Women’s Rights Movements During the Reconstruction Period


The end of the Civil War became a turning point in the history of America since it contributed to the advancement of the civil rights of those who had been discriminated against. The new amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and provided men with the right to vote regardless of race. Although female activists significantly contributed to promoting civil rights and freedom for African Americans, their rights did not change. Women remained dependent on their husbands, limited in their freedom and rights to employment, education, faith, or voting. In the second half of the 1800s, the women’s rights movement turned to the struggle for suffrage that would allow women to vote. After the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, and African American males obtained the right to vote, the women’s rights movement split into those supporting and opposing the law. The disagreement between the representatives of the women’s rights movement concerning the Fifteenth Amendment’s addressing of voting rights did not weaken but strengthened women’s rights agenda because it enhanced the influence of female activists on both state and federal levels that ultimately helped obtain full women’s emancipation.

Women’s Rights Movement in the Aftermath of the Civil War

Like any other great event in the history of a country, the Civil War has played a decisive role in the development of the United States within the social, economic, and political realms. The successful emancipation of slaves by Abraham Lincoln launched a qualitative shift in the population’s perception of freedom, civil rights, and equality. The era of Reconstruction following the Civil War was a promising time of revolutionary changes, which many anticipated to be an opportunity for pursuing their agendas (Foner, 2017). One of such agendas was the promotion of women’s rights. Early feminist activists and abolitionists strongly believed that Reconstruction was a perfect time to advance their movement in the direction of the recognition of women as equal to men by the Constitution.

Women in the nineteenth century lived under the total oppression of men in all domains of life. Patriarchal society was commonly structured around the notion that a woman, after marriage, lost her liberty and was completely dependent on her husband’s will and decisions. Women had no freedom and were not very much different from enslaved African Americans; therefore, the relationship between masters and slaves was practically the same as between husbands and wives (O’Connor, 1996). After marriage, women had to obey the authority of men, lost their rights to have possessions, did not have the liberty to perform independently in social, economic, and political life, as well as did not have a right to use their earnings (Foner, 2017). Moreover, no divorce laws existed in the legal dimension, which is why women’s status of individuals without rights was bound to inevitability (Foner, 2017). In the context of the emerging changes in the legal status of slaves and African Americans, women started to enforce their demands for equality. Thus, the suffrage movement was incepted, and an almost a century-long journey of fighting for women’s right to vote began.

The Inception of the Suffrage Movement

Seneca Falls Convention

The results of the Civil War contributed to the advancement of the principles of democracy in the U.S. The scope of American democracy was limited to male participation, where women did not have the power of influence but only performed as housewives who took care of their homes and families. Such inadequacy in the role distribution between genders was the driving force of the women’s rights movement. Numerous female activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt, and others, believed that the unified efforts could raise awareness about the importance of the advancement in women’s rights (O’Connor, 1996). They launched campaigns, created organizations, and documents that were aimed at strengthening women’s positions in economic, social, religious, and political domains on the principles of equality regardless of gender.

Seneca Falls Convention was one of the most important efforts made by the activists because it set the fundamental background for multifaceted and detailed formal claims for women’s equal rights that became the basis for further protests. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as one of the most influential leaders within the movement, decided to organize a convention in the form of “a public meeting for protest and discussion” (O’Connor, 1996, p. 659). In July 1848, 300 people gathered in Seneca Falls for the first women’s rights convention that brought to the discussion some most tentative issues concerning the hardships to which females were exposed to in their daily life. Continuous oppression and subordination that failed to recognize women as equal to men and lawful citizens of the United States of America were the root problems that the activists planned to resolve.

Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions

The document that gained the historical significance was the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions of 1848 that was proclaimed and discussed during the Seneca Falls Convention. For several days, the participants of the convention actively discussed the most tentative issues that they planned to include in the agenda of the women’s rights protests. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as the leader of the organizing group, sought to enlist a number of demands based on the facts of women’s oppressed status. She wrote the Declaration of Sentiments with the priorities set on the necessity to provide women with the right to participate in social, economic, religious, and political life. The starting point of the document related to the fundamental claim that “all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (Hill, 2006, p. 152). With such groundbreaking assertiveness of self-evident truths, Stanton and her supporters validated the legality of their demands and appealed to the unjust superiority of men in the patriarchal society that contradicted the basic constitutional principles.

