Indeed, political scientists trace the roots of our current plague of disenfranchisement to the period that we are now honoring for the victory of “universal suffrage.” This benchmark expansion of the electorate coincided with a steep decline in voter participation. Though more Americans could vote, fewer did.
As we continue their fight, it’s important to understand what the suffrage activists achieved, what remains undone and, importantly, what they wanted beyond basic access to the polls. Though this single legal reform now dominates public understanding of the movement, its history holds valuable lessons for how Americans have pursued a broader vision for cultural transformation, even in the absence of the vote, and how we might do it again.
Surprisingly, the goal of suffrage was nearly abandoned at the Seneca Falls Convention before it was even adopted. At this gathering, often regarded as the beginning of the women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read a manifesto that placed suffrage ninth on a list of 12 demands, and it proved to be the only one that was controversial with the assembly.
The other resolutions reveal that in 1848, American women wanted to speak in public as respected authorities, to be judged by the same moral standard as men and have the same work opportunities for equal wages. They denounced power imbalances in marriage and the psychological warfare that destroyed women’s confidence and self-respect.
Most of the women present were actually uncomfortable pursuing the vote, convinced that the idea of female voters was so outlandish that it would discredit their “more rational” objectives and make “the whole movement ridiculous.”
But Frederick Douglass disagreed. He stepped up in the debate to defend voting as indispensable to the women’s agenda, arguing it “was the right by which all others could be secured.” After his speech, the resolution passed, but only by a small margin. For this movement, suffrage would be a means to securing equality for women, not the goal in itself.
Indeed, though Stanton may have longed all her life for the civic recognition that suffrage would bestow, a number of other women present that day would have refused to go to the polls on principle, even if the law had allowed it. The men in their activist circles were ambivalent on this issue as well. Henry David Thoreau observed, “All voting is a sort of gaming,” like playing checkers except “with moral questions.” He was not satisfied to accept the ruling of the American majority on the most pressing question of the day: slavery.
Thoreau absorbed these ideas from his abolitionist friends who believed any form of participation in the proslavery U.S. government was immoral. Activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both avid supporters of women’s rights, refused to cast a ballot for representatives sworn to uphold the Constitution under which 4 million people were enslaved. They hotly debated this point with “political abolitionists,” including Douglass, who believed it was their duty to leverage the political system for the cause.
After the Civil War, however, even “no-government” men and women came to embrace the importance of the vote in cementing African American citizenship. Although some civil rights activists hoped to prioritize far-reaching land redistribution programs, Douglass and Phillips called urgently for a 15th Amendment to enshrine black male suffrage. They saw the vote as the best way for freedmen to protect themselves against the racist violence that gripped the South as former Confederates fought to regain control of local governments.
Stanton and a faction of her colleagues were furious that “sex” did not appear alongside “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” in the legislation’s list of protected categories. But in the immediate aftermath of the amendment’s ratification, it was clear that even constitutional reform could not ensure the vote in practice. The victory of black male suffrage was subverted by white supremacist terrorism and a range of bureaucratic techniques — such as poll taxes and literacy tests — that the Supreme Court upheld, ruling that “the Fifteenth Amendment does not confer the right of suffrage” upon anyone.
These assaults on democracy developed into a nationwide epidemic. Economic elites used similar tactics to demobilize immigrant, working-class and poor voters, and Northern states added onerous registration procedures to their voter eligibility requirements, just as the South had. As corporate money and targeted disenfranchisement shaped elections, voter turnout — previously a robust 80 percent — fell precipitously.
In this context, social justice activists might have hesitated to place their faith in the electoral system. On the contrary, the women’s movement adopted a single-minded focus on winning a suffrage amendment of their own, finally succeeding with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But in the election later that year, the very first to welcome both men and women voters, the turnout fell to a then-historic low of 49 percent. It continues to hover just above half, one of the lowest participation rates among democracies worldwide.
At a time when elections are compromised by a range of factors, we should take the occasion of the suffrage anniversaries to honor the history of American protest movements and rigorously defend the voting rights that were so hard won. But we should also contemplate their conviction that casting a vote is not sufficient action in times of political crisis. After all, voting is crucially important and uniquely symbolic, but it is not synonymous with civic engagement, nor its highest expression.
Indeed, these movements demonstrated that ordinary Americans, even when disenfranchised, can profoundly reshape the social and political landscape. Without the vote, white women and African Americans tirelessly exerted pressure on the economy, the government and on public opinion. They organized consumer boycotts, hounded elected officials with petitions, walked off their jobs and demonstrated in the streets. They wrote and spoke so powerfully that it made constitutional reform imaginable.
American women have a decisive role to play at the polls, and we should seize it. But before we declare victory for the 19th-century women’s movement on the suffrage centennial, let’s remember its true aims: liberation and radical social change, not only the right to vote. Though it took 70 years, suffrage ultimately proved more easily attainable than these goals, which remain ours to pursue.