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The 19th Amendment is a milestone, but not the endpoint, for women’s rights in America, says Stanford historian

The upcoming centennial of the 19th Amendment is a milestone in women’s suffrage, marking a culmination of decades-long efforts by women who called for full citizenship. This history, Stanford historian Estelle Freedman says, can be traced back to the abolition movement in 19th-century America.

Here, Freedman discusses how the histories of the women’s suffrage movement and abolitionism are closely intertwined: It was through their opposition to slavery that middle-class American women first became politically active, said Freedman. The anti-slavery movement pushed women out of the home and church and into politics, eventually leading some to advocate for their own rights as women.

For example, Freedman shares the stories of Angelina and Sarah Grimké, some of the early white female abolitionists, who noted in 1837 that advocating for the rights of enslaved people inspired them to examine their own role in American political society. Also advocating for women’s rights – particularly the rights of Black women – was the formerly enslaved abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Freedman also discusses how the women’s suffrage movement split over race after the Civil War, what it did and did not achieve, and what can be learned from this history.

Freedman is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History in the School of Humanities and Sciences. Her research interests focus on the history of women and social reform, including prison reform, as well as the history of sexuality and sexual violence.


You have written about how anti-slavery activism inspired women’s suffrage. Can you explain how these two movements are connected?

The history of suffrage cannot be separated from the history of race and class in America. The suffrage movement in part had its origins in the anti-slavery movement in the United States.

Anti-slavery activism drew both Black and white northern women into politics during the antebellum period, from the 1830s through the 1850s. While Black women sought freedom for their own race, some white women steeped in religious or moral training came to believe that slavery defied their ideals of womanhood and of justice. Think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appeal in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which played to the sentiment northern middle-class women attached to the family by portraying enslaved families sold apart. Abolitionist literature alluded to the rape of enslaved women, which affronted ideals of female purity.

While they found different paths into the small but vocal anti-slavery movement, northern women who joined it moved beyond the limits of the home and church. They formed hundreds of female anti-slavery societies and in the process engaged in politics. Some women merely tried to influence their husbands, sons or brothers – who were voting citizens – but others increasingly took action themselves. For example, during the campaign to send petitions to Congress to abolish slavery, the women’s anti-slavery societies gathered the bulk of the signatures.

When female abolitionists tried to speak in public, however, the public condemned their unladylike behavior. Maria Stewart, a northern Black anti-slavery activist, justified her right to speak out politically, whatever her race or her sex. Angelina and Sarah Grimké, who left a slave-holding family in the South, also chafed under restrictions on their right to speak publicly against the evil of slavery. As Angelina Grimké explained, “The investigation of the rights of slaves has led me to a better understanding of my own.” Sarah Grimké’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837) articulated an early critique of misogyny, marriage and economic inequality, one considered far too controversial for the time. Both Stewart and the Grimké sisters, however, withdrew from public speaking.

The World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 provides another link between anti-slavery and suffrage. U.S. delegates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott shared the humiliation of having to sit in the balcony as observers (where some male allies joined them). Eight years later, living near Seneca Falls, New York, the two women called together a convention on women’s rights, which the leading abolitionist Frederick Douglass chaired. The subsequent convention movement called for married women’s property rights, access to education and occupations, and woman suffrage.





Estelle Freedman is the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Image credit: Sunny Scott