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Subject: History of the United States (1918–45), Anna Howard Shaw, Women's suffrage in the United States
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The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was an American women's rights organization formed in May 1890 as a unification of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).[1] The NAWSA continued the work of both associations by becoming the parent organization of hundreds of smaller local and state groups,[2] and by helping to pass woman suffrage legislation at the state and local level. The NAWSA was the largest and most important suffrage organization in the United States, and was the primary promoter of women's right to vote. Like AWSA and NWSA before it, the NAWSA pushed for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women's voting rights, and was instrumental in winning the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920.

Susan B. Anthony was the dominant figure in NAWSA from 1890 to 1900, at which time she stepped down in favor of Carrie Chapman Catt. Catt was president of NAWSA from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 onward. Anna Howard Shaw was president of NAWSA from 1904 to 1915.[2] After success in 1920, the NAWSA was reformed as the League of Women Voters, which continues the legacy.

Background conflict

In 1866, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony proposed a new suffrage organization, the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), to push for equal rights for both African Americans and women, and especially to work for universal suffrage, the right to vote given to all people. In 1869, tensions formed regarding the proposed Fifteenth Amendment which would give black men the right to vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony and an outspoken few were unwilling to yield to the political situation which appeared to Stone and a majority of other activists to favor passage of the amendment for black men's voting rights but not passage of women's voting rights. Stone was willing to work for passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the success of which was to be followed directly by a renewed effort on behalf of women. By May 1869, the split between Stone's political realist group and the Stanton-Anthony group came to a head.[3] Anthony and Stanton worked behind Stone's back to create the splinter group NWSA, formed to put pressure on the federal government to adopt a woman suffrage amendment, but which also pushed for a wider scope of women's rights, including easier divorce laws.

In reaction, Stone formed the AWSA in November 1869 with Julia Ward Howe, Josephine Ruffin, and Henry Browne Blackwell, Stone's husband. A more moderate organization that attracted a majority of suffragists, the AWSA worked primarily at passing legislation at the state and local level,[4] with a secondary effort focused on influencing federal elections and winning the opinion of federal legislators. The AWSA fostered local suffrage groups with financial grants and by helping draft proposed laws.

The NWSA tended to take a more radical position than the AWSA. It established itself as an organization that would only allow female members, and it passed a resolution opposing the Fifteenth Amendment, angering many Negro activists and white abolitionists. Later, the NWSA associated itself with George Francis Train who actively opposed any expansion of rights for African-Americans.

The AWSA attracted more moderate members, and was less militant than the NWSA. The AWSA did not campaign on other issues besides votes for women. In 1870, the AWSA founded the Woman's Journal, a magazine edited by Lucy Stone and her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell.

The NWSA contained a tension of its own. Susan B. Anthony wished to focus exclusively upon women's suffrage. Stanton and other radical suffragists pushed for a broader scope, to address the many concerns of women.

The NWSA addressed many issues at the state and local level, but particularly worked to put proposed legislation in front of Congress. The AWSA worked primarily at the state and local level, but applied some pressure at the federal level.


In October 1887, at the annual AWSA convention, Stone proposed the formation of a committee to meet with a similar committee of NWSA delegates to discuss union. Stone stated that the differences between the two organizations "have since been largely removed by the adoption of common principles and methods."[5] Anthony agreed to the meeting, and on December 21, 1887 a foursome consisting of Stone, Anthony, Alice Stone Blackwell and Rachel Foster joined in Boston to discuss a merger. Stone insisted that, in the spirit of good will and as a demonstration of neutrality between the previously antagonistic organizations, none of the three principals, Stone, Stanton or Anthony, would seek to serve as president.[6] Anthony acceded to this condition. After the meeting, Stone wrote to Antoinette Brown Blackwell, longtime friend to both Stone and Anthony, that Anthony "so much wished to be President herself! To bring her to the top at last would be such a vindication, she cannot bear to forego it."[7]

Stone and Anthony selected prominent women's rights activists to form the two committees: representing the NWSA would be May Wright Sewall, Rachel Foster, Clara Colby, Olympia Brown, Laura Johns and Harriet Shattuck; the AWSA group was to be Alice Stone Blackwell, William Dudley Foulke, Julia Ward Howe, Hannah Tracy Cutler, Mary Thomas, Margaret Campbell, and Anna Howard Shaw.[5] Over the next two years, Alice Stone Blackwell shuttled between the AWSA and NWSA conventions to carry proposals and counter proposals between the two committees. Negotiations were necessarily drawn out over many months because each association was required to approve the merger at its annual meeting.[6] In early 1888, Rachel Foster, the leader of the NWSA committee, helped Anthony and Stanton organize a 40-year celebration of the Seneca Falls Convention, with delegates invited from a number of countries. The arrival of women from around the globe gave Foster the opportunity to form the International Council of Women. That fall, she married to become Rachel Foster Avery.

