Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Feeling betrayed by the explicit limitation of suffrage to male citizens in the text of what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, participants in the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention drafted a protest to Congress. Although that protest did not change the wording of the amendment, it contributed to eventual winning of universal suffrage in the United States.

Summary of Event

On May 10, 1866, the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention was held at the Church of the Puritans in New York City’s Union Square. The convention was called by such prominent activists for women’s rights as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Active for many years in abolitionist and reformist circles, Stanton had worked to abolish slavery, bring about labor reform, and secure equal property, labor, and voting rights for women. Many participants in the women’s convention also had participated in the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, and most of them were prominent in the movement to secure the rights of African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War (1861-1865). Almost from the beginning, the battles to abolish slavery and to enfranchise women both legally and socially had gone hand in hand. In 1865, however, those goals began to diverge, and this divergence directly prompted the convention of 1866. Fourteenth Amendment;suffragist protests against Constitution, U.S.;Fourteenth Amendment Woman suffrage;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] National Woman’s Rights Convention (1866)[National Womans Rights Convention (1866)] Stanton, Elizabeth Cady [p]Stanton, Elizabeth Cady;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] Constitution, U.S.;and woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] [kw]Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment (May 10, 1866) [kw]Protest the Fourteenth Amendment, Suffragists (May 10, 1866) [kw]Fourteenth Amendment, Suffragists Protest the (May 10, 1866) [kw]Amendment, Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth (May 10, 1866) Fourteenth Amendment;suffragist protests against Constitution, U.S.;Fourteenth Amendment Woman suffrage;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] National Woman’s Rights Convention (1866)[National Womans Rights Convention (1866)] Stanton, Elizabeth Cady [p]Stanton, Elizabeth Cady;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] Constitution, U.S.;and woman suffrage[Woman suffrage] [g]United States;May 10, 1866: Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment[3940] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 10, 1866: Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment[3940] [c]Women’s issues;May 10, 1866: Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment[3940] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 10, 1866: Suffragists Protest the Fourteenth Amendment[3940] Mott, Lucretia [p]Mott, Lucretia;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] Anthony, Susan B. [p]Anthony, Susan B.;and FourteenthAmendment[Fourteenth Amendment] Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] Howe, Julia Ward Phillips, Wendell Stone, Lucy

In the spring of 1865, the U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;Fourteenth Amendment began considering legislation for what would become the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868. Section 2 of that amendment specifically stated that if “the right to vote at any election . . . is denied to any male inhabitants . . . or in any way abridged,” the representation of such states would be reduced proportionately. The inclusion of the word “male” allowed individual states to deny women the right to vote without penalty, leaving women no constitutional foundation for their claims to suffrage. As longtime workers for the emancipation of slaves, many women felt betrayed by the new legislation. Stanton was incensed that such a clause would be considered in a constitutional amendment and rallied the support of many followers to combat the implicitly sexist ideals represented by the new amendment.

Julia Ward Howe.

(Library of Congress)

Other prominent abolitionist leaders disagreed with Stanton’s position. For example, Horace Greeley Greeley, Horace [p]Greeley, Horace;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] , the editor of the New York Tribune New York Tribune and one of the country’s foremost antislavery leaders, believed that including the idea of the vote for women in the debate over the Fourteenth Amendment would only serve to make passage of voting rights for African Americans less likely. Likewise, Wendell Phillips Phillips, Wendell , the leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society, believed that woman suffrage would never be approved in the political climate of the day, so it was unwise to endanger the passage of voting rights for black men by linking the two issues together. Neither of these men seemed moved by Stanton’s arguments that half of the recently freed slaves were women, and that female slaves had been more abused by the slave system—particularly through sexual assault and the selling of their children—than had male slaves.

When the women’s convention met in May of 1866, the participants were concerned with woman suffrage and women’s rights in general, and specifically with the explicit limitation of suffrage to male citizens in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was then under consideration in Congress. The convention listed as its main aim the securing of “equal rights to all American citizens . . . irrespective of race, color, or sex.”

