As the 39th Congress convened on December 4, 1865, woman suffragists were planning their strategy. The Senate and House of Representatives would soon appoint a joint committee of 15 members, known as the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, to examine the problems of a war-torn nation. The Civil War had concluded eight months earlier and among the committee’s responsibilities was defining the legal and political rights of four million formerly enslaved persons. Women activists insisted that lawmakers should consider extending voting rights to them, too.
The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the right of citizens to petition government about issues of concern. Using the same strategy they had employed to fight for the abolition of slavery, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other activists organized a petition campaign, collecting signatures to send to members of Congress in support of suffrage for women. “The undersigned, Women of the United States, respectfully ask an amendment of the Constitution that shall prohibit the several States from disfranchising any of their citizens on the ground of sex.” Stanton and Anthony observed that while women were counted as “whole persons” for the purpose of representation, they “are governed without…consent, compelled to pay taxes without appeal, and punished for violations of law without choice of judge or jury.”
The efforts of Anthony and Stanton paid off. Woman suffrage petitions flowed into Congress during the winter of 1866 while lawmakers debated Reconstruction matters, but senators lacked enthusiasm for the cause. “I present [this woman suffrage] petition at this time, as it has been sent to me for this purpose,” Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA), the man who had championed rights for freedmen, explained to his colleagues on February 14, 1866. “But I…do not think this is a proper time for the consideration of that question.” Others agreed. When John Henderson of Missouri presented petitions to the Senate a week later, he called them unnecessary. “The petitioners’ claim that as we are proposing to enfranchise four million emancipated slaves, equal and impartial justice alike demands the suffrage for fifteen million women.” Unlike black men, however, women did not need suffrage “as a means for their protection,” Henderson argued. Renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass—friend to Stanton and Anthony—insisted that Reconstruction represented “the negro’s hour” and, therefore, was not a time for debating women’s rights.
Suffragists’ persistence complicated the Joint Committee’s effort to establish new criteria for apportionment and representation in Congress. Many lawmakers, expressing traditional views about women’s primary role in society as mothers and homemakers, refused to imagine them as political actors. “By law women and children were not regarded as the equals of men…mature manhood is the representative type of the human race,” insisted Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan. Howard’s attitude about women’s place in public life mattered; he was a central figure in the drafting and revising of the Fourteenth Amendment. Approved by the Senate on June 8, 1866 (and ratified July 9, 1868), it explicitly defined for purposes of representation “the whole number of male citizens 21 years of age in each state,” and granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved persons. Two years later, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment (ratified February 3, 1870) prohibiting states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The suffragists’ petition campaign had failed. Neither amendment allowed for the extension of voting rights to women.
Not to be dissuaded, women also worked to extend suffrage at the local and state level. In 1867, for example, Kansas voters considered amending the state constitution to provide for “impartial suffrage” without regard to race or sex. Senator Samuel Pomeroy, elected to the U.S. Senate by the Kansas legislature in 1861, vigorously campaigned for the measure. “I have gone boldly—fearlessly—into the movement! And it must succeed!” Pomeroy enthusiastically proclaimed to suffragist Anna Dickinson on October 16, 1867. After Kansas failed to approve the measure, Pomeroy took his proposal to the Senate. He introduced a resolution to amend the Constitution on December 7, 1868. “The basis of suffrage in the United States shall be that of citizenship, and all native or naturalized citizens shall enjoy the same rights and privileges of the elective franchise,” it read. Two days later, Pomeroy rose again, “I present the petition of 55 citizens of Maine,” he proclaimed, “praying that…the right of suffrage may be extended to males and females equally.” Three days later, the Senate agreed to let Pomeroy’s bill “lie upon the table,” and there it remained, never to be taken up again.
Ten years passed before the Senate again considered a woman suffrage bill. On January 10, 1878, Senator Aaron Sargent of California (whose wife, suffragist Ellen Clark Sargent, was a friend to Anthony) introduced a resolution for an amendment to the Constitution to provide for woman suffrage: “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.” Sargent requested that his colleagues take the unusual step of allowing suffragists to personally address members of the Senate. “We ask that women may be permitted in person, and on behalf of the thousands of other women who are petitioning Congress…to be heard…before the Senate and House.” The Senate agreed, and the following day suffragists testified before members of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. “One half of our human family are women,” observed Stanton. The Constitution provides for a government “of the people,” she explained. “Does any one pretend to say that men alone constitute races and peoples?” The Reverend Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained in the nation, urged senators to action. “Let us have at an early day, in the Congressional Record, a report of the proceedings of this committee, and the action of the Senate in favor of our right to vote.” Senators listened politely, but most remained unconvinced. The committee’s majority recommended that Sargent’s proposal be “indefinitely postponed.” Only a few senators voiced their dissent. “The American people must extend the right of Suffrage to Woman or abandon the idea that Suffrage is a birthright,” concluded Senators George Hoar (R-MA), John H. Mitchell (R-OR), and Angus Cameron (R-WI).
George Hoar served as a vocal proponent for woman suffrage until his death in 1904. First elected to the Senate by the Massachusetts state legislature in 1877, Hoar was an intellectually curious and determined lawmaker who quickly earned the respect of colleagues in both parties. Unafraid to take unpopular political positions, in the 1880s Hoar joined a small—but steadily growing—Senate minority who supported suffrage for women. With the assistance of colleague Henry Blair, a New Hampshire Republican, Hoar proposed that the Senate form a select committee to explore the issue, a resolution the Senate approved on January 9, 1882. Five months later, on June 5, the Senate Committee on Woman Suffrage favorably reported a constitutional amendment to the full Senate for its consideration. “We conclude…every reason…which bestows the ballot upon man is equally applicable to the proposition to bestow the ballot upon woman.” Despite Hoar’s efforts, it took another five years for the Senate to take its first vote on a suffrage amendment. It failed by the lopsided margin of 16 to 34.
The Senate’s failure to pass the amendment was not surprising. By 1890 only one state in the nation, Wyoming, had extended full suffrage to women. A few states and municipalities allowed women to vote on specific issues, such as education. A vast majority of senators remained unconvinced of the wisdom of woman suffrage, and they expressed their opposition in a variety of ways. Some insisted that women’s most significant contributions to society came in their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. “In her hands is placed a moral and spiritual power far greater than the power of the ballot,” explained Senator Joseph Brown (D-GA) during a typical Senate debate on the subject in 1887. Others suggested that a majority of women did not want to vote. “The small number of petitioners, when compared with that of the intelligent women of the country, is…evidence…[of] no general desire to take up the heavy burden of governing,” pronounced the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections in 1878. Some cautioned that consenting to the demands of suffragists would lead to other demands for gender equality, such as pay equity. Noting that suffragists complained of their inability to shape policy, one close observer inquired, “What do they want to reform? Give me a single example of a law they would pass which men would not.”
As the popularity and influence of the woman suffrage movement grew, anti-suffragists—women and men alike—also began to organize. In 1895 New York State anti-suffragists formed their own organization and battled to defeat a series of state-wide suffrage bills. (They succeeded until 1917.) Borrowing from the suffragists’ playbook, they launched vigorous petition campaigns. In 1911 New York “antis” founded the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.
Suffragists answered their opponents on the public speaking circuit, in their ongoing petition efforts, and as witnesses before Congress. Some dared to cast ballots in federal and state elections, leading to arrests and jail time. Elizabeth Cady Stanton anticipated that women “exasperated with a sense of injustice” would inevitably lose patience with intransigent lawmakers. The issue of woman suffrage “will eventually be settled by violence,” she predicted. That prediction proved prophetic.