Uncovering the Untold Stories of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Writing any history of the women’s suffrage movement is an absurdist task. You must be in a million places at once viewing a million things simultaneously from a million different perspectives. It’s impossible. You are always aware of the arbitrary nature of what you select.

Movements don’t have a beginning and an end. They are dams historians build in the river of history to capture the flow in a particular moment, and historians regularly move the location of those dams. And history is defined less by what happened than by who tells the story.

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton sat down with her colleagues Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage to tell the story of the movement in their three-volume, three-thousand- page History of Woman Suffrage, they dammed up the history of their movement from their personal perspective. A planner of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, Stanton labeled it the first woman’s rights meeting held in the country. She may be correct. But it’s also possible that a grade school student going through her local newspaper for a History Day project may someday find an account of a woman’s rights meeting held before 1848. The location of the dams keeps shifting as our perspective and knowledge broaden.

This piece is adapted from THE WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Sally Roesch Wagner.

In their writings, Gage and Stanton also recognized the earlier existence of gender equality practiced in the nearby Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) nations. My new Penguin Classics anthology, The Women’s Suffrage Movement, for the first time, places the beginning of women’s rights a thousand years ago at the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy on the shores of Onondaga Lake, in present-day Syracuse, New York. Non-native women were bound by religious dogma instructing them to follow God’s edict that they be under the authority of men, with science telling them they were dumber, weaker and naturally dependent. These women needed a model, a functioning culture where women and men lived in equality. Stanton and Gage received much inspiration from seeing Native American equality in action. 

History is not inevitably progress nor is it linear. Rights gained may be taken away; concerns at one time may remain centuries into the present moment. So it is with Native American women’s history. As they were modeling the way for U.S. women to take greater authority over their lives, that authority was at the same time being taken away from them through violence, intimidation, law and religion. Never defeated, these Indigenous women rise today, “sovereign women in sovereign nations,” inviting us to learn from them as our suffragist foremothers did.

It’s also worth noting that the women’s suffrage movement was never about just the vote; nor was it a single movement. Early on, notably in the 1850s, women opened the Pandora’s box of their oppression, and out popped the Bible—admonishing them to shut their mouths, never wear trousers, obey their husbands and accept everything about their condition. Some courageous few resisted and attacked the religious dogma, wore pants, and demanded ownership of their property, decent working conditions and “equal pay for equal work.” Pushing open the doors to the higher education that had excluded them, they became doctors, lawyers, professors, business owners and ministers. They quickly realized, as did feminists in the next century, that the personal is very political, as they raised issues close to home: the right to their own bodies, to their children and to leave loveless and dangerous marriages.

When, after the Civil War, the movement split into two groups—the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), the division allowed for racist strategies to take hold. While both organizations wanted woman suffrage, they worked in seemingly diametrically opposed ways. The NWSA worked for the federal suffrage amendment, while the AWSA put its energy toward securing the right to vote state by state.

It is seldom recognized that this strategy, as it supported states’ rights, thereby also supported white supremacy. This may also help explain why most of the active African American women in the movement—Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Harriet Purvis—went with the NWSA.

The NWSA campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience spoke truth to power and broke the law to show its injustice. Citing “no taxation without representation,” members refused to pay their taxes. They broke the law by voting; if not allowed to vote, some sued the registrars who refused to let them register to vote. While history recognizes Susan B. Anthony as the pillar of illegal voting, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of women voted, many up to four years before she did. In 1876, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage risked arrest to illegally present a Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States on July 4, 1876, during the official centennial celebration. 

In 1886, NWSA activists protested at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, citing the hypocrisy of the government in representing liberty as a woman in a nation where “not one woman is free.” 

Eventually, NWSA and AWSA joined together. But while historians often accept that merger as inevitable and expedient, it was neither. The merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which increasingly became a top-down, hierarchical organization. It allowed its state auxiliaries to exclude African American women and to support educated suffrage—a means to the end of maintaining white, native-born sovereignty. It justified its xenophobia and racism as “expediency,” arguing that women would never achieve suffrage without the support of the South. 

History isn’t just what happened. It is also what didn’t happen. The NAWSA maintained silence as black men were systematically disenfranchised in the South. Lynching became a recognized practice for maintaining white power, and still the NAWSA remained silent. Barred from membership and attendance at the NAWSA conventions, their calls for support ignored by the NAWSA leadership, African American women formed their own suffrage organizations—working not just for the vote but also for education, against lynching and for a host of other issues.

Despite the increased funding that came with increased conservatism, the NAWSA languished until, in 1913, a group of young women—some fresh from training with the militant British suffragettes—brought new tactics and renewed energy to the lagging organization.

Unable to work within the NAWSA, Alice Paul and these new suffragists formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Their direct-action strategies recalled the dynamic NWSA, as they chained themselves to the White House or were arrested and force-fed through feeding tubes down their noses when they went on hunger strikes. They burned a recalcitrant President Wilson’s democracy speeches in protest and later, the president’s effigy. While working in sometimes opposing ways, the combined efforts of the ladylike NAWSA and the hold-your-feet-to-the-fire NWP—one outside calling out the injustice; one inside, asking politely—created momentum. 

The congressional hearings slowly progressed in the 1910s as the states’ rights strategy paid off. Thousands of women voters in the suffrage states were now watching the actions of their congressional representatives. The amendment wended its way through committees and onto the floor of the Senate and the House until finally, in 1919, it passed both houses and was sent to the states for ratification.

Next year will mark the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, but it’s essential that we continue to investigate and explore the unheard and marginalized voices of the movement. As we fight to create a more perfect union in this cultural revolution we are undergoing, we are creating a new history—not the top-down history that focuses on great white men, their great deeds and their great wars. We are shaping history to reflect and guide the bottom-up diversity of voices that changed, is changing, and will change the world.

Yes, if we don’t know our history we are bound to repeat it. But it is also true that if we do know our rich and diverse history of those who worked for social justice, we are empowered to repeat it.

Their voices have often been shouted down by those at the top. It’s time we gave them a listen.

Learn more about the too-often untold stories of the suffrage movement—and how they can inform our movement for a feminist future—at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Feminist Forum with Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner in Los Angeles on April 25. Registration is free and open to the public!


Feminist pioneer Dr. Sally Roesch Wagner is a nationally recognized lecturer, author and story-teller of woman’s rights history. One of the first women to receive a doctorate in the United States for work in women’s studies (UC Santa Cruz), and a founder of one of the country’s first college women’s studies programs, (CSU Sacramento). Dr. Wagner has taught women’s history for 48 years. She currently serves as adjunct faculty in the University Honors Program, Syracuse University and St. John Fisher’s Executive Leadership Program. The theme of Dr. Wagner’s work has been telling the untold stories. Her book The Women's Suffrage Movement, out now, unfolds a new intersectional look at the 19th century woman’s rights movement.