In the academic literature, the beginning of the process of women’s suffrage in U.S. history is commonly traced to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s refused admission to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, thus leading them to host their own Women’s Convention in the U.S. This event occurs in 1840, thereby marking the commonly accepted beginning of women’s activism in the U.S. Yet that the ultimate objective of women activists can be said to have only been realized some eighty years later, with the Nineteenth Amendment’s passing in 1919, suggests that particular movements of social emancipation and their successes or failures are not entirely based upon these movements themselves; rather they find themselves bound to a hegemonic social system that, because of its intent to retain power, is resistant to such emancipatory positions for significant periods of time.
Women activism in the United States thus had a very clear sense of its goals at the very outset of the suffrage process. Already in 1848, Stanton, Mott and other activist had established a clear program for the movement in the form of The Declaration of Sentiments document, drafted at a conference held in Seneca Falls, New York. The ambitious scope of the project is demonstrated in its unambiguous interpretations of the social order as it stood, and the changes the activists declared to be necessary. “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman”, (The Declaration of Sentiments), which, in consequence, requires that “in view of the entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country…we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” (The Declaration of Sentiments) The intent, therefore, as early as 1848, of these activists was radical: a total revision of the existing legal system was demanded. The process of women’s suffrage in the United States was therefore initiated in an uncompromising fashion, such that no ambiguity can be attributed to its world-view: rather, the fact that the process to realize these ambitions was only completed well over half a century later demonstrates the dependency of such movements on a greater context.
This greater context can be elaborated in terms of the clear parallels between the movement of woman’s suffrage and the anti-slavery movement. The extent to which these movements co-existed indicates that the social norms that they were to attack were essentially patriarchal and racist in character: furthermore, a clear hegemony existed in American society, to the extent that various minorities or marginalized groups could clearly be identified and even seek solidarity amongst themselves based on a shared oppression. The famed speech given by Sojourner Truth in December 1951, entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?” shows the coming together of these two movements based on a common lack of rights the result of a particular form of hegemony; as Truth states at the outset of her speech, “I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.” The fact that women’s suffrage was an ongoing, long-lasting project, demonstrated that its realization only could depend on a proportional weakening of the hegemonic class of American society, that being the white American male.
Woman’s suffrage as process is complicated by the fact that it occurs within a society that by definition opposes it. As the Declaration of Sentiments states, “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” Certainly, from one perspective, the very reason for the initiation of such a process is because the greater social structure creates the marginalized and those lacking rights: the movement is a response to this same social structure, an effort to change it. But this is an effort that requires a radical change of some of the most fundamental norms and behaviors of this society, norms and behaviors that provide its very foundation. The success of the given movement depends upon the extent to which this foundational aspect of society can be altered: this, of course, is a mammoth task.
Hence, when observing a movement such as women’s suffrage from the perspective of its historical development, it becomes clear that key to this process is a double form of resistance: a resistance from the marginalized against the hegemonic power structure that marginalizes, and a contrasting resistance by the latter against the former, which strives to consolidate its power. Any time the weak combat the strong, even if the weak have a clarity and unity of purpose, the process is arduous because of an imbalance in power relations. The history of the women’s suffrage movement demonstrates precisely how these power relations function, but, through an arduous process, can also ultimately be changed.
- Seneca Falls Conference, “The Declaration of Sentments”, 1848. Retrieved at:
- Truth, Sojourner. “Ain’t I A Woman?”, 1851. Retrieved at: