top of page
  • Cary Donham


Updated: Jul 16, 2023

When the Declaration of Independence said that all men were created equal, it meant white men who owned property. Women, even white women who owned property, in most states, did not have the right to vote until the 19th Amendment, finally enacted in 1920. The struggle for women’s right to vote was a tortuous path that provides a prime example of a successful nonviolent movement.

The Beginning

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist who had studied law, had spoken at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London complaining about potential female delegates, including her future colleague Lucretia Mott, being excluded as convention delegates. In 1848, Stanton and Mott called for a women’s rights convention to meet in Seneca Falls, New York (where Stanton lived). on July 19–20 and in Rochester, New York, on subsequent days. At the meeting Stanton introduced her Declaration of Sentiments, that declared that people of both genders had the same inalienable rights. She also introduced a resolution calling for women’s suffrage that was adopted after considerable debate.

file:///Users/carydonham/Downloads/Elizabeth%20Cady%20Stanton%20%7C%20Biography,%20Significance,%20Seneca%20Falls,%20Books,%20&%20Facts%20%7C%20Britannica.html. Beginning in 1851, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote articles and editorials, lectured, spoke, organized, and prepared legislation to further women’s rights, including the right to vote.

For the next 70 years, Stanton, Anthony and others used a variety of nonviolent tactics aimed at securing the right to vote for women. It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution finally gave women the full right to vote in the U.S. The women’s suffrage movement teaches us valuable lessons about how to secure significant change through nonviolent means. See Chenoweth. file:///Users/carydonham/Downloads/Why%20nonviolent%20resistance%20beats%20violent%20force%20in%20effecting%20social,%20political%20change%20–%20Harvard%20G azett.html.

Women Used a Variety of Nonviolent Tactics

Speeches, Articles and Organizations

To begin, the leaders of the movement such as Stanton and Anthony made speeches around the country and wrote articles that were published in newspapers and magazines, advocating that women had the political and moral right to vote. In addition, Stanton prepared draft legislation that would give women the right to vote and arranged to have it introduced in every Congress from 1878 to 1918. Moreover, women formed organizations that pressed for women to have the right to vote.

Civil Disobedience

But the movement also used protests and civil disobedience well before Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1872, despite women not having the right to vote, Ms. Anthony nonetheless registered to vote and voted, contending that the 14th Amendment, which made all persons born in the U.S. citizens, gave her the right to vote as a citizen. She was arrested and tried before a judge who refused to allow her to testify, found her guilty and fined her $100. Her conviction was upheld on appeal.

Undeterred, prior to the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair celebrating the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Anthony and Stanton, along with Matilda Gage, wrote a Declaration and Protest of the Rights of Women of the United States, to be read at the celebration. Stanton wrote to General Joseph Hawley, president of the United States Centennial Commission, and asked to present the document to the U.S. President “that it may become an historical part of the proceedings.” Hawley acknowledged that “we have not lived up to our own original Declaration of Independence in many respects,” but denied Stanton’s request. Anthony and four other women with passes allowing them to witness the ceremony rushed the stage where then Acting Vice-President and Michigan Senator Thomas Ferry, representing the United States, was to speak, and handed it to him. Anthony then found an empty platform and began reading the document to a large crowd that gathered around her. Id.

Ms. Stanton and Ms. Anthony died in 1902 and 1906, respectively. Each had devoted more than 50 years of their lives to the struggle for women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and were able to see the beginnings of success. By the time of their deaths, four states, all in the west, had given women the full right to vote and a number of other states had granted women the partial right to vote, including in school board and municipal elections.

A second generation of leaders continues the movement.

Alice Paul, a second-generation women’s movement leader, had learned about civil disobedience in England by working with Emmaline Parkhurst, a women’s suffrage leader there. She was arrested and participated in hunger strikes while in jail. Back in the U.S. Ms. Paul organized a suffrage parade in 1913 the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as President. Police stood by when demonstrators attacked the women marchers, 100 of whom were injured.

Beginning in January 1917, shortly before Wilson’s second term started, members of the National Women’s Party, known as the Silent Sentinels, picketed the White House daily, seeking Wilson’s support for a federal law granting women the right to vote. The picketing went on for months, and initially Wilson tolerated it. However, when the U. S. entered WWI in April 1917, Wilson and others began to view the picketers as unpatriotic. By June, protesting women began to be arrested for “obstructing traffic.”

In August, the picketers unfurled a banner referring to Wilson as Kaiser Wilson, which stated that like poor Germans, 20,000,000 Americans were not represented by the government. A photo of the banner is included at the end of this article. For three days police and a mob attacked the picketers. Six women were arrested and sentenced to 60-day jail terms at Occoquan Workhouse, almost unheard of for middle class white women. When Alice Paul joined the picket line in October, she was immediately arrested and sentenced to seven months in jail, the longest sentence yet. Paul and others demanded to be treated as political prisoners and began a hunger strike due to worm infested food, but were force fed by guards. They also refused to do assigned work. In early November, prison doctors sent Paul to a psychiatric ward and tried to have her placed in an insane asylum. However, doctors at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital refused to admit her, saying she had a spirit like Joan of Arc.,she%20will%20never%20give%20up.”

On November 14, 1917, 33 women from the Silent Sentinels were in a holding cell at Occoquan, waiting to be charged. Rather, the warden had his guards, physically abuse the women. file:///Users/carydonham/Downloads/The%20Night%20of%20Terror:%20When%20Suffragists%20Were%20Imprisoned%20and%20Tortured%20in%201917%20%7C%20HISTORY.html. After what has become known as the Night of Terror, more women in the jail began hunger strikes.

As word of the abuse and the prisoners’ protests leaked out, federal authorities ordered the women released and in early 1918, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled the women had been illegally arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. In the aftermath, the Senate, in 1918, voted to approve the 19th Amendment, and even President Wilson offered support. The women’s’ resistance had changed the public face of the opposition.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement Remained Nonviolent for 70 years

Importantly, the women’s suffrage movement was ultimately successful, even though it remained nonviolent until the 19th Amendment was ratified. This was not a foregone conclusion. Alice Paul learned of civil disobedience when working in England in the early 1900s with Emmaline and Cristobel Parkhurst. The Parkhurst’s followers would break windows and fight back against police, and even approved of arson. Although Paul was closely aligned with the Parkhursts in terms of advancing women’s suffrage, she, a Quaker, resisted violence.


At last, in June 1919, the Senate passed the 19th Amendment and on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

The battle for women’s suffrage in the U.S. is a prime example of a sustained and successful nonviolent movement. Although I am sure its leaders were often frustrated by slow progress and relentless opposition, they patiently persevered for 70 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.

11 views0 comments


bottom of page