Throughout the history of woman suffrage, established political parties were fearful of and acted against women's enfranchisement. Starting with Reconstruction Republicans and concluding with Progressive Era Democrats, parties which were otherwise open to reform failed to support the enfranchisement of women. Sometimes politicians feared women's supposed conservatism, other times their alleged reform-mindedness, but always they feared the disruption that the doubling of the electorate would bring, especially the threat it meant to an enduring political patriarchy. Today the suspicion and harassment of women political candidates and officeholders is of a piece with that record, and knowing the history of woman suffrage can be a tool in resisting this form of voter suppression.
The woman suffrage movement can be said to have succeeded, but like the civil rights movement which has been its historic twin, it has never ended.
The Sacred Right to the Elective
It was a hot July Sunday in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, thirty-three years old and the busy mother of three rambunctious boys, was invited to tea at the home of Jane Hunt. Cady Stanton and Hunt lived in the twin towns of Seneca Falls and Waterloo, just off the bustling Erie Canal in upstate New York. The gathering was in honor of Lucretia Coffin Mott, in town from Philadelphia to see her sister, Martha Wright. Three other local Quaker women—Mary Ann M'Clintock and her two daughters Elizabeth and Mary Ann—joined them at the round parlor table.
Lucretia Mott was a tiny, serene fifty-year-old whose modest Quaker dress and demeanor belied her standing as one of the most courageous, widely respected— and radical—female voices in the world of American social reform. Along with her Quaker convictions, her roots in the whaling community of Nantucket had taught her about the strength and capacities of women. Her marriage to James Mott was, by all accounts, exceptionally loving and compatible. They had five children and shared strong reform commitments, beginning with a passionate hatred of slavery. James gave up his business as a cotton trader, and their household was kept absolutely free from anything produced by slave labor. Despite Mott's pacifist convictions, she was no stranger to violence. When a wild Philadelphia mob attacked an 1838 meeting of abolitionist women and burned the meeting hall to the ground, Mott calmly led the women outside to safety. Her reform convictions were broad. While visiting her sister in western New York, she took time to investigate the conditions and heard the concerns of nearby Seneca Indians and inmates at Auburn Prison.
That afternoon, the tea talk soon turned to a discussion about women's wrongs. Many such discussions no doubt took place around many such tables, but this time the outcome was different. The discussion was led by Cady Stanton, recently relocated from exciting Boston to relatively sleepy Seneca Falls, her growing family and modest middle-class resources leaving her little time or energy for anything else. Her torrent of emotions was still vivid to her a half century later when she wrote her autobiography. "I suffered with mental hunger," she wrote, "which, like an empty stomach, is very depressing.... Cleanliness, order, the love of the beautiful and artistic, all faded away in the struggle to accomplish what was absolutely necessary from hour to hour. Now I understood, as I never had before, how women could sit down and rest in the midst of general disorder." Housewives from then until now would recognize themselves in her description.
Cady Stanton's unhappiness had reached a breaking point, and finding herself surrounded by a sympathetic group of women like herself, she "poured out, that day, the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent, with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the party, to do and dare anything." The small group was determined to organize a "convention," a term that had recently come into usage for public meetings to discuss and take action around compelling issues. Political parties held conventions and so did established reform movements such as temperance and antislavery. But this convention would be different; it would be the first to focus on women's wrongs and women's rights.
Time was short if they wanted to take advantage of Lucretia Mott's presence, experience, and reputation. The women placed an announcement in the local paper of a two-day public meeting for protest and discussion, to be held ten days hence at the Wesleyan Chapel, a progressive religious congregation in Seneca Falls. They would discuss "the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women"—note the absence of "political" in the list. Then they began to consider what to do next, for they had few days to prepare. Only Lucretia Mott had ever planned such a public event, so they were a combination of bold and timid in calling this one. They did not sign their names to the announcement, and when it came time, none of them, not even Lucretia Mott, was willing to chair the proceedings. Writing with her characteristic verve, Cady Stanton looked back: "They were quite innocent of the herculean labors they proposed.... They felt as helpless and hopeless as if they had suddenly been asked to construct a steam engine." But the power of the Declaration they produced belies that modest memory.