First Wave Feminists: A Fight for the Ballot

[Bettmann/Getty Images] Suffrage parade in New York City, May 6, 1912.
The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month is “Nevertheless she Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” This is the perfect opportunity to remember the women throughout American history, who made it their life’s work to achieve equal rights for women. One such movement was women’s suffrage.

The woman suffrage movement in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century culminated in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Those who supported women’s right to vote were known either as “suffragettes” or “suffragists,” and they are also referred to as first wave feminists.

First Wave Feminism

The first wave of feminism began in the latter half of the 19th century and stretched into the early 20th. First wave feminists focused on gaining women the right to vote as well as opportunities to participate in the public sphere, such as access to education. Some of the most famous women’s rights advocates of this period—Sarah Grimké, Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth—were involved in the abolition movement, which served as a springboard to the crusade for women’s rights.

[Library of Congress] Signatures to the “Declaration of Sentiments” established at the first Woman’s Rights Convention, held at Seneca Falls in July, 1848.
Stanton and Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848, at which the congregation adopted resolutions known as the Declaration of Sentiments. Despite the fact that the resolution on suffrage was hotly debated, 100 attendees, both women and men, signed the declaration. Several other women famous for their advocacy of the cause joined the movement at this time, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Truth.

Fractures in the Movement

Despite the strides in the late 1840 and 1850s, the rising prominence of the abolition movement and the outbreak of the Civil War eclipsed the women’s movement. Internal struggles and lack of a national organization also hampered the efforts. However, when the movement resumed after the war, the cause was narrowed to the fight for suffrage rather than total equality for women.

Although many women’s rights advocates participated in the abolition movement, their appeal to include a clause granting women the right to vote in the Fifteenth Amendment was denied by abolitionists. In response to this rejection, Stanton and Anthony established the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 to fight the passage of the amendment and to fight for an amendment giving women suffrage. Lucy Stone created the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) for those who did support the Fifteenth Amendment as well as women’s suffrage.

Uniting the Cause

[Library of Congress] Susan B. Anthony (right) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Hoping that their combined forces would more quickly advance the idea of a constitutional amendment, the NWSA and the AWSA united in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Led by Anthony, Stanton, and Stone, the organization worked on building support within the states and disassociating itself from radical causes. In recreating their image, some white suffragists even used racist rhetoric to curry favor in the South. Nevertheless, African American women like Ida Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, inspired by former slave and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth, maintained their support for woman suffrage.

Carrie Chapman Catt, who served as president of the NAWSA from 1900 to 1904 and from 1915 to 1920, instituted the “Winning Plan. ” Such strategy built on the idea that gaining suffrage at the state level, in states where women’s suffrage was likely to pass, would facilitate the ratification of a federal amendment.

Another women’s rights activist, Alice Paul, brought her experiences with militant suffragists in England home to the United States. In 1912, she led the congressional committee for NAWSA; however, she broke with that organization the following year and formed the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Under her leadership, the Congressional Union famously organized a march of 5,000 women in Washington, D.C. in 1913, just before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. Paul inspired many suffragists to focus their efforts on the federal government’s failure to approve a woman suffrage amendment. In 1920, after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and gave women the right to vote, Paul along with the National Woman’s Party worked to secure an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution, which Paul drafted and introduced in Congress in 1923.

When the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution on August 26, 1920, it carried the language written by Anthony decades earlier: “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 sex.” The suffragists who had persisted for over 75 years had finally succeeded in achieving the vote for all women.



“Women’s Rights Movement.” American History, ABC-CLIO, 2018,

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