On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams addressed a letter to her husband John. He was in Philadelphia, serving as an influential member of the Second Continental Congress. Come that July, the Continental Congress would ‘dissolve the political bonds’ joining the American colonies to Britain in a revolutionary declaration of independence. But Abigail Adams was aware of what the stakes were for women, as well. So, what did she write?
Efforts by Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams wrote: “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She continued, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
In spite of Abigail’s best efforts—and the founders’ declaration that “all men are created equal”—women had no direct voice in the new republic’s formation. Frequently, they did not even enjoy legal title to their own land or property. Instead, over the next century, American women would witness a growing number of American men receive the right to vote—including recent immigrants and freed male slaves—while wives, mothers, and daughters were informed that their civic participation was not wanted. It would be more than 144 years from the time Abigail Adams penned her letter until the time American women received the right to vote.
Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen
Even in revolutionary France during the late 18th century—after women played such a critical role in overthrowing the Bourbon monarchy—the so-called fairer sex were deemed ‘passive citizens’ and excluded from the political rights outlined in revolutionary France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This omission prompted a number of protests and appeals.
Olympe de Gouges, a butcher’s daughter, wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in 1791—two years after the official Declaration of the Rights of Man. In it, she illustrated the hypocrisy of male revolutionaries who advocated equality for only one sex. But her appeal went unanswered.
After the constitutional monarchy gave way to the first French republic in 1792, the new state granted universal suffrage to men while women got nothing. Indeed, amid the great democratic revolutions of the 18th century, women saw their positions deteriorate as new laws codified traditional limitations to women’s political prerogatives.
Women and Suffrage
Women, generally, were told that they should be satisfied that their husbands and fathers had gained suffrage; but many were not. Instead, American women, for instance, cried foul that they were required to pay taxes and yet enjoyed no representation, like the male revolutionaries before them.
Soon, it became clear—both in the United States and Britain—that the rhetoric of rights and equality had become a sort of genie that, once released from the bottle, could not be contained. A universal rights doctrine—that everyone is entitled to such rights and freedoms—became a principal revolutionary legacy for women from the revolutionary age of the 18th century forward.
In the United States, the abolitionist movement—the movement to bring freedom for African-American slaves—brought many women to the cause of suffrage. Still, fissures emerged in the interests of abolitionists and suffragists, as well.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Movement for Woman’s Suffrage in the United States
At the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, male organizers succeeded at barring the participation of British and American female delegates, banishing them to the visitors’ gallery and barring them from the debate. Among those sidelined were the American abolitionists and human rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.
Stanton said the movement for woman’s suffrage in the United States was born that very day. Outside the anti-slavery forum, she and Mott began planning a convention to advance women’s rights once they got back home. Taking place in the summer of 1848—in the upstate New York town of Seneca Falls—Cady Stanton called this “the greatest movement for human liberty” in history. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments advocated for one-half of the human race in stating “that all men and women are created equal”.
National Woman Suffrage Association and American Woman Suffrage Organization
The suffrage movement gained force and publicity until hitting a stumbling block with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. With the states engaged in an existential battle, women’s rights suddenly seemed less urgent. But when the war ended four years later—with a Northern victory and the abolition of slavery—American women renewed their political activism.
Congressional sponsors of the 14th and 15th Amendments—which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States and enfranchised Black male voters—nevertheless left women out of the equation. So, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association to focus specifically on women’s enfranchisement. They envisioned a federal solution to the problem of women’s suffrage by way of another constitutional amendment.
But other women’s rights advocates such as Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell preferred to work through the states, amending state constitutions. And so they formed the American Woman Suffrage Organization to work for the cause. These efforts succeeded at helping to win women the right to vote in the western states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Washington, California, and Idaho. But American women, as a whole, were still excluded from full citizenship and enjoyed no federal guarantees.
Common Questions about Women’s Suffrage Movement in the US
Olympe de Gouges, a butcher’s daughter, wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in 1791.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association to focus specifically on women’s enfranchisement. They envisioned a federal solution to the problem of women’s suffrage by way of constitutional amendment.
Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell formed the American Woman Suffrage Organization. They preferred to work through the states, amending state constitutions.