Black ExperienceBlack HistoryStacy M. BrownWomen's Suffrage Movement

The Battle for Women’s Suffrage and the Obstacles in the Constitution

As Congress debated the nation’s postwar reconstruction, on Dec. 7, 1868, Sen. Samuel Pomeroy (R-Kan.) introduced Resolution 180, a constitutional amendment that aimed to score a major victory for the women’s suffrage movement.

“The basis of suffrage in the United States shall be that of citizenship, and all native or naturalized citizens shall enjoy the same rights and privileges of the elective franchise,” Pomeroy wrote in the resolution.

Three days later, the Senate agreed to let Pomeroy’s bill “lie upon the table.”

Pomeroy demanded that his resolution receive a full reading, at length.

“The secretary read as follows: ‘The basis of suffrage in the United States shall be that of citizenship and all native or naturalized citizens shall enjoy the same rights and privileges of the elective franchise; but each State shall determine by law the age of the citizen and the time of residence required for the exercise of the right of suffrage, which shall apply equally to all citizens, and also shall make all laws concerning the time, places, and manner of holding elections,” Pomeroy’s resolution stated.

It was just two years earlier, on Dec. 12, 1866, that a debate took place over a District of Columbia suffrage bill. Republican Sen. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania introduced an amendment to provide for women’s suffrage.

However, the Senate defeated Cowan’s amendment by a 37-9 vote.

Though primarily aimed at recognizing African Americans as citizens, the language in Pomeroy’s amendment also would have removed any uncertainty about women’s citizenship, according to National Park Service historians.

Questions remained, however, about what came with citizenship. Are voting rights inherent in citizenship? Is there a federal interest in voting rights?

From 1865 to 1870, these questions were major topics of national debate, and for most of that time, woman suffragists acted within an interracial equal rights movement, NPS historians said.

In many states of the North and the South, activists pressed to change state laws so that all adult men and women, Black and white, had equal rights to vote.

Of hopes for New York in 1866, Susan B. Anthony told an audience: “Now is the hour not only to demand suffrage for the Negro, but for every other human being in the Republic.”

Suffragists petitioned Congress to consider the advantages of universal suffrage tied to citizenship. In December 1868, Congressman George W. Julian of Indiana introduced language for an amendment that would achieve that ideal.

“The right of suffrage in the United States shall be based on citizenship, and shall be regulated by Congress, and all citizens of the United States, whether native or naturalized, shall enjoy this right equally, without any distinction or discrimination whatever founded on race, color, or sex,” Julian said.

NPS historians said Julian envisaged not only a polity of equal rights among adult citizens, but also a federal government with the authority to qualify its voters.

From NPS historian Ann D. Gordon:

“This dream of voting rights for every citizen came to a splintered end. Congress rejected universal suffrage in favor of manhood suffrage, proposing the Fifteenth Amendment as we know it to the states in February 1869, while women in the equal rights alliance were told to stand down.

“Allies who were willing to campaign for manhood suffrage took that path, African American women made choices between pressing for their individual rights or accepting that votes for freedmen alone was a huge leap forward, and woman suffrage lost its connection to a movement with universal aims.

“In short order, in March 1869, Congressman Julian introduced a sixteenth amendment for woman suffrage, repeating his earlier language about suffrage and citizenship and slimming down the prohibitions to ‘founded on sex.’ Congress let the matter drop.”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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