War years (1861-1865) most stopped their activities on behalf of women's rights, in part because they devoted their energies to supporting Northern troops and the cause of abolition.

Many suffragists believed that once the war was won and Black slaves became citizens with full rights, both Black and white women would be given full suffrage as well. However, when the war ended, many national leaders continued to argue against giving women the vote. Many suffragists regarded this as a betrayal, and they reacted with bitter disappointment. The different priorities concerning votes for women and votes for Black men led to a split within the movement.

From the National Women's Suffrage Association to the League of Women Voters

Some suffragist leaders, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, accused the Republican party of abandoning support for the rights of women in favor of the rights of Black men. In May 1869, they formed a group called the National Women's Suffrage Association.

Other members of the movement, including Julia Ward Howe and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, disagreed with the confrontational tactics of the NWSA and prioritized the legalization of the rights of former slaves. They formed the American Women's Suffrage Association in November 1869. By 1870, the worst fears of the NWSA had been confirmed: the fifteenth amendment to the U. S. Constitution was passed, granting the right to vote to Black men, with no mention of women.

Stanton and Anthony responded by sending a petition to Congress in 1871 requesting female suffrage. When that did not work, Anthony led a group of women to an 1872 election site to attempt to vote. She was arrested for "knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully voting."

By 1890, the two U. S. women's suffrage organizations merged, forming the National American Women's Suffrage Association, which in 1919 became the League of Women Voters.

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Women march for the right to vote in New York City in 1912.
  
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