Though the call for woman suffrage and expanding rights for women had begun before 1848, it is generally believed that the Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York that year, and the writing of the Declaration of Sentiments that resulted from the Convention, marks the beginning of an organized women’s rights movement in America. Demands included married women’s property rights, increased access to education and employment, and the right to vote. In the 1860s the women’s rights movement elevated its focus on suffrage. Women formed local and national organizations and held conventions to promote the work. Leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone traveled widely, speaking to audiences around the country. They prioritized creating and distributing newspapers and other literature. For the most part, the strategy during these early years was to insist that women deserved the right to vote for reasons of their shared humanity and equality with men. This was a very radical idea that most American women could not support. The suffrage movement struggled to gain a foothold and grow beyond a central core of supporters. In this time period, the suffrage organizations in the U.S. had membership numbers of approximately 20,000.
Suffrage and the WCTU
Under Willard’s leadership as President of the WCTU, the link between the woman’s temperance movement and the suffrage movement grew. Willard developed and promoted a new argument for suffrage that persuaded many more women to support the idea, and the large membership of the WCTU (200,000 by 1885) brought many supporters to the suffrage movement. This new argument was less about women’s rights and more about women’s ability to change the world through their benevolent natures and influence. In the late 1870s, Willard began calling for a “Home Protection” ballot that would give women a voice on areas of political life that had impact on the home – such as school boards and local liquor laws. Where many women previously had resisted joining the call for woman suffrage, this approach proved successful and thousands of WCTU members joined the movement. The WCTU officially came out in support of suffrage in 1881 and a Department of Franchise began work that year. Echoing Willard’s call to “Do Everything,” and her justification for a “Home Protection” ballot, women simultaneously worked for women’s rights and for social reforms in their communities. They worked to protect children, improve conditions in cities and factories, and improve education through a myriad of new organizations proliferating at the turn of the century, including women’s clubs, church auxiliaries, fraternal organizations, social settlements. As with the WCTU, while some of these local associations were integrated, many were not, and black women and white women most often worked separately to benefit their communities.