In 1889, Anthony began campaigning for Stanton to become president of the merged group, though she had previously agreed otherwise. Anthony wrote to each woman in the NWSA membership to "be on hand at our next annual Washington convention to stand firm as a rock for perfect freedom in the union and for Mrs. Stanton as President of it."[6] Stanton, however, was not pleased with the direction of the merger—she resisted the elimination of other issues in favor of the concentration of energy solely upon suffrage. Of Stone and Anthony, Stanton wrote: "Lucy and Susan alike see suffrage only. They do not see woman's religious and social bondage."[8]

Finally, in February, 1890 the newly-unified National American Woman Suffrage Association held its first convention in Washington, D.C., combining the AWSA and NWSA memberships.[6] Stone, 72 years old, was too weak with heart problems and respiratory illness[9] to attend its first convention, but was unanimously elected chair of the executive committee.[10] After Anthony asked the assembled delegates not to "vote for any human being but Mrs. Stanton",[6] Stanton was elected president, and Anthony vice president.[6] Both women understood that Stanton's presidency would be largely honorary; Stanton sailed for a two-year tour of England shortly after being elected.[7] The role of acting president settled upon Anthony's shoulders.[7]

Matilda Joslyn Gage, Olympia Brown and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were each alienated by the merger; together, their interests were too radical for the new NAWSA. Stanton turned toward work on The Woman's Bible with Gage, Brown and a Revising Committee of two dozen other women. With Stanton, the committee wished to correct the historical bias that men had introduced into the Bible.[11] This effort led to conflict with the NAWSA; in 1896, Rachel Foster Avery and a slim majority of younger NAWSA members voted to distance the organization from The Woman's Bible and from Stanton.[12] The NAWSA membership wished to focus on one single issue: the drive to gain for women the right to vote.[13]

Gaining the vote

In May 1893, the NAWSA sent some lecturers to the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago. Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony spoke during the week-long event which attracted 150,000 attendees.

At the NAWSA convention in 1900, Maud Wood Park discovered that, at the age of 29, she was the youngest delegate present. Park determined to attract a younger group of women to the organization and, in concert with Inez Haynes Gillmore, formed the College Equal Suffrage League.[14]

Pressure group action

NAWSA restructured itself and became a major pressure group. It recruited celebrities, both men and women, who could draw attention to the cause. It raised money from members and wealthy donors, using the funds to train and send paid and volunteer organizers into the field to canvass for votes and enlist new members. It specialized in parades and street rallies, with its white uniforms and banners designed to draw crowds as well as newspaper reporters. It built alliances with local women's clubs, as well as state and national groups, and even some labor unions. Operating under the tight control of Carrie Chapman Catt and her allies, NAWSA by 1916 had enough strength in the states for the final push toward a constitutional amendment. It set up a high-powered publicity bureau and a Washington office, the "front door lobby," to exert immediate, face-to-face pressure on Congressmen.[15]

While NAWSA's overall strategy moved relentlessly toward its goal, some activists grew impatient. Alice Paul joined the NAWSA in 1912 but found it to be insufficiently militant. Paul led a splinter group that eventually became the National Woman's Party (NWP).[14] With its radical tactics, the NWP gained headlines while NAWSA was negotiating with Congressmen who had the votes.


In 1916 at the NAWSA annual convention, President Woodrow Wilson unveiled his plan to gain suffrage. It required the coordination of all suffrage workers across the country, in state and local groups.[14] In 1917, women in New York state won the right to vote, after a petition drive amassed more than a million signatures. At the eleventh hour, the powerful Tammany Hall Democratic machine in New York decided not to oppose the measure, and it passed by a slim majority.[14]

During the involvement of the United States in World War I, many women's rights activists, led by the NAWSA, decided to table the measures that they had been promoting. This prudent move was appreciated by male legislators who saw in it another reason why women deserved the right to vote.[14]

In special sessions conducted during May and June, 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passed both the House and the Senate. The proposed amendment was sent to the states for ratification. The approval of 36 states was required for the constitution to be changed, and Tennessee became the 36th to do so on August 18. On August 26, 1920, the amendment was certified for adoption by the United States Secretary of State.[14]

From 1920 to 1921, the NAWSA reformed into the League of Women Voters, with Maud Wood Park as president.[14]

Presidents of the NAWSA

See also

Feminism portal


  • Philadelphia, Alfred J. Ferris, 1896.
  • DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.
  • Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, Enlarged Edition (1959; Harvard University Press, 1996). ISBN 0-674-10653-9
  • Graham, Sara Hunter. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy (Yale U.P. 1996)
  • Hartmann, Susan M. "Transforming Women, Transforming Politics: The U.S. Suffrage Movement," Reviews in American History 26.2 (1998) 390-394 in Project MUSE
  • Kerr, Andrea Moore. ISBN 0-8135-1860-1
  • Mani, Bonnie G. ISBN 0-7391-1890-0
  • Murphy, Cullen. ISBN 0-395-70113-9
  • Schenken, Suzanne O'Dea. ISBN 0-87436-960-6
  • Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, editor. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement (Troutdale, Oregon: NewSage Press, 1995). ISBN 0-939165-26-0

External links

  • Votes for Women, Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association 1848-1921
  • Elizabeth Smith Miller and Anne Fitzhugh Miller's NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911
  • Webcast-Catch the Suffragist's Spirit; The Miller Scrapbooks From the Library of Congress


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