Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


1869 Petition: The Appeal for Woman Suffrage

Between 1848, when a resolution calling for woman suffrage was first adopted in New York, and 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, women repeatedly petitioned both the state and Federal Governments for the right to vote. During the course of this two-generation contest, women devoted their careers, sacrificed their time and energy, and on several occasions, risked their lives in their campaign to obtain the most basic right in a democracy-the right to vote. An increased appreciation and awareness of this momentous struggle and the labor it required is crucial for a thorough understanding of the evolution of women’s rights in the history of the United States.


The legal status of American women in the mid19th century was defined by English common law, which was largely uncodified and based on custom and traditional court decisions.

According to the law, unmarried women were considered the property of their fathers, while married women belonged to their husbands. Neither group of women enjoyed many individual rights. Women could not vote, own land, make a will, sign a contract, serve on a jury, testify in court, or be sued. Even a woman’s wages legally belonged to her husband or father. If her husband died without a will, a woman could inherit neither the house they lived in nor more than one-third of their mutual property. If she were widowed or divorced, she had no rights to her own children. What control a woman had over her own life was largely determined by the amount of influence she exerted over men and children through her role as nurturer and instiller of family values.

Despite their few legal or political rights, women found a powerful voice for addressing individual and societal grievances in their First Amendment right to petition the Government. Although many of the earliest of women’s petitions to Congress are pension requests from the widows of Revolutionary War soldiers, by 1830 petitioning had become an important means for relating public grievances to the Government. Traveling door to door to collect signatures, many women joined the abolitionist movement in petitioning Congress for an end to the institution of slavery. The belief in equality that led women to champion the rights of slaves also led some women to question the denial of their own political rights. Women of the antislavery movement began laying the ideological foundations for the subsequent movement for women’s equality. From their exposure to the tactics of the abolitionists, women learned valuable organizational and political skills, which would later benefit them in their drive for suffrage. The featured document, an appeal and petition from the Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 2 3 3, illustrates the increasing sophistication with which women voiced their cause.


The roots of suffrage took hold when Lucretia Mott, an accomplished and confident abolitionist speaker, traveled to London in 1840 for the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Although male delegates denied her a voice at the international convention, Mott resolved to publicly confront the issue of women’s rights in society. In 1848 Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a reform-minded woman with a clear memory of the cruel and unjust treatment of women in her father’s courtroom, organized the first women’s rightsconvention at Seneca Falls, NY The convention was the earliest organized effort for social equality for women.

The climactic event of the convention came when Stanton presented to the assembly the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence. She stated, "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal," then listed 15 grievances and 12 resolutions, including demands for public speaking rights and increased educational opportunities for women. The delegates voted unanimously for every resolution except the ninth, the right to vote. Many of the women, including Mott, felt that the demand for "elective franchise" might be too controversial and prejudice their cause. Only when the famous black abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke in favor of women’s right to vote did the resolution finally pass. At the close of the convention, 68 female and 32 male delegates, among a curious crowd of almost 300 citizens who attended the meeting, signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which included a demand for the right to vote. Although mostly a local audience attended the meeting, word of the Seneca Falls convention and the women’s movement began to spread. While the early movement received much ridicule and condemnation in the established press, reform-minded organizations such as the abolitionist movement were more sympathetic, and it was from these ranks that support continued to grow.

Many women around the country began discussing the issues of women’s social and political rights. Lucy Stone, after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1847, began organizing and helping women to mobilize politically for the right to vote. When Stone married Henry Blackwell, she kept, against the custom of the day, her maiden name. Other women who followed suit became known as "Lucy Stoners." In 1850 Lucy Stone, by then an experienced and dynamic abolitionist lecturer, helped to organize the first national convention on women’s rights in Worcester, MA.

Another momentous event in the history of women’s rights occurred in 1851 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton befriended temperance reformer Susan B. Anthony. These two like-minded woman began a 50-year partnership to promote the cause of equal rights between the sexes. Working together, Stanton, Anthony, and Stone led the women’s rights movement, using and honing their speaking, campaigning, and organizing skills in the process. All three women contributed their talents and energy both to the National Women’s Rights Convention—which was held every year from 1850 to the Civil War, except in 1857 when funds were insufficient—and to the increasingly popular abolitionist movement.


The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted the momentum of the equal rights movement because many of the women reformers, mostly Northerners and abolitionists, dedicated their valuable time and efforts to helping the Union war effort. The enormous number of men going to fight in the war forced women to take over many traditionally male-dominated jobs. Beyond helping to feed and clothe the soldiers, women, for the first time, officially served as nurses for the U.S. Army and, in a few cases, even fought in the war. Experienced in nursing family members at home, women contributed vital medical skills to a deficient and previously male-dominated nursing corps. Stanton and most of the leaders of the women’s rights movement believed that their hard work and loyalty to the Union during the war would be rewarded with the vote.

