To begin exploring your ties to the suffrage movement, you should be asking questions such as the following about the places where you and your ancestors have roots:
To effectively answer these questions requires a basic understanding of how the suffrage movement unfolded, chronologically and geographically.
The American woman suffrage movement spans a period of over 70 years, from the mid-1800's until the 19th amendment was-- finally! -- ratified in 1920, granting women across the nation the right to vote.
From its beginning as a tiny regional movement involving perhaps 300 active participants, the suffrage movement widened into a national campaign which would touch the lives of virtually every person living in America at the time of ratification -- including your own ancestors.
Although national in scope, the suffrage movement was local in nature: it spread through the actions of grass-root organizers mobilizing individuals in the neighborhoods and communities where your ancestors lived, and where you live now.
In this era, before everyone was connected by television, computers and social media, political movements fanned out far more slowly and idiosyncratically, creating scattered pockets of regional activity in different parts of the country at different times. So the first step in trying to link your ancestors to the suffrage movement is to gather background information about its geographic timeline.
Until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, each state was free to determine whether to extend voting rights to women. As a result, suffragists waged campaigns to win voting rights at both the federal level and within individual states.
The adjoining pages provide a general geographical timeline of the United States suffrage movement -- just enough information to get you started. With this foundation, you can use the strategies and resource identified under the Additional Resources tab above to discover the key dates, places, people, organizations and events connected with the suffrage movement in the areas where your ancestors lived. Many more resources, including in-depth histories of women's suffrage, are identified on the How to Learn More page.
Image credit: Illustration by Henry Mayer in Puck magazine, February 20, 1915.
The Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19-20, 1848, is generally regarded as the beginning of the women's suffrage movement in America. Although it was to have national impact, the convention was largely a local affair.
The Seneca Falls Convention Sparked a Series of Other Women's Rights Conventions
In April, 1850 the first convention to be organized on a statewide basis was held in Salem, Ohio (the proceedings of this Convention, with a list of the organizers, is available on the Salem Public Library website). Newspapers reported that some 500 women were in attendance.
A few months later, on October 23-24, 1850, the first National Women's Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts, attracting more than 1000 delegates from 11 of the 31 then-existing states (the proceedings of this Convention, with a list of the organizers, is available on the Worcester Women’s History website, as is a list of local participants in the suffrage movement).
Unfortunately, aside from the organizers and speakers, few of the attendees of these early conventions are identified. But if any of your ancestors lived in or near the location of a "woman's rights" convention, chances are they were at least aware of it -- and that it caused enough of a sensation to provoke discussion, debate or ridicule. To get a sense of what your ancestors' attitudes might have been, try reading through the Convention proceedings (many are available online) and look for articles in local newspapers. For more information about these records, use the Additional Resources tab above.
Image credit: NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 5848147 (Detail, Map of Seneca Falls)
During the war, women put the suffrage movement on hold. Suffragists -- most of whom were ardent abolitionists -- focused their political efforts towards supporting the war effort and the emancipation of slaves.
Although the war temporarily ended suffrage activism, it also opened up new roles for women, whether or not they were "feminists."
If your female ancestors lived in American during the Civil War, there's a good chance they were involved in war relief activities. Unlike the suffrage movement, which involved only a tiny minority of the population at this point, the Civil War touched the lives of virtually every American resident. Identifying any Civil War era organizations your female ancestors may have joined can give you clues about whether, and how, they might have participated in the suffrage movement -- and is interesting genealogical information in its own right.
To find out, try searching in local newspapers: a good place to start is Newspapers.com (available at all NYPL locations), which includes digitized newspapers from across the United States. For black women ancestors, a good starting point is African American women during the Civil War. For more ideas, see the Additional Resources tab above, and the How to Learn More page.
After the Union victory, most suffragists expected that women would gain the right to vote at the same time as the former slaves. They joined with abolitionists to form a new organization, called the American Equal Rights Association (“AERA”), to promote universal suffrage for all, regardless of race or sex.
Some suffragists supported the 14th and 15th Amendments despite the exclusion of women, feeling it was necessary to subordinate women’s rights to the cause of racial equality. Others -- including prominent suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- actively campaigned against the adoption of both amendments. "If that word male be inserted," Stanton gloomily predicted, "it will take us a century at least to get it out" (she was wrong, but it did take more than half a century -- long enough that neither Stanton nor Anthony were alive when the 19th Amendment finally passed).