As the meeting convened, Stanton was elected president, but she declined, stating that she would prefer the first president to be Lucretia Mott Mott, Lucretia [p]Mott, Lucretia;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] , so that, in Stanton’s words, “The office of President . . . might ever be held sacred in the memory that it had first been filled by one so loved and honored by all.” Mott was a longtime worker for universal rights, a famous speaker on the abolitionist circuit, and a well-respected woman by all sides in the suffrage debate; she was elected president by unanimous vote. Although Mott was more than seventy years old and somewhat feeble, Mott agreed to accept the presidency, especially since Stanton, as vice president, would carry out most of the actual leadership duties. Mott praised the movement under way for being broad enough to encompass class, race, and sex, and reminded the participants that progress would likely be slow and ultimately would be advanced only by “the few in isolation and ridicule.”

Mott’s Mott, Lucretia [p]Mott, Lucretia;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] presidency of the convention was a brilliant compromise move on Stanton’s part to head off a division between two rival groups in the convention’s membership, one of which was led by Stanton herself and her longtime friend and colleague Susan B. Anthony Anthony, Susan B. [p]Anthony, Susan B.;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] . Stanton and Anthony were the most radical members of the group, who refused any compromise on the issues of universal suffrage and equality under the law. The other faction, led by Lucy Stone Stone, Lucy and Julia Ward Howe Howe, Julia Ward , was more conservative and willing to compromise on major issues. In later years, these two groups divided even further and worked separately for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and other legislation affecting women’s rights.

The most significant outcome of the 1866 convention was the adoption of an address to Congress regarding the issues of African American male suffrage and woman suffrage. This document stated the majority opinion of the convention participants, including their belief that

The only tenable ground of representation is universal suffrage, as it is only through universal suffrage that the principle of “Equal Rights to All” can be realized. All prohibitions based on race, color, sex, property, or education, are violations of the republican idea; and the various qualifications now proposed are but so many plausible pretexts to debar new classes from the ballot-box.

Although the 1866 convention’s address was received by Congress, it did not alter the tenor of the congressional debate on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which were passed and eventually ratified by the states. The convention’s seeds had been sown, however, and continued to bear fruit. In 1868, Stanton and Anthony founded the Woman Suffrage Association of America, Woman Suffrage Association of America;founding of which continued to work on both a state-by-state and a national basis for woman suffrage. Later called the National Woman Suffrage Association, this group also published a journal called Revolution, edited by Stanton and Anthony Anthony, Susan B. [p]Anthony, Susan B.;and Fourteenth Amendment[Fourteenth Amendment] , that supported women’s legislative causes. Another group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, worked for suffrage and other rights for women through its own magazine, The Woman’s Journal, edited by Lucy Stone Stone, Lucy , Mary Livermore Livermore, Mary , and Julia Ward Howe Howe, Julia Ward .

Significance

In August, 1920, the efforts of these and other women’s rights organizations resulted in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting all U.S. women the right to vote in all elections. The 1866 convention was instrumental in effecting the ratification of universal suffrage laws in the United States, by calling attention to the unfairness of the Fourteenth Amendment and similar laws that explicitly excluded women. The convention also helped organize and inspire former abolitionists to begin a new fight for women’s freedom and rights, just as they previously had worked for the rights of former slaves. The ideals expressed in the address to Congress would later be rediscovered by twentieth century feminists and formed the foundation of the modern movement for full legal, social, and economic equity for women throughout the world.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Jean H, ed. Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. Well-researched study of the history of the woman suffrage movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banner, Lois W. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman’s Rights. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Describes the atmosphere in which the 1866 women’s rights convention took place and important events growing from it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blackwell, Alice Stone. Lucy Stone: Pioneer of Woman’s Rights. 2d ed. 1930. Reprint. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone’s daughter, presents an insightful and personal view of her mother’s personal and public life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buhle, Mari Jo, and Paul Buhle, eds. The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. Abridged edition of a six-volume work that includes the texts of the call for the convention and the address to Congress adopted by the 1866 women’s rights convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cromwell, Otelia. Lucretia Mott. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. Describes Mott’s lifelong work for abolition and women’s rights, and explains why she was chosen as the convention’s spokesperson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Du Bois, Ellen Carol, ed. Women Suffrage and Women’s Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Diverse collection of essays that provide an excellent overview of the woman suffrage movement in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFadden, Margaret, ed. Women’s Issues. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 1997. Comprehensive reference work with numerous articles on woman suffrage, women’s rights organizations, and related issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneir, Miriam, ed. Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Contains major writings by most of the participants in the convention; helps establish the historical context in which the convention took place.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherr, Lynn. Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. New York: Times Books, 1995. Excerpts from the speeches and letters of the leading figure of the nineteenth century women’s rights movement, with a commentary on Anthony’s life and career.

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