Suffragettes had played a key role in the abolitionist movement that had worked for decades prior to the Civil War to bring about an end to slavery. Many northern women, working out of their Christian convictions about morality and humanity, began by opposing slavery and subsequently sought the franchise because they had become politically active, informed, and organized as a result of their efforts on behalf of abolitionism. They understandably viewed the rapid social changes brought about by the Civil War as a golden opportunity to expand Constitutional definitions of freedom and citizenship across boundaries of both race and sex. At the time, women's employment opportunities were strictly limited, they received unequal pay relative to men, and they could not usually obtain a divorce unless they could provide evidence of desertion, adultery, or extreme abuse. There were few laws protecting women against such abuse.
In 1866, the founders of the American female suffrage movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—established the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage. That year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented a petition to Congress demanding the vote for women. Stanton and Anthony also launched the feminist newspaper The Revolution. Yet when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, it was the first in the Constitution to define "citizens" and "voters" as "male." Subsequently the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited discrimination in voting in terms of race but not gender. This setback for women's suffrage led to a difficult period in which some white suffragettes became disenchanted, rather than encouraged, by universal male suffrage. They broke with their historical ties to the antislavery movement, and prominent leaders like Stanton and Anthony came out in opposition to the Fifteenth Amendment because it did not enfranchise women. A few, including Stanton, made racist comments intended to disparage the minority groups who had received the vote, to make light of what many white Americans viewed as a contradiction: that is, despite a long history of white supremacy in American society and culture, white women were denied suffrage while men from racial backgrounds that had been deemed inferior could now vote. Yet other feminists, such as Abby Kelley, supported the amendments a step in the right direction.
Due to disagreements over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, in 1869 the female suffrage movement split in two. It formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), a more radical organization based out of New York and run by Anthony and Stanton; and the American Women's Suffrage Association (AWSA), a more conservative, Boston-based group run by Henry Blackwell, Lucy Stone, and Julia Ward Howe. Stanton and Anthony wanted to free women from all restrictions, including social ones such as restrictions on divorce. This was too much for Lucy Stone, who worried that her group would lose valuable support if it challenged popular notions of genteel behavior. For years, the two egged each other on. In 1890, putting ideology aside, they merged into one formidable group: the National American Women Suffrage Association. But in the Reconstruction period, the women's suffrage movement suffered from internal factioning and a lack of attention from government figures, who remained focused on granting and guaranteeing the vote for black men. In Minor v. Happersett (1874), the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that states had the jurisdiction to decide whether women are allowed to vote. Meanwhile, in 1869 the United Kingdom granted women suffrage, but only in local elections and only for unmarried women until the law changed again in 1894.
In the South, which had historically been a much more traditional bastion of gender roles, women ironically had been assuming perhaps even more real power and responsibility than their northern counterparts during the war. White plantation mistresses suddenly found themselves in charge of the finances, slave discipline, and day-to-day operations as their husbands and sons marched off to war. These women, who had been accustomed to performing very little manual labor of their own, were often shocked to find their stature rapidly diminished and their class status threatened if not wiped out by the decimation of the war and the emancipation of the slaves. In 1870, in the Cotton Belt that stretched across the lower South, nearly all white wives (98%) defined their occupation as "keeping house"; but many black wives (40%) listed their job as "field laborer." Black women had long been forced to assume the dual roles of mothers and field laborers under slavery, and they often exercised considerable influence within the black community. Yet black men also sought to reclaim their role as head-of-household and breadwinner, as nineteenth-century society deemed appropriate and respectable for the man. For many freedmen, this meant an attempt to keep their wives at home to tend to the household chores and raise the children. Yet such efforts rarely succeeded in the long term, as southern black families were forced into the debt peonage of sharecropping and both parents often had to work to eke out a living.
Eighteen percent of Confederates died in the war, and by 1873, some 80,000 white widows were applying for support. As one historian has commented, "in order to mourn the dead you have to enhance the cause"; thus the "Lost Cause" of the South, romanticized in songs, novels, and later in films like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, became less a story of losing the war, but a story of victory; a "redemption" of control over society and social values. White women played a key role in erecting and preserving this legend of the Old South, for many of them stood to benefit from it both financially and in terms of their social stature.
At the same time, in the North, a handful of radical feminists were making their presence known. On January 19, 1870, Woodhull, Claflin & Co., a brokerage house, opened for business. It was owned by Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, two very unusual sisters from Ohio who worked as lecturers, journalists, publishers, and investors backed by wealthy railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. They openly proclaimed the principles of free love, women's suffrage, spiritualism, and socialism. That spring, they published the first issue of Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly, which printed Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto in English for the first time. The following year, Woodhull delivered a lecture on free love—"The Principles of Social Freedom"—at New York's Steinway Hall.
In 1872, the Equal Rights Party convention nominated Woodhull and former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass for president and vice president. Douglass declined the nomination, but Woodhull was the first woman to run for the office. Yet her name never appeared on the ballot because she was one year short of the Constitutionally mandated age of thirty-five, and she spent election day in prison, having been arrested under the provisions of the recently passed Comstock Law that forbade the transmission of "obscene literature" through the mail. That same year, Susan B. Anthony was arrested in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote. Simultaneously, American abolitionist and freed slave Sojourner Truth appeared at a polling booth in Battle Creek, Michigan, demanding a ballot; she was turned away.
Yet these women remained exceptions to the vast majority, even in the North, where women exercised less radical and confrontational tactics. Meanwhile, more women were obtaining a quality education: in 1875, Smith College opened in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Wellesley College opened in Wellesley, Massachusetts, both institutions for women. The University of California, Berkeley began to admit women in 1870, two years after receiving the school charter. In the South, where blacks were excluded from the dominant institutions, they formed their own. Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina (founded in 1873), began as a "normal school" dedicated to the education of freed slaves, and later became a women's college; and Spelman College of Atlanta, Georgia was established as a Baptist Female Seminary in 1881. Yet the vast majority of black families could hardly afford to send any of their children, let alone their daughters, to college. After they ceased to function as "normal schools" for the basic education of freed slaves, these institutions served a small elite within the black community.
In 1874, a more mainstream organization was formed which played a key role in future women's movements: the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Emerging out of the Great Lakes region of up-state New York—an area known as the "Burned Over District" for its high level of religious fervor during the Second Great Awakening—the WCTU was led by prominent feminist Francis Willard. Chapters soon formed in Chicago, Canada, and eventually in cities throughout North America, including Argonia, Kansas, where WCTU member Susanna M. Salter became the first female mayor in the country. As the WCTU grew in numbers and influence over the years, the organization became increasingly focused on the issue of women's suffrage, as well as the prohibition of alcohol. Yet the organization did not initially accept blacks, Jews, Catholics, or women who had been born outside of North America. Its work would ultimately prove successful upon the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the National Prohibition (or Volstead) Act in 1919. Due to a number of coalitions and activists, women won the vote the very next year, with the passage of the Twentieth Amendment.