Even though many of the women’s rights organizers anticipated that a grateful Congress would grant both women and freed blacks suffrage after the war, their expectations quickly faded. Surprisingly, they found that former advocates of woman suffrage shifted their support solely to obtaining rights for freed black men. A further setback came when the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, which penalized states that prohibited black males from voting, resulted in the insertion of the word "male" into the Constitution for the first time. After lobbying to get women and blacks enfranchised together in theproposed 15th Amendment, Stanton, Anthony, and their supporters vowed to campaign against any version of the amendment that denied women the vote. This insistence that the rights of women could not take second place to the rights of black men caused many former abolitionists, male and female, to side against them, producing a breech in the women’s movement. In February 1869 the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was proposed, guaranteeing blacks, but not women, the right to vote.

The ideological and strategic differences that grew among suffrage leaders during and immediately after the Civil War formally split the women’s movement into two rival associations. Stanton and Anthony, after accusing abolitionist and Republican supporters of emphasizing the civil rights of blacks at the expense of women’s rights, formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in May 1869. Beyond campaigning for a Federal woman suffrage amendment, the NWSA broadened its platform to confront other issues such as the unionization of women workers and the reformation of labor and divorce law. In contrast, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded six months later by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, protested the confrontational tactics of the NWSA and tied itself closely to the Republican Party while concentrating solely on securing woman suffrage state by state. Stone and other members of the AWSA accused Stanton and Anthony of distracting attention from the suffrage movement by adopting a broader social reform agenda. Unlike the NWSA, Stone’s association endorsed the 15th Amendment and accepted men into its ranks.

Although political differences between these rival associations faded over the next two decades, this split in the woman suffrage movement lasted until 1890, when the two merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association, a merger due in a large part to the efforts of Lucy Stone’s daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell. Despite this reconciliation, 30 years would pass and three more constitutional amendments would be ratified before women gained the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.


Close Reading of Document

1. Distribute a copy of the featured document to each student. After reading through the text with them, ask students the following questions: What kind of document is this? When do you think the document was created? What evidence in the text supports your conclusions about the date of the document? Who wrote the appeal for this petition? Where did the signers live? Did many men sign the petition?

Persuasive Writing

2. Share with students the background information on the suffrage movement. On the chalkboard, list the rights and privileges denied to women as mentioned in the appeal. Ask students to suggest reasons the author might have for mentioning these restrictions in a petition asking for the vote for women. Ask students to list in a second column rights and privileges they believe women are still denied today. Divide students into groups of three each. Assign each group to either defend or refute the following statement: Today women have equal rights that are guaranteed to them under the Constitution of the United States. After 15 minutes, record the strongest arguments for and against the statement on an overhead projector while students make copies of the arguments. For homework, assign students to write a well-developed persuasive paragraph on the topic. Remind students to anticipate and dismantle the opposing argument in their writing.

Comparing Citizens’ Voices

3. Discuss with your students some of the differences in communication between 1869, when the appeal was created, and now. Ask students how they think Lucy Stone expected to distribute her petitions for people to sign freely and how many signers they think she could have expected to respond to this effort. In a show of hands, ask the students how many of them have signed a petition. Ask them what tactics people use today to influence the views of their senators and representatives. Direct the students to contact the local office of theirU.S. representative or senators to collect data about tactics contemporary constituents use to be heard. Students may want to inquire how the staff keeps track of telephone and e-mail inquiries to determine if paper petitions are considered more seriously.

Click the image to view a larger version

Biographical Writing

4. Assign students to write an obituary or an epitaph for Lucy Stone, making sure to mention her greatest achievements and the most significant events in her life. In preparation for the writing, students should answer the following questions: What was unique about Lucy Stone’s marriage to Henry Blackwell? What kind of education did Stone have? Who were some of the other famous women and men that she knew and worked with? (It may be helpful for students to read some obituaries and epitaphs to get an idea of the style and the types of information they include.)

Creating a Time Line

5. Assign small groups of students to research segments of the history of voting rights, including passage of the 14th, 19th, and 26th Amendments. Attach a long piece of butcher paper to one wall of the classroom, draw and divide a line into 10-year blocks, and direct students to place significant events in voting rights history on this time line. Lead a class discussion about the landmark events and the historical context for each of them.

Staging a Play

6. Divide the class into five teams. Ask each team to research, write, and stage one act of a television play about the events and personalities in the struggle for woman suffrage after the Civil War. The acts might focus on Susan B. Anthony’s arrest in 1872; woman suffrage victories in the West; the work of Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and the suffrage movement among black women; the great march on Washington, DC, led by Alice Paul in 1913; the picketing of the White House in 1917; the final vote on the 19th Amendment taken in the Senate on June 4, 1919; or the final battle for ratification of the amendment in the Nashville statehouse in August 1920. Schedule a media specialist to videotape the final production.


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Chicago: "1869 Petition: The Appeal for Woman Suffrage," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 48–52. Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DX4E848DY5SBPEQ.

MLA: . "1869 Petition: The Appeal for Woman Suffrage." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 48–52. Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DX4E848DY5SBPEQ.

Harvard: , '1869 Petition: The Appeal for Woman Suffrage' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.48–52. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DX4E848DY5SBPEQ.