Quakers and the American Women’s Suffrage Movement

The Women’s Suffrage Movement in the USA is widely considered to date from the First Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York State in 1848.  This meeting was instigated by five women who had been closely involved in the abolition of slavery, all but one of whom were Quakers.

Seventy-two years later, it was the actions and treatment of another Quaker woman – Alice Paul – which led at last to the passing of a Women’s Suffrage Bill by the US Congress.

The involvement of Quakers in the campaign for women to be given the right to vote is perhaps not surprising, given the equal status that women had been granted – within the Meetings if not always within the home – from the earliest days of Quakerism.

Women’s participation in the anti-slavery movement had demonstrated their political effectiveness, and this had been controversial for some. When Lucretia Mott (pictured) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, the conference refused to seat the American women delegates.  The two women talked then of the need for a forum to discuss the rights of women, but it was in 1848, at a social gathering at the home of Jane and Richard Hunt, that their plans solidified.  There, along with Martha Coffin Wright and Mary Ann M’Clintock, they began to plan a convention on women’s rights.

In the intervening period, Quaker women, including Mott, had travelled the country, speaking on both slavery and women’s rights, and so had prepared the ground for a sea change in attitude.

The five women who met in 1848 (all of whom but Stanton were Quakers) drew up a Declaration of Sentiments, modelled on the Declaration of Independence, beginning "all men and women are created equal" and going on to list eighteen "injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman."

They also drafted eleven resolutions, arguing that women had a natural right to equality in all spheres. The ninth resolution made the radical assertion that it was the duty of women to secure for themselves the right to vote.

Like Anna Maria and Mary Priestman in Britain, Lucretia Mott demonstrated awareness that equality for women called for economic justice too.  One resolution, drawn up by her, spoke of:  “securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.”

Only eleven days after their initial meeting, a crowd of about three hundred people, including forty men, attended the First Women’s Rights Convention.  By the end of the meeting, one hundred were willing to sign the Declaration of Sentiments.

Over the next twenty years, a series of twelve Woman's Rights Conventions were held. Lucretia Mott continued to be a prominent activist and was the first president of the American Equal Rights Association. In 1869, she attempted to heal a breach between those in the movement who believed those who believed they should campaign for suffrage for freedmen and all women, and those who believed they should accept, as an initial step towards equality, suffrage for freedmen first.

In 1916, another Quaker, Alice Paul, helped to lead a protest against Woodrow Wilson’s failure to support women’s suffrage. The picketers, known as "Silent Sentinels," stood outside the White House, holding banners demanding the right to vote. For a time they were tolerated, if ignored, but when the US entered the First World War in 1917, attitudes changed. Paul was arrested, along with others, on charges of ‘obstructing traffic’ and sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.  When she began a hunger strike to protest conditions there, Paul was moved to a psychiatric wing and force fed.  Press coverage of this, along with continuing demonstrations, led to an outcry about prison abuse of suffragists.  As a result of this public pressure, President Wilson reversed his position and announced his support for a suffrage amendment, calling it a ‘war measure’.

When women in the US were granted the vote in 1920, only one of the sixty-four women who had signed the Seneca Falls Declaration had lived long enough to cast her ballot:  the Quaker, Charlotte Woodward, who in 1848 had been a young worker in a glove factory.

Further Reading and Credits