“We ask suffrage not as a favor,  
not as a privilege, but as a right.”
  - Charlotte Rollin


During the Civil War, American women seized new opportunities to expand traditional roles. Their work, both volunteer and paid, helped sustain a nation at war and later rebuild it. Many suffragists believed that this demonstrated women’s worthiness to vote. Passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments delineated the requirements of citizenship and provided women with new arguments for suffrage. Yet the broader coalition of abolitionists and women’s rights advocates fractured, as some white women emphasized their own suffrage over that of African Americans and immigrants. Black women suffragists continued to fight for extending the franchise to all, combining their call with demands for civil rights. Beyond the vote, some prioritized increased legal protections, greater employment opportunities, and financial independence. Women suffragists saw voting as a right of citizenship, and a means to advance other causes, including temperance and civil rights. Throughout the century, women’s advocacy slowly continued, mainly on a local level. Ultimately, in 1890, the divided suffrage groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).


Filmed reenactment of Frances Harper’s 1866 speech at the 11th National Woman’s Rights Convention Ariana DeBose as Frances Harper, 2019
Special thanks to the CUNY School of Professional Studies 

The Nurse’s Manual belonging to Georgeanna Woolsey Bacon, ca. 1861 
Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society
Georgeanna Woolsey trained at New York Hospital in 1861 for work caring for wounded soldiers aboard transport ships. Woolsey also organized a Sanitary Commission initiative to feed and shelter injured soldiers after the battle of Gettysburg, and supervised nurses at army hospitals. 

“My heart is full, my country 
is bleeding”
- Angelina Grimké Weld   

Women joined the Civil War effort as nurses, cooks, and laundry workers. Welcomed by the federal government, but not always by army doctors, nurses served in hospitals, worked on steamboats transporting injured troops, and organized field hospitals. Women also coordinated fundraising efforts, made bandages, and gathered supplies. In addition, they organized large-scale Sanitary Fairs, which raised funds for the army. The New York Metropolitan Fair alone raised over one million dollars, overseen by a female treasurer. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Northern women workers were joined by enslaved women, who fled plantations for Union lines. Abolitionists, both Black and white, organized support networks for formerly enslaved people to provide shelter, food, clothing, and education. Many organizations were created and operated entirely by women.   

Splitting a Movement

Ratified in 1870, the 15th Amendment declares that US citizens’ right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The omission of the mention of gender embittered suffragists and divided the once-allied abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Following on the heels of the 14th Amendment, which added the word “male” to its description of voting citizens, the new amendment focused attention on the vote over other aspects of women’s rights and forced considerations about societal reform. Would Black men’s suffrage pave the way for the women’s cause, or should activists demand change on a grander scale? The argument exposed a complicated truth: not all abolitionist men supported women’s rights, and not all white suffragists supported African American suffrage. Two organizations emerged in the amendment’s wake. The National Woman Suffrage Association opposed the 15th Amendment and demanded a 16th Amendment for women’s suffrage. Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe’s American Woman Suffrage Association, on the other hand, supported the 15th Amendment and a state strategy to win suffrage.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude" 
–15th Amendment resolution, February 27, 1869     

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage
History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1, 1881
New York: Fowler and Wells
Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society

Elizabeth Keckley, ca. 1860
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Manuscript Division, Howard University, Washington, DC  

A formerly enslaved woman who purchased her own freedom, Elizabeth Keckley worked as dressmaker to Mary Lincoln and founded the Washington, DC-based Contraband Relief Association in 1862. Freedwomen prioritized family reunification and advocated for legal and civil protections in the face of white violence. 

Ida B. Wells
Southern Horrors: lynch law in all its phases, 1892
Aberdeen Scotland: Thomson & Duncan, Printers
Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society  

As Reconstruction collapsed, racial violence and new laws forced Black Americans out of political life, halted economic gains, and denied them civil rights. In 1892, journalist Ida B. Wells launched an investigation into over 700 lynchings. Her campaign emphasized the hypocrisy and untruth of claims that lynching was a justified response to Black men raping white women by calling out the enduring sexual exploitation of Black women by white men. Lacking capital to publish her work, Wells found support in Black women, who organized a successful fundraising dinner in New York. Wells’s public defense of the integrity of Black women inspired many to activism.

“A dense forest of ignorance has been blazed for a coming woman President. 
I am anxious to know at this stage who that woman will be, 
but believe it not only possible but probable in the future of this country.”
—Belva Lockwood

Women on the Ballot

In 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president as the Equal Rights Party nominee. Despite questions about their eligibility to vote, women, she reasoned, still could run for political office. Lawyer Belva Lockwood followed in 1884, endorsing equal rights, temperance, civil service reform, and citizenship for Native Americans. Lockwood, the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court, won around 4,000 votes in her presidential bid.

Presidential ballot for Belva Lockwood, 1884 
The Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism 

Belva Lockwood campaign ribbon, 1886 
The Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism 

Mathew B. Brady
Victoria Woodhull, ca. 1870
Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, 
New-York Historical Society