In the early 1800s, women were second-class citizens. Women were expected to restrict their sphere of interest to the home and the family. Women were not encouraged to obtain a real education or pursue a professional career. After marriage, women did not have the right to own their own property, keep their own wages, or sign a contract. In addition, all women were denied the right to vote. Only after decades of intense political activity did women eventually win the right to vote.
Gaining the vote for American women, known as woman suffrage, was the single largest enfranchisement and extension of democratic rights in our nation’s history. Along with the Civil Rights Movement, the woman suffrage movement should be considered one of the two most important American political movements of the 20th century. The woman suffrage movement was a full-fledged political movement, with its own press, its own political imagery, and its own philosophers, organizers, lobbyists, financiers, and fundraisers.
The movement to enfranchise women lasted for more than 70 years, and involved three generations and millions of women. Each generation of activists witnessed the division of the suffrage movement into moderate and radical camps. Suffrage activists spent more than 50 years educating the public and waging campaigns in the states and nationally to establish the legitimacy of “votes for women.” Suffragists undertook almost 20 years of direct lobbying as well as dramatic, non-violent, militant action to press their claim to the vote.
This exhibition honors and celebrates many of the major women whose dedicated work and political vision won these rights for American women, and who led the drive for the right to vote, considered the badge of American citizenship.