Surprisingly, the goal of suffrage was nearly abandoned at the Seneca Falls Convention before it was even adopted. At this gathering, often regarded as the beginning of the women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read a manifesto that placed suffrage ninth on a list of 12 demands, and it proved to be the only one that was controversial with the assembly.
The other resolutions reveal that in 1848, American women wanted to speak in public as respected authorities, to be judged by the same moral standard as men and have the same work opportunities for equal wages. They denounced power imbalances in marriage and the psychological warfare that destroyed women’s confidence and self-respect.
Most of the women present were actually uncomfortable pursuing the vote, convinced that the idea of female voters was so outlandish that it would discredit their “more rational” objectives and make “the whole movement ridiculous.”
But Frederick Douglass disagreed. He stepped up in the debate to defend voting as indispensable to the women’s agenda, arguing it “was the right by which all others could be secured.” After his speech, the resolution passed, but only by a small margin. For this movement, suffrage would be a means to securing equality for women, not the goal in itself.
Indeed, though Stanton may have longed all her life for the civic recognition that suffrage would bestow, a number of other women present that day would have refused to go to the polls on principle, even if the law had allowed it. The men in their activist circles were ambivalent on this issue as well. Henry David Thoreau observed, “All voting is a sort of gaming,” like playing checkers except “with moral questions.” He was not satisfied to accept the ruling of the American majority on the most pressing question of the day: slavery.
Thoreau absorbed these ideas from his abolitionist friends who believed any form of participation in the proslavery U.S. government was immoral. Activists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, both avid supporters of women’s rights, refused to cast a ballot for representatives sworn to uphold the Constitution under which 4 million people were enslaved. They hotly debated this point with “political abolitionists,” including Douglass, who believed it was their duty to leverage the political system for the cause.
After the Civil War, however, even “no-government” men and women came to embrace the importance of the vote in cementing African American citizenship. Although some civil rights activists hoped to prioritize far-reaching land redistribution programs, Douglass and Phillips called urgently for a 15th Amendment to enshrine black male suffrage. They saw the vote as the best way for freedmen to protect themselves against the racist violence that gripped the South as former Confederates fought to regain control of local governments.