The key resolution that had a decisive impact on the development of the following events was the ninth resolution concerning the right to vote. It is important to note that ten out of eleven resolutions were voted unanimously by the convention participants and did not imply any controversy as per their relevance to the current state American women were in. Indeed, all members supported the necessity of promoting the right to have property and wages, have civil rights equal to men’s, have an independent moral responsibility, have equal access to employment and education, and the importance of women’s freedom of choice in the religious domain (Hill, 2006). However, the most controversial and the only resolution that was not supported unanimously was the ninth resolution, which resolved that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise” (Hill, 2006, p. 152). It was the moment when the disruption within the movement started due to the difference in the opinions about women’s suffrage.

The Importance of the Right to Vote

The disagreement concerning the revolutionary demand of the leaders of the Seneca Falls Convention to obtain women’s rights to have a vote in elections marked the onset of the suffrage movement. The unity and strong collaborative actions were the essential constituents of the powerful movement. However, without unanimous support of such a decisive issue as voting rights, the success of the campaign seemed to be threatened. Despite the lack of complete support, the claims made by Stanton had solid logical and legal ground. Indeed, as it was stated in the Declaration of Sentiments, women lived in the world ruled and governed by men where the problems and issues relevant to male citizens were prioritized. Thus, Stanton and her supporters strongly believed that it was unjust and illegal that women were forced to abide by the laws in the creation of which they did not participate (Hill, 2006). Therefore, the legislative branch of power was a strategically important target for women’s rights agenda.

When considering the issue of women’s enfranchising from a merely logical stance, one should state that voting is a pivotal right that predetermines the achievement of all the demands and aspirations of the reformers. Indeed, as O’Connor (1996) stated, women of the middle of the 1800s “agreed on their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs but had yet to develop an ideology” (p. 660). Such an ideology had to be the provision of the voting rights to women. As Stanton pursued her ideas, it became clear that without the power of the vote, no changes enlisted in the declaration’s resolutions will be possible. Thus, the only way to expand women’s ability to have control over their property and wages, obtain access to education and employment, as well as establish legal status was through voting (O’Connor, 1996). Consequently, the right to vote became the central theme of the women’s suffrage movement of the Reconstruction Era.

The Impact of Post-War Amendments on the Women’s Rights Movement

The events in Seneca Falls in 1848 preceded the fundamental advancements in the Constitution in the 1860s. As the Reconstruction period continued, the aftermath of the Civil War triggered the legal documenting of the civil rights changes in a series of amendments to the Constitution. The strong and successful abolitionist movement, which was particularly supported by feminist activists, contributed to the proclamation of freedom for slaves and their equal rights with the white population. Moreover, African American males were granted the right to vote on equal terms with white male citizens of the USA. These significant advancements in abolitionist movements had an ambiguous impact on women’s suffrage agenda. On the one hand, the new amendments demonstrated the promising direction in law-making that was anticipated as the beginning of changes for women too. However, on the other hand, the lack of addressing females in the amendments endangered the accomplishment of suffragists’ goals and called for action.

The Fifteenth Amendment

The upheaval of suffragists’ activity during the Reconstruction period is associated particularly with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As Tetrault (n. d.) stated, “where scholars do merge Reconstruction-era politics with northern women’s rights activism, it is almost invariably around the Fifteenth Amendment” (para. 19). Indeed, this law proclaimed the legal rights of the black males to vote, the right for which the abolitionists fought for many years. Since the women’s and slaves’ emancipatory movements were intertwined both within the historical time and the collaborative efforts of abolitionists and feminists, suffragists expected that the right to vote would be granted to them together with African American men (O’Connor, 1996). However, as the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified without acknowledging women as lawful citizens with a legal status of voters, the activity of the movement significantly intensified and obtained a more decisive tone. Nonetheless, the opinions concerning the Fifteenth Amendment and the urgency of voting rights for women varied and caused disagreement between the members of the reformers’ community.

The Split in the Women’s Rights Movement

The Fifteenth Amendment caused the movement’s division into those supporting the law and those opposing it. By the 1860s, the women’s rights movement acquired new activists whose opinions and approaches to reforming, although different, contributed to the achievement of suffragists’ goals. During this period, Stanton partnered with another influential figure in the history of American feminism, Susan B. Anthony. Anthony supported Stanton in her eagerness to oppose to the Fifteenth Amendment and demand a new amendment addressing women’s rights specifically (O’Connor, 1996; Tetrault, n. d.). Their opponents, led by Lucy Stone, supported the Fifteenth Amendment and envisioned methods of fighting for voting rights different from Stanton and Anthony’s. As a consequence of the difference of opinions, in 1869, suffragists formed two competing associations that functioned on a national level.

