American Feminism: First Wave Women's Movement (USA)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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Yvonne Johnson (Central Missouri State University)

The first wave of the U.S. Women's Movement in the United States began in 1848 with the first Women's Convention held at Seneca Falls, New York and ended with the 19th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1920 granting women suffrage in national politics.

The Beginning

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the founder and philosopher of the early woman's rights movement in the United States. She became its chief writer and speaker, dedicating much of her life to defining its goals while exploring the nature and causes of woman's subordinate position in society. She was just a little child when she became conscious of the repressive elements in her own life. Elizabeth was born in 1815 in Johnstown, New York, one of 6 children (5 daughters and one son). She soon realized that all her parents' hopes were put on their son, and when he died, they were inconsolable. At age 11, Elizabeth tried to console her father, but his response was “Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy”. Judge Cady did allow her to come to his law office to sit in on his discussion of client's cases, and there she learned the laws that stripped married women of money and property, even personal belongings. In 1839, while visiting her cousin in upstate New York, Elizabeth met abolitionist Henry Stanton. They immediately fell in love and were married before Henry left for the London Anti-Slavery Conference of 1840 in London. Elizabeth accompanied Stanton on this trans-Atlantic voyage and it changed her life, for there she met Lucretia Mott. The two women took long walks together through London while Mrs. Mott assured Mrs. Stanton that she had the same right to think for herself as Luther Calvin and John Knox. On one of those walks they agreed that as soon as they returned home, they would call a meeting to form a society to advocate the rights of women. It took them eight years to call the meeting, as illness, family responsibilities and the antislavery cause made them postpone it.

Women in the state of New York were concentrating on getting a Married Woman's Property Act through the legislature. It finally passed in 1848, giving married women full control over their own real estate, but it still left husbands with the legal right to whatever money their wives might earn by working. The law gave no protection to working women. In the late 1840s Stanton was running a growing household and living in Seneca Falls, New York. In early July 1848, she received an invitation to meet once more with Lucretia Mott at the home of a mutual friend in Waterloo, New York. At the meeting of July 13 the women decided to call “a public meeting for protest and discussion”. They decided to call it the Woman's Rights Convention, complete with speakers and a public announcement in the local newspaper. The first item on the meeting's agenda was a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions written by Stanton. She used the Declaration of Independence as her model, beginning with “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . .” She also wrote that “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.” This statement was followed by a list of injuries and usurpations, and, finally, by a call for the vote for women, stating that men have

compelled her to submit to laws she had no voice in making, made her, if married, civilly dead in the eyes of the law, taken from her all rights in property, event to the wages she earns. He has compelled her to promise obedience to her husband, who then becomes, to all intents and purposes, her master, with legal power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer chastisement; and has framed divorce and separation laws entirely to the advantage of the man.

The Convention was held on July 19, 1848 in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls. There were 300 women and 40 men in attendance, and James Mott presided. Lucretia Mott spoke on the 2nd day. The assembly voted on the Declaration and the Resolutions and all was unanimously accepted until the suffrage amendment was proposed. It was considered too extreme for many, but it was supported by Frederick Douglass. The resolution finally passed by a small margin, and 100 men and women signed the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. Only one of the signers, Charlotte Woodward, was living 72 years later when the vote was finally granted to female citizens of the U.S.

Susan B. Anthony became Elizabeth Cady Stanton's partner and supporter in the Women's Rights Movement. She was born into a family of Quakers in Adams, Massachusetts in 1820. Unlike Stanton's family, the Anthony family supported the right of women to speak and to preach. Anthony's grandmother and aunt were leading “High Seat” Quakers, and her aunt Hannah was a famous preacher. From her family and her heritage, Anthony developed self-respect and a sense of dignity not often found among American women. She was sent to a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia where she learned more science than most girl's schools provided. In 1838, when she was 18, her father's business mill went bankrupt, and the family home was sold to pay off debts. Anthony went to work teaching and by the time the family property was put up for auction, she had saved a little money with which to buy some of the household goods.

When Anthony was offered a position as head of the female department of the Canajoharie Academy, she moved to Canajoharie, NY. There she dropped both the severe dress and the “plain language” of the Quakers, attended parties and dances and went out with young men. She had offers of marriage but turned them down by her own choice. While in Canajoharie she joined the Daughters of Temperance and made her 1st public speech at a fund-raiser. After a few years in Canajoharie, she became dissatisfied with teaching. It paid too little, for a man doing the same work received four times her salary. The weekly salary for women was $2.50, while for men it was 10.00. In 1849, she quit her job. She joined the Rochester Daughters of Temperance and became its president. She served as a delegate to temperance conventions in upper New York State, and at one of the conventions, she met Amelia Bloomer of Seneca Falls. In 1851, she visited Seneca Falls and met Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony liked each other immediately, forming a friendship that became the heart of the woman's rights movement in the United States.