By 1869, the issue of whether to support the 14th and 15th Amendments split the suffrage movement in two. The American Equal Rights Association was dissolved, and members split into two opposing organizations:
The American Woman Suffrage Association (headquartered in Boston) -- formed by suffragists who had supported the 14th and 15th Amendments
The National Woman Suffrage Association (headquartered in New York City) -- formed by suffragists who opposed the 14th and 15th Amendments
Each of these national suffrage organizations included a few African American members, but in the face of increasing racism, black women also began forming their own associations. An early example is the Colored Woman's Suffrage League of Brooklyn, founded by Sarah Garnet in the late 1880's. Many other African American women who fought for suffrage formed organizations aimed at improving the overall situation of black people, rather than focusing solely or primarily on women's suffrage. Tips and resources relating specifically to researching African American suffragists are outlined at the How Diverse Were Suffragists? page.
In addition to the two national suffrage organizations, many local organizations devoted to winning woman suffrage sprang up after the Civil War. Early examples include:
In 1867, the Impartial Suffrage Association was organized in Kansas is to fight for two amendments to the state constitution: one to remove “white” and one to remove “male” from the state’s voting requirements. Although both efforts failed, if you had ancestors living in Kansas at the time, they may have campaigned for or against the suffrage referendum, and your male ancestors may have participated in the vote.
To see if and when a suffrage organization appeared near your ancestors' homes, try searching in the newspaper databases and other resources identified on the How to Learn More page. For additional tips, consult the Find Their Local Organizations page.
In addition to having their base of operations in different cities, the two rival suffrage organizations formed after the Civil War adopted different tactics to advance the cause of women's suffrage. And while both organizations were based on the East Coast, it was in the Western territories that women first gained the right to vote.
The American Woman Suffrage Association ("AWSA") was headquartered in Boston.
The National Woman Suffrage Association ("NWSA") was organized in New York City.
Meanwhile, the first major victories for women’s suffrage were achieved -- not on the East Coast, where the rival suffrage organizations were headquartered, but in the sparsely-populated Western territories. The following territories granted women the right to vote prior to 1890:
*In 1887, Congress subsequently revoked the right of Utah women to vote in 1887, as part of the Edmunds-Tucker anti-polygamy act; the same year, the Washington Territorial Court disenfranchised women in the Territory of Washington.
If you had ancestors living in these territories at the time women were granted the right to vote, this is where your research should start! For tips on getting started, see the Additional Resources tab above. Additional resources are described on the How to Learn More page.
Outside the Western territories -- and even within some of them -- suffrage referendums were soundly defeated. Campaigns for women's suffrage failed in the following states and territories:
Regardless of the outcome, if you had ancestors living in a state where a suffrage referendum was proposed, you will want to start by exploring any suffrage activities that your ancestors may have encountered -- or participated in!
The first women's mass movement in America was the Women's Temperance Crusade of 1873-1874. It began in small towns in western New York State and southwestern Ohio and fanned out across the country, leading to the formation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union ("WCTU"). Many individual members of the WCTU were suffragists (including famous suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony, France Harper, Anna Howard Shaw, and Carrie Chapman Catt), and the national organization formally endorsed suffrage in 1881. In the 1880's, the WCTU created a separate unit for "work among colored people," and local units of segregated black women operated in many states. One example is the Frances Ellen Harper Branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union in Seattle, Washington.
Were your ancestors involved in the temperance movement? if so, they may have supported women's suffrage as well. For resources relating to the temperance movement, see the How to Learn More page.
NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID 1252574 (Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, prominent African American activist and member of the American Woman Suffrage Association).
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 24, 1888 (Woman suffrage in Wyoming Territory -- Scene at the polls in Cheyenne).
By 1890, public opinion toward women's suffrage was changing. As Eleanor Flexner writes, in her seminal history Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, "Woman suffrage was not yet generally accepted, but it was no longer considered the province of eccentrics and crackpots" (p. 224). Tensions within the suffrage movement also eased, leading to a reunification of the two rival suffrage organizations that split apart after the Civil War.
Between 1890 and 1919, women's suffrage grew into a mainstream movement that permeated public discussion across the nation. For most family historians, it's in this period that your ancestors were most likely to intersect with the suffrage movement.
Formation of NAWSA
In 1890, the two rival women’s rights organizations reunited, merging to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (“NAWSA”).
After holding its first four annual conventions in Washington, D.C., NAWSA began to rotate this important event to various cities across the nation.
Headquarters and Administration
In its early years, the administrative work of NAWSA was performed in the homes of its officers, but it soon outgrew these domestic quarters.
Although headquartered in New York City, much of NAWSA’s action took place in other states, through local affiliate organizations that implemented NAWSA’s state-by-state approach. Was there a suffrage organization in your ancestors' town, and if so, when was it started?
By 1913, some members of NAWSA became dissatisfied with what they viewed as its conservative policies, and broke off to form a new organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage ("CUWS"). Headquartered in Washington, D.C., on F Street near the Willard Hotel, the CUWS had 4,500 members and organized high-profile protests, including daily picketing of the White House. In 1916, the CUWS became the National Woman's Party.
