Sara’s high school is choosing a new mascot, and the administration has decided to put it to a student vote. However, since it is a large school and the administrators want to keep things simple, they will only have the seniors vote. Sara is a sophomore, and she and her friends find this decision unfair. They form a group to get the right to vote, but when the school announces that they’re considering having first years vote as well, the group splits. Half of them want to support the first years while still working on getting sophomores the vote, and half only want to focus on the sophomores.
The National Woman Suffrage Association formed due to a similar difference in opinion. Many of its members were originally part of a group focused on women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. However, when the government began to discuss ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote, two new groups formed: The American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. The latter did not believe that the women’s movement should support the Fifteenth Amendment unless it included women’s right to vote.
National Woman Suffrage Association
On May 15, 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, or the NWSA. The organization opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, and worked toward women’s suffrage through a federal constitutional amendment. In addition to suffrage, the NWSA focused on issues like unionizing women workers and advocating for more permissible divorce laws. The organization also used racist appeals to win over allies. The NWSA eventually merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890.
Women’s suffrage had been more prominent before the Civil War, but during the war, the movement died down. After the Civil War, in 1866, a new group formed called the American Equal Rights Association, or the AERA. However, at a conference in 1869, debates emerged over ideological differences, mainly over whether the women’s movement should support the Fifteenth Amendment. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that unless the Amendment was changed to include women, they should not. They formed the NWSA shortly after. In response, the American Woman Suffrage Association, or the AWSA, was formed under the belief that once Black men had the right to vote, women would be next.
Upset with the direction the AERA had taken, the NWSA only granted women membership. Men could affiliate with the group, but they could not participate in leadership positions. In 1883, the NWSA wrote a new constitution, whose most important article invited all suffrage groups to become auxiliaries, a move which granted them a large membership base.
In 1868, the NWSA began publishing a newsletter called The Revolution. Its motto was “Justice, not Favors. —Men, their Rights and Nothing More; Women, their Rights and Nothing Less.” It was a weekly newsletter, mainly addressed to working-class women, that reported news about women’s clubs and women abroad. However, The Revolution stopped publishing in 1872, due to the popularity of the AWSA’s newsletter, The Woman’s Journal.
The NWSA was more radical than the AWSA and worked mainly on a federal level. While focused primarily on women’s suffrage, the NWSA addressed issues like unionizing women workers, property rights for married women, and easier divorce laws. The group criticized aspects of those institutions they viewed as harmful to women, such as how women’s legal identities were absorbed into their husbands’. A married couple was considered a single legal entity, over which the husband had total responsibility. Women did not have separate rights, like the ability to sue or execute a will without her husband’s permission. The NWSA used drastic measures and was willing to work with any group, so long as they worked toward women’s suffrage. These measures included racist appeals, like denouncing Black male suffrage and championing white women’s right to vote at the expense of Black women’s, to win over more conservative allies.
The two groups eventually merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or the NAWSA, in 1890, after a three-year negotiation period. As time went on, the group excluded African-American women to gain more allies and became solely focused on achieving the right to vote for white women.
The NWSA was a complex organization. On the one hand, it was a reasonably radical group for the time, advocating for workers’ rights, criticizing the patriarchal elements of religion and marriage, and putting pressure on the federal government. On the other hand, it often used racist appeals to gain allies and was formed by two white women arguing against supporting the Fifteenth Amendment. The differences between the NWSA and the AWSA illustrate the complicated political landscape of women’s suffrage. It also foreshadows the fact that while the Nineteenth Amendment gave white women the right to vote in 1920, Black women, especially in the South, still faced many voting obstacles, like literacy tests. It was only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the government strengthened voter protections. And while Indigenous Americans gained the right to vote in 1924, individual states often did not comply. It took until the 1960s for Indigenous Americans to be able to vote in all states.
White women have dominated women’s rights movements in many Western countries. While organizations like the NWSA did important work in advancing women’s suffrage, they also excluded broad swathes of the female population. Today, it is important to remember the complicated history of the American suffragette movement and learn from the mistakes of the past.