The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA)

This organization was formed as an ideological center for protesting against the discrimination of women imposed by the Fifteenth Amendment. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, NWSA “lobbied for a federal constitutional amendment” providing all women across the USA with the right to vote (O’Connor, 1996, p. 664). Thus, the federal laws and necessary changes to the Constitution were the only acceptable means the members of NWSA recognized and agreed to include in their agenda.

The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA)

On the opponents’ side, another organization did not see it feasible to accomplish the ultimate goal of obtaining suffrage on a national level. Under the guidance of Lucy Stone and other activists, AWSA “preferred to work at the state level to secure a woman’s right to vote” (O’Connor, 1996, p. 664). The approach Stone and her followers utilized required more locally-based actions within the politics of the states where the association advanced women’s enfranchising.

Achievements in the Period of Rivalry

Although commonly viewed as rivals, the two organizations worked on the same problem but from different angles. Within the two decades of rivalry, the suffragists who did not support Stanton and Anthony’s strategies “pursued other women’s rights agendas, from free love to temperance” (Tetrault, n. d., para. 6). Activists achieved much success on the state level, where the first significant accomplishment “occurred in the Wyoming Territory where a bill to enfranchise women was signed into law in 1869” (O’Connor, 1996, p. 662). The law was accepted peacefully, and other states joined the group of those who enacted the laws for women’s suffrage. Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Oklahoma, and others continued the list of states where suffragists achieved prominent results (O’Connor, 1996). As the number of supporting states grew, they began to refer to the federal authorities with a requirement to address the women’s voting right across the nation.

Unified Efforts as the Contribution to Women’s Suffrage

Having moved significantly forward with their agenda’s the two organizations merged in 1889. They formed a new National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) that worked collaboratively to advance their final goal of obtaining suffrage on a national level (Library of Congress, n. d.). Regardless of the. Differences in approaches, the two organizations that merged, had the same final destination, which they could reach now by unified efforts. NAWSA combined both techniques, federal and state, to strengthen the suffrage movement in all states and bring changes to the Constitution (Library of Congress, n. d.). During the following two decades, activists organized picketing, petitions, protests, parades, and other actions in an attempt to demand the ratification of an additional amendment to the Constitution that would grant women with a vote.

Annual conventions of NAWSA contributed to the unity of suffragists’ efforts and advanced the overall movement. In 1916, the NAWSA Convention took place in Atlantic City, where the new association president Carrie Chapman Catt declared “the Winning Plan” (Hill, 2006, p. 72). The members of NAWSA’s executive board with expertise in politics received the task to outline the tactics based on the state and nationwide campaigns’ achievements. Catt believed that pursuing the federal mandate was the most efficient way to provide all American women with suffrage.

These efforts were fruitful and helped the seven-decade-long pursuit finally succeed. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, and American women won their fight. It was due to the intertwined efforts of NWSA, AWSA, and later NAWSA that the Amendment was ratified, and all women across America obtained their long-waited right to vote. It would not be possible without the devoted work using different approaches of suffragists.


Considering the discussion presented above, one might conclude that the era of Reconstruction was a turning and busting point in the history of the American women’s suffrage movement. With the advancement of civil rights and the freeing of slaves, the populations that had been discriminated against gained the opportunity to become lawful citizens of America. However, unlike for enslaved African Americans, the Civil War aftermath did not bring desired legal changes for women. The Fourteenth Amendment first addressed gender in relation to voting rights and declared male citizens’ right to vote, and the Fifteenth Amendment provided African Americans with the right to vote equally with white men.

Although women across the country supported the advancement of female rights within social, religious, and economic fields, the political rights in general, and suffrage in particular, were not unanimously supported. Although it is perceived that the split in the movement and the creation of two rivals NWSA and AWSA, disrupted the movement and weakened suffragists’ positions in their attempt to obtain the right to vote, the differences in approaching the problem contributed to the ultimate success. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 occurred due to the collaborative efforts of suffragists supporting both federal and state campaigns.


Foner, E. (Ed.). (2017). Voices of freedom: A documentary history (5th ed., vol. 2). W. W. Norton & Company.

Hill, J. (2006). Women’s suffrage. Omnigraphics, Incorporated.

Library of Congress. (n. d.). The National American Woman Suffrage Association. Web.

O’Connor, S. D. (1996). History of the women’s suffrage movement. Vanderbilt Law Review, 49(3), 657-675.

Tetrault, L. (n. d.). Women’s rights and Reconstruction. The Journal of the Civil War Era. Web.

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