More information on the activities and meetings of the CUWS is available in the following sources:
In the years between 1890 and passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, suffragists won full or partial suffrage in the following states:
If your ancestors were living in these states around the time women won the right to vote there, they would certainly have been impacted by state suffrage activities and may well have been actively involved. One possible clue: did your female ancestors register to vote as soon as women won the right to vote in their state? You may be able to find out: consult the How to Learn More page for tips on voter registration records.
And don't forget to check if a suffrage referendum was defeated in the states of your ancestors! However disappointing the outcome, suffrage campaigns in these states would have generated the same kind of attention and involvement relating to women's voting rights as in states which passed these measures. For a list of states where suffrage referendums were defeated, see the Don't Forget Your Male Ancestors page.
In 1919, the 19th Amendment, which stated that “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states for ratification.
The approval of 36 states was needed to ratify the amendment. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment -- with a nail-biting 50 of 99 members of the Tennessee House of Representatives voting yes. For a page-turning account of the ratification campaign in Tennessee, read The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. This gripping account of how the 19th Amendment nearly failed to pass will make you appreciate that history is anything but inevitable!
Eventually all of the states that were in the United States in 1920 ratified the 19th amendment, but it took a surprisingly long time for this to happen. The states that dragged their heels on ratification were all located in the south: Maryland ratified the amendment in 1941, and Alabama and Virginia followed in the 1950s. Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina ratified the amendment between 1969 and 1971. Mississippi became the last state to do so, in 1984.
To learn when your ancestor's and/or your own state ratified the 19th Amendment, consult the Wikipedia entry The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. For a state-by-state overview of ratification campaigns, see the National Park Service's 19th Amendment by State and Follow the Race to Ratification in Real Time.
For African American suffragists, ratification of the 19th Amendment did not end the fight for voting rights. Hurdles like poll taxes and literacy tests kept black voters disenfranchised in many parts of the country until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices.
To this day, activists continue to fight against voter suppression, most notably former Georgia representative Stacey Abrams. For resources relating to African American feminists in the post-ratification era, see the Black Feminism Introductory Research Guide, a libguide created by NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Image credit: Ratification map, NCpedia
This page highlights resources relating specifically to the chronology and geography of the suffrage movement. For a complete overview of the resources available for connecting your ancestors to the suffrage movement, see the How To Learn More page.
Concise and helpful articles about regional suffrage activity are available on the National Park Service website:
For more detailed histories of regional suffrage activity, try browsing our online catalog with the following subject headings:
A good place to start researching how your ancestors may have connected with the suffrage movement is to determine whether any Women's Suffrage Conventions were held in the areas where they lived.
Listed below are the dates and locations of the most important early suffrage conventions. The proceedings were published and most are available online through the free digital library HathiTrust (links provided below). Whether or not your ancestors were in attendance, they likely discussed and/or argued about women's rights, and reading these reports will help you imagine the kinds of conversations they may have had.
After the suffrage movement split into factions in 1869, the two competing organizations -- the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) -- each held their own annual conventions.
In 1890, the two organizations merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association ("NAWSA"), and held annual meetings in cities across the United States. Proceedings of most of NAWSA's annual conventions are available on Hathitrust.
For our ancestors, these numbers represent a herculean -- and heroic -- achievement. For their sakes, we wish it had been easier -- but for us, their genealogy-and-history-loving descendants, the suffragists' protracted labors provide a vast treasure trove of research opportunities.
Did your ancestors live in one of the many states in which women won the right to vote prior to passage of the 19th Amendment? If so, they may have been actively involved in a state-wide suffrage campaign.
There are many online resources relating to state suffrage campaigns that will help you get started.
For more detailed sources, try searching NYPL's online catalog:
Digitized newspaper databases are an invaluable tool for discovering local suffrage activity in the areas where your ancestors lived. To effectively search for newspaper articles, try experimenting with various keywords. Use this libguide and the other resources listed on this page to identify details you can use as keywords, such as the names of local suffrage organizations that were active in the area where your ancestors lived.
NYPL subscribes to a number of historic newspaper databases that can be used to search for relevant articles, and there are also some newspaper databases available online for free. For information about these sources, see the How to Learn More page.
Although racist attitudes prevented many African American women from participating in the mainstream suffrage organizations, black women formed their own organizations and were fundamental to winning the right to vote. But these organizations were often religious or benevolent associations, and were not aimed exclusively at winning voting rights for women. For information on finding these types of organizations, see the African American Suffragists tab on the How Diverse Were Suffragettes? page.
In addition, both black and white suffragists were often involved in other women's organizations, including:
For information on researching your ancestors' connections to these types of organizations, see the How to Learn More page.