RECAP: “One Woman, One Vote,” Constitution Day Lecture w/ Distinguished Prof. Marjorie J. Spruill

The obstacles suffragists faced in the “continuous, seemingly endless chain of activity” that led up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment were, University of South Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita Marjorie J. Spruill described, to some extent built into the United States’ founding history. On one hand, with the principle of coverture erasing married women’s right to property in the early republic—and with property ownership then considered a pre-condition of being able to exercise the independence of judgment that elections required—the social and legal fabric of the era was, to put it lightly, inhospitable to woman’s suffrage (with the exception of New Jersey, states likewise denied the franchise to widows and single women in spite of their owning property). Similarly inhospitable was the nation’s constitutional order. By design, any amendment that did not have broad national support—any amendment, like woman’s suffrage, which might be deemed even remotely radical—was more or less dead on arrival.

As Prof. Spruill laid out in her September 17 James E. Fleming & Linda C. McClain Constitution Day Lecture, the suffrage movement thus required ingenuity and strategic adaptability from its leaders. That said, she added that it is of paramount importance to also acknowledge that, with resilience, came a disturbing legacy of betrayal and racial prejudice.

The story of suffrage, Prof. Spruill explained, traces back to the antebellum Northeast, where a critical mass of women began to demand the franchise after they were barred from participating in ancillary reform movements, most notably the anti-slavery movement. The suffrage movement was, in this first wave, integrated across racial and gender lines: Frederick Douglass, for example, spoke out for a woman’s right to vote alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; and African American women including Hattie Forten and Sojourner Truth played key roles in sustaining reform momentum throughout the 1850s. The same cannot be said of the movement’s regional orientation, however. The call for suffrage had not yet started to truly spread westward at this point (more on the West in a moment), and the idea was sworn off in the South as a spinoff of abolitionism.

The first major inflection point in the suffrage narrative would come in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the war’s early years, suffragists put aside concern for their own rights to lobby for those of the enslaved, and women activists had a large hand in creating the political climate that made emancipation possible. The end of the war, though, ushered in conflict of a new sort. Unity began to fray as old allies abandoned the cause of woman’s suffrage in order to ensure that the voting rights of African American men were secured—“One vote at a time,” said Wendell Phillips—and the suffrage movement would ultimately facture around the issue of ratifying the 15th Amendment, which, in safeguarding the voting rights of African Americans, introduced an explicit corollary between male citizenship and the franchise for the first time in the U.S. Constitution’s history. Enraged, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony split off to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which pledged to oppose the 15th Amendment until it was accompanied by a second federal amendment enfranchising women. Lucy Stone, among others, countered by forming the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which supported the 15th Amendment—though with some disappointment—and embarked on a grassroots campaign to promote voting rights at the state level and, more generally, to present the issue of woman’s suffrage as consistent with post-war national values.

As Prof. Spruill showed, a number of important developments would follow from this schism. After Anthony was arrested and indicted for casting a ballot in New York, the same fate befell Virginia Minor in St. Louis. In the case of the latter, adjudication of Minor’s “transgression” made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Minor v. Happersett (1874) that citizenship did not guarantee the vote, thereby making it clear that there was no quick-and-ready federal solution to the question of suffrage and that the movement would have to go through the states. And go through the states it did, at least in the West. Throughout the last decades of the 19th century, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho would all enfranchise women at the state level, largely, Prof. Spruill posited, because legislators believed that doing so would attract national attention and, in turn, residents (Anthony, for one, was delighted by this and encouraged women to move to Wyoming, the land of liberty). It was also during this time that suffrage went global, due in no small part to the fact that decided non-radicals, particularly Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, were converted to the cause.

The racial bigotry which Prof. Spruill mentioned in framing her talk would likewise rear its head in the late 1800s. Both Stanton and Anthony are roundly criticized today for statements they made in the NWSA’s early years about not being able to conceive of being governed by African American men and new immigrants. And in the South, Laura Clay would exploit the region’s deeply-rooted white supremacy in crafting a “Southern Strategy” that was built around the idea that circumventing the 15th Amendment and functionally disenfranchising African American men could be done legally by extending the vote to white women. Prof. Spruill noted that the rise of Clay’s ultimately doomed Southern Strategy also led to increased participation of Black women in the suffrage movement, including Ida B. Wells and Adella Hunt Logan, the latter of whom argued in The Crisis that if white women needed the vote to protect their rights, Black women needed it even more.

The tides began to turn as the movement entered its final push in the 1910s. Not only were more state-level victories won in the West, including in Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona. Additionally, progressives in both parties began gravitating toward support for suffrage because they saw courting the burgeoning women’s club movement as a gateway to passing reforms. Their ideas about women’s nature hadn’t changed, Prof. Spruill was careful to point out, but their ideas about government had. Still, a final division of the ranks would precede ratification. In 1914, Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP) would break away from the North American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), to which Carrie Chapman Catt returned in 1915 as president. Paul—who was influenced mightily by her experience with the suffrage movement in Great Britain—would lead the NWP in marches down Pennsylvania Avenue and on picket lines in front of the White House, where she publicly and resoundingly took “Kaiser” Woodrow Wilson to task for claiming to be making the world safer for democracy via participation in World War I while simultaneously refusing to include women in the democratic process at home. To Wilson’s chagrin, the violence from male counter-protesters and the work house sentences that Paul and other NWP members experienced during this period of protest only served to garner critical sympathy for the cause. On the other side, Catt, who backed Wilson and the war despite her pacifism, was unwavering in lobbying for congressional support for a suffrage movement that continued to sweep through the states.

It was, Prof. Spruill argued in closing, a combination of Paul’s pressure and Catt’s skillful political maneuvering that would get a constitutional amendment through Congress. But state-level ratification loomed, and while the West had been won, huge swaths of the South still considered suffrage “unwarranted, unnecessary, and downright dangerous,” with many perceiving approval of the 19th Amendment as tantamount to an expression of support for the 15th. Even after Tennessee’s Harry Burns cast the vote that would seemingly enfranchise women, the amendment’s fate remained undecided. A re-vote was demanded, and anti-suffrage legislators fled Nashville in (dashed) hopes of preventing a quorum.

The conclusions that we should take away from the story of the long road to ratification are many: that it was exhausting, righteous, and not always noble; that while suffragists in the U.S. were victorious, that was not the case around the globe; that to call the U.S. suffrage movement victorious is, in fact, misleading, as African American women, like African American men, could not freely wield their recently-won right until the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and perhaps most importantly, that cases like Shelby County v. Holder (2013) lay bare the fact that the franchise is something we must continue to defend.

A recording of the lecture can be accessed here.