In 1854, Stanton and Anthony presented a petition with ten thousand signatures for woman suffrage and married women's property rights to the New York legislature. Anthony was the organizer behind the petition drive, but Stanton delivered the first major speech by a woman to the N. Y. legislature. The two women formed a partnership that lasted their lifetimes, but the activism they promoted was delayed by Stanton until her youngest child of two was a teenager. Stanton told Anthony, “You and I have the prospect of a good long life. We shall not be in our prime before fifty, and after that we shall be good for twenty years at least.”

Following the Civil War two separate Women's Rights organizations emerged. The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded by Stanton and Anthony in 1869. This organization refused to support the Fifteenth Amendment giving the vote to African American males unless it included woman. Anthony and Stanton worked at the national level as they thought state-by-state progress too slow. Although they did not forge bonds with working class women, they were able to connect with a new class of professional women such as teachers, nurses, and journalists. The American Woman Suffrage Association led by Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Blackwell pledged support for the Fifteenth Amendment and argued that woman suffrage should be ratified at the state level. They believed that the government would support woman suffrage once African American males had the vote, and they lobbied accordingly at the 1872 Republican convention. They received no support from the GOP and they were dropped by the Republican platform. The Republican Party did not even mention woman's suffrage again until 1916.

Stanton and Anthony researched the condition of women and used activist tactics. Anthony became the spokeswoman for their organization, expressing her views in public speeches and in the NWSA publication, The Revolution. After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, Anthony and Stanton began demanding a 16th Amendment to the Constitution that would enfranchise women. In 1871, they called a Washington convention that was led entirely by women. In that same year, Anthony registered to vote in her hometown of Rochester, New York. She actually succeeded in voting in an election, but was arrested shortly afterward. She was assessed a one hundred dollar fine by a local judge. She announced in court that she would never pay one dollar of the unjust penalty, and it remains unpaid to date.

The two wings of the suffrage movement united in 1890, becoming the National America Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Most Woman Suffrage leaders realized that it was imperative to link woman under a single banner. Stanton opposed the merger as she argued that both organizations had become political and conservative, but Susan B. Anthony joined forces with Lucy Stone to form the new organization. She wanted to see American women get the vote. NAWSA streamlined its operations, organizing more formal conventions and agreeing to work through the states for a national amendment. Anthony became the president of the new organization at the age of 72, serving in that office from 1892 to 1900. In addition to her other activities, Anthony joined with Stanton and Matilda Jocelyn Gage to write a four-volume history of women in America. She died on March 13, 1906.

While state campaigns became more numerous and effective, these campaigns usually failed. Although a few western states had granted women the right to vote in local and/or state elections in the years following the Civil War, not a single state granted women the vote between 1896 and 1910. By 1900, the rise of the progressive movement favored the suffragist cause. In the context of the progressive reform agenda, woman suffrage made sense. NAWSA's publication, the Woman's Journal, coupled its support for reform legislation with support of influential women reformers, such as those at Hull-House. Finally, change of leadership enhanced NAWSA's legitimacy. Stanton retired in 1892 to agitate for divorce reform and publish her Woman's Bible. She died in 1903.

After Anthony retired in 1900, Carrie Chapman Catt served as president from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, an ordained minister and physician, held the office from 1904 to 1915. Shaw was not an effective manager, and she did nothing to further the cause at the federal level. Her energies were focused on state campaigns; as a result, no amendment had been presented to Congress since 1896.

Catt was a different type of leader, as she had led the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (1902) and had presided over conferences in Europe. In 1915, when she took over the NAWSA once more, she had become a wealthy widow. During her second tenure, NAWSA was shifting tactics from “education” to action, and women were making demands in the public sphere. African American women such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett endorsed the suffrage cause, but often were excluded from the suffrage crusade. NAWSA rejected an application for admission from a federation of black women's clubs as late as 1919. Anthony did not agree with such racist exclusion, and black leaders sometimes addressed NAWSA conventions while she was president of NAWSA. However, in general the suffrage movement ignored black women.

In 1910, sentiment began to turn in favor of woman suffrage. In 1912, the Progressive Party under Theodore Roosevelt, endorsed woman suffrage as part of the 1912 platform. The General Federation of Women's Clubs endorsed the vote for women in 1914, and then once more there was movement toward suffrage from the western states. Western States such as Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and Idaho had already granted suffrage at the state and local levels, but in 1910 the state of Washington gave women the vote. Women gained the vote in California in 1911; in 1912, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, and Montana granted the vote, and, in 1913, the Illinois legislature approved woman suffrage.

Despite these successes at the state level, many younger women were impatient at the slow pace of reform. A rival faction, led by Alice Paul, formed the National Woman's Party. Paul was born in Moorestown, New Jersey in 1885. Like Anthony, she came from a Quaker background. She received a Bachelor of Science degree from Swarthmore College, a Master of Arts degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Doctorate of Civil Law from American University in 1928. Paul worked in London and was influenced by the British reformer and feminist, Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst once said that “nothing speaks as loudly as the sound of broken glass” as she and her followers proceeded to break windows. Women in England had chained themselves to lampposts, knocked out windows of Parliamentarians, and, when put in prison had gone on hunger strikes. After training with Pankhurst, Paul returned to the United States in 1910. She was determined to put some new life back into the woman suffrage movement using Pankhurst's philosophy and tactics. By 1913, Paul, along with Crystal Eastman, Lucy Burns and Mary Ritter Beard, had introduced a much more militant form of activism to American women. Catt gave Paul credit but did not want the movement to be associated with radical tactics. In 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, Paul organized a huge parade of 5,000 women. Wilson arrived in Washington by train, expecting a welcoming crowd. Instead, he was greeted by deserted streets and the information that everyone was watching the women's parade. Washington D.C. police refused to protect the marchers, and men attacked them, creating ugly and violent incidents.

