August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the date in 1920 that American women officially secured the right to vote. While Elizabeth Cady Stanton first rallied women to the cause of suffrage during the Seneca Falls convention, eventually inspiring her good friend and fellow activist Susan B. Anthony to take up the fight as well, many other women both preceded and succeeded them in the battle for the ballot box.
Here are nine American women who spoke out for women’s rights and women’s suffrage from the earliest days of the republic until the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Judith Sargent Murray:
The daughter of a wealthy merchant, Murray taught herself from the family library while her brother prepared for Harvard University, a future barred to Murray. In her influential essay “On the Equality of the Sexes,” completed and published years before Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Murray argued that the only intellectual hurdle women faced was not their limited intelligence, but their lack of access to equal education. “Will it be said that the judgment of a male of 2 years old, is more sage than that of a female’s of the same age?” she asked rhetorically in her essay. “I believe the reverse is generally observed to be true. … How is the one exalted, and the other depressed, by the contrary modes of education which are adopted! The one is taught to aspire, and the other is early confined and limited. As their years increase, the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science.”
The Grimke Sisters:
The Grimke sisters, born in the early 1800s, were not only some of the first white women from a slave-holding Southern family to publicly fight for emancipation, but they were also among the first to tie women’s rights to abolition. Younger sister Angelina was a powerful orator whose anti-slavery message was occasionally obscured by her scandalous decision to speak in front of mixed crowds of both men and women, a practice branded “promiscuous” in her time. Sarah, older and a great influence on Angelina, became a well-known writer after her original plan to attend Yale Law School was scuttled by family and society.
Though the Grimke sisters were famous in their day, abolitionists didn’t always approve of their speaking engagements and other forms of political activity that society deemed improper for women. “We cannot push Abolitionism forward with all our might until we take up the stumbling block out of the road,” Angelina fumed in a letter. “If we surrender the right to speak in public this year, we must surrender the right to petition next year, and the right to write the year after, and so on. What then can woman do for the slave, when she herself is under the feet of man and shamed into silence?” Meanwhile, Sarah turned her writing more towards women’s rights, including the popular pamphlet The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women and its argument against “legal disabilities of women” and the prohibition on voting.
Another women’s rights advocate coming from the abolition movement, Stone worked closely with Anthony and Stanton for many years. Ultimately, however, a major disagreement over the 15th Amendment—a precursor to the Voting Rights Act—broke apart the industrious trio.
Anthony and Stanton, though both abolitionists, vehemently opposed the amendment when it went before Congress as it conspicuously left “sex” out of the declaration that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Stone and many other female abolitionists believed in securing African American men’s right to vote first and optimistically thought women’s suffrage would soon follow (it took another 50 years).
Despite the schism, Stone did not turn her back on woman’s suffrage. When pressured by abolitionists to drop women’s issues from her popular speeches, she began to campaign even more tirelessly for that cause, founding the first National Women’s Rights Convention, forming what would later become known as the League of Women Voters, and leading several state petition drives to enfranchise women, a tactic that contributed greatly to the success of the 19th Amendment.
Not being able to vote herself didn’t stop the colorful Woodhull from running for president. In 1872, she jumped in the presidential race on the Equal Rights party ticket supported by Anthony’s National Women’s Suffrage Association, claiming Frederick Douglass as her veep (whether the famed anti-slavery advocate knew anything about his political run is debatable). That was just one of the ways the flashy free-love pioneer garnered publicity for her earnest interest in women’s rights. While Woodhull was popular in her day, publishing a radical, pro-suffrage newspaper with her sister and frequently speaking for the cause, her eccentric life and courting of controversy soured her appeal to Anthony and other contemporaries. That’s too bad, because in addition to being the first American woman to run for president, Woodhull was also the first female stockbroker on Wall Street (along with her sister), and the first to appear before a U.S. congressional committee.
Abigail Scott Duniway
While the path to national suffrage was a long, hard road, suffragists took heart in several state-level victories in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Most of the first states to enfranchise women were in the West, where the rugged frontier society was less conservative.
Among the more prominent women’s rights advocates of the West is Duniway, who spent most of her life in Oregon (where suffrage efforts were defeated five times before passage in 1912). Her campaigning, aided by Anthony’s advisement, was more successful in Washington and Idaho in the late 1880s through early 1900s. The author of some 22 novels and mother to at least five children, the busy Duniway also became a newspaper publisher, where she garnered a national following for her outspoken opinions on women’s rights.
It’s easy to forget that the founding mothers of women’s suffrage, Stanton and Anthony, were both long dead by the time the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. At the turn of the century, Anthony personally selected the brilliant Catt to succeed her in leading the National American Women’s Suffrage Association—and it was with Catt at the helm that suffrage finally became the law of the land. However, between her first term as president of NAWSA from 1900 to 1904 and her return in 1915, Catt founded and led the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, known today as the International Alliance of Women.
Upon returning to NAWSA in 1915, Catt revived waning interest in American women’s suffrage, introducing her “winning plan” that bridged suffragists’ competing strategies of pursuing enfranchisement at the state or national level. Catt also maintained enthusiasm among weary state NAWSA chapters during the nervous, disheartening 14 months that transpired between Congress passing the 19th Amendment and all states ratifying it. That says nothing of her impressive back channeling that finally won the long withheld support from President Woodrow Wilson necessary to make women’s suffrage a reality.
In 1916, a decade after Anthony had died, Jeanette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. While Montana enfranchised women in 1914, thanks in part to Rankin’s efforts, some national suffrage leaders weren’t wholly enthusiastic about her House of Representatives bid, fearing a high-profile loss would jeopardize the cause. Even when she was elected, women’s rights activists remained anxious, chiding Rankin for holding firm on her pacifist views and making an unpopular vote against entering World War I. Others felt Rankin did not do enough with her term to further women’s rights, though she founded and served on the Committee for Women Suffrage and opened the first U.S. House of Representatives floor debate on the subject. Rankin lost her second term after redistricting and then made a failed attempt at the U.S. Senate. But she returned to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1940, just in time to cast another even more unpopular vote against war, as the lone dissenter to entering World War II. In defending her choice she noted, “As a woman I cannot go to war—and I refuse to send anyone else.” After finishing her term, Rankin chose not to run again and devoted the rest of her life to pacifism and non-violent protest.
Mary Church Terrell
In many discussions of American women’s history, there’s a glaring lack of color. One of the sad reasons for this is that though women’s suffrage was closely tied to the abolition movement early on, ingrained racism, the split over the 15th Amendment and a concerted effort to distance the suffrage movement from African American women in the 20th century largely shut out women of color and minorities.
The daughter of freed slaves turned successful business owners, Terrell moved from Tennessee to Washington D.C. in the 1890s after becoming one of the first African American woman to graduate from college. Though she was deeply committed to women’s suffrage, her activism was not embraced among D.C. suffragists, which only made her more outspoken. Terrell eventually formed the National Association for Colored Women with other prominent African American women activists, including Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells, and became the organization’s first president. While supporting women’s suffrage, the NACW also worked to eliminate lynchings and Jim Crow laws and promoted integration. Though white women’s battle for the ballot box ended in 1920, African American women worked for decades more to enjoy the same right just as freely.
Opening photo via Shutterstock. All others via Wikimedia Commons