By 1916, the Woman's Party had broken with NAWSA and was picketing the White House. The women stood silent and motionless, holding banners which asked when women would get the vote. Sometimes they were greeted with sympathy and sometimes as harmless curiosities. When the United States entered World War I, however, they were greeted with hostility by the press and observers. Some of the suffragists, such as Crystal Eastman, argued that all efforts should go toward attaining peace. Paul did not agree. She put suffrage first, and stated that women were not going to be deviated by the barbaric activities of men. Women continued to picket the White House, but now the banners reflected the war also. Some of the banners addressed Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson” and others proclaimed “Democracy Should Begin at Home”. The demonstrating women were now seen as dangerous and, beginning in July 22, 1917 they were arrested. Since they were breaking no law, they could only be charged with committing a nuisance such as “obstructing traffic”.

At first they were released, but as arrest and dismissal did not stop the picketing, and as they refused to pay assessed fines, they were jailed. At first they were jailed for days, then weeks, then months, and some were sent to the Occoquan Work House in Virginia. Led by Paul and Lucy Burns, many went on hunger strikes to protest the illegality of their arrests. After they refused food and water for several days, they were brutally force fed using tubes inserted into their esophagi. On at least one occasion, more than 40 guards, under orders from Superintendent W. H. Whittaker, went on a rampage that included kicking, beating, choking, and slamming the women prisoners. Eleanor Flexner states they were among the earliest victims of the abrogation of wartime liberties. Only women were arrested, as the men who tore the banners from their hands and sometimes “roughed them up” were not arrested. After the news of the force feedings and other mistreatment was made public, Paul and her fellow prisoners were released.

The Woman's Party organized to oppose the Democrats and got both Houses of Congress to consider a new amendment. Catt finally took action on behalf of nationalizing the woman suffrage movement. Although she chaired the Woman's Peace Party formed in Washington D.C. in 1915, when the U.S. entered the war in 1917, Catt withdrew from the organization and took a number of women with her. What was left of the WPP became the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Membership in NAWSA doubled during the early war years. Clubwomen engaged in volunteer war work, selling bonds, saving food and organizing benefits for the troops. The war actually helped the suffrage movement. Finally joining forces with Paul, Catt asked for passage of the suffrage amendment as a “war measure”. In 1916, Catt convinced President Wilson to support the movement and she planned to win a proposed amendment from Congress, and then take it to the states. Wilson urged the Senate to pass a woman suffrage amendment, as a measure “vital to the war effort”. The House of Representative finally passed a woman suffrage amendment on January 10, 1918, and the Senate approved it in June 1919. Fourteen months later, on August 26, 1920, the 36th state, Tennessee, ratified the amendment and the woman's vote was legal nationwide. For the first time in U.S. history, 26 million women had the vote for the presidential election of 1920. Charlotte Woodward, who was 91 and who had attended the Seneca Falls convention and had signed the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848, voted for the first time in her life.


Once women gained the vote, polling places immediately moved from saloons and barber shops to schools and churches. Many northern states passed laws to enable women to serve on juries, but other states were slow to grant this right, and some southern states passed laws that effectively kept women from voting for almost a decade. The Women's Joint Congressional Committee was formed, representing major women's organizations. The Congressional Committee lobbied for passage of bills favorable to women, and political parties began briefly to cater to the woman's vote, but by the mid-1920s it was obvious that woman suffrage did not have a great impact on political life in the country. Women tended to vote as their husbands or fathers voted, and they voted in smaller proportions than men. They did not vote as a bloc, nor did their votes purify politics or end war, imperialism, disease, crime, vice or injustice. The vote for women however, had far-reaching effects on the American political scene. According to Ellen DuBois, “it demonstrated that women could unite to affect public policy and change the course of history, to serve as an active agency of change”. Dubois points out that the woman suffrage movement successfully challenged “masculine monopoly of the public sphere”.

Further Reading

Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography. New York: New York University Press, 1988.
Bacon, Margaret Hope. Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986.
-----. Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott. New York: Walker, 1980.
DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty. The Free Press: Macmillan, N.Y. 1989.
Griffen, Elisabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
Irwin, Inez Hayes, The Story of Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party. Denlingers Publishers: Fairfax, VA, 1977.
Stevens, Doris. Jailed for Freedom. New York: Liveright Publishing, 1920.

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Citation: Johnson, Yvonne. "American Feminism: First Wave Women's Movement (USA)". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 22 January 2008 [, accessed 07 February 2023.]

4153 American Feminism: First Wave Women's Movement (USA) 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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