Vermont Humanities

Meg Mott on the 19th Amendment

Fast food worker with fried chicken on shelves


The suffrage movement operated under two very different principles. Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw women’s suffrage as a right that had been unfairly denied to women, while Frederick Douglass saw women’s suffrage as a means to save the country’s soul. Professor Meg Mott considers both of these visions.

This talk is part of our Fall Conference: Democracy 20/20. View the list of free upcoming conference sessions.

Episode Transcript

Meg Mott: Francis Harper is not convinced that women will necessarily make it a more moral country. “I do not believe that giving women the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I think that like men, women may be divided into three classes. The good, the bad and the indifferent.”

Basically, she’s saying you give women the vote, if they’re white women, they’re going to vote like most of the white people vote. If you give Black women the vote, they may vote like most Black men. She did not see women as being some special category.

Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.

For 20 years, Meg Mott taught constitutional law and political theory at Marlboro College. Since the 2016 election, she has traveled around the Northeast making presentations about the Constitution.

We recently visited her goat farm in Putney Vermont to record the opening session of our 2020 Fall Conference. Each fall we offer a series of talks around a particular theme; this year we’re studying democracy. We’ll pay special attention to the current state of civic engagement in the United States. How can we work to bring people together when we are so divided?

You can view all of the recorded conference sessions for free at vermont humanities dot org slash democracy. We’ll release a new talk every week until the middle of November.

Here’s Meg Mott.

Meg Mott: One hundred years ago this August, the 19th Amendment was ratified by the state of Tennessee, not Vermont. Vermont did not jump on this particular bandwagon. So I’m going to be talking to you a little bit about the history of the 19th Amendment and how it was that it eventually was passed in 1920.

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many other suffragists and abolitionists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, for the presentation. It was a public event to announce this new movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s second paragraph of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions is going to sound very familiar to you all.

But she’s made one addition. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

So Elizabeth Cady Stanton is telling the world, just as Thomas Jefferson and his co signatories told the British world, that your government is no longer just.

The reason it’s not just is because what you are doing to women. And she had a couple of indictments. Specific indictments. She said he has made her, if married in the eyes of law, civilly dead. And she’s referring to coverture, which was a law. We brought it over from England in which women who marry lose all their property rights, lose their wages, loses, lose their ability to contract. So women were, once they were married, less free than before. He is taken from her all right in property, she writes even to the wages she earns because all of those wages go to her husband. He has compelled her to commit to laws in the formation of which she has no voice. And that’s that key piece again, that a just government is formed by the consent of the governed. And here we have Elizabeth Cady Stanton saying she is compelled not by consent. She is compelled to live by these laws. He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable rights to the elective franchise.

Now, this was the indictment and then she turns it into a resolution later on that women should have the vote. And this is the whole, this was the part of the declaration of sentiments and resolutions that caused the most furor. It was not necessarily understood that voting was a key right. There is nothing in the Constitution up until the 15th Amendment when African-American men were given the vote. There is nothing in the Constitution that ever says if you are a citizen, you get to vote.

When Elizabeth Cady Stanton makes his claim because they never had universal suffrage in the United States.

They may have had their great notions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But to be a citizen, the United States did not necessarily mean you could vote. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton makes this claim, “It’s time. This is not just how can you say you have this kind of a country when you are not allowing women to vote? That’s half the franchise.” Not everybody agrees. In fact, Lucretia Mott. And if you’re wondering, yes, my I am related to Lucretia Mott. My wife is a great, great, great great granddaughter of Lucretia Mott. So Lucretia Mott, who is a staunch abolitionist and has been speaking against slavery for some point by 1848. And she says, Lizzie, thee make us look ridiculous. Thee, she’s a Quaker. Thee make us look ridiculous.

And at that time, it’s not that Lucretia Mott was a conservative or social conservative. She was not making the argument that women were not capable of voting. She was making a stronger argument. She was saying, “Listen, you vote. Who do you get to vote for? Mostly people who are running for office. They’re either slave holders or warriors. So really, what are you going to get with this vote?” Like William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott and other abolitionists felt that the entire system was corrupt.

“People are going to the polls,” she wrote, “and voting for warriors and slave hold holders instead of seeking to enlighten the public mind.”

At that time, there was this understanding of something called moral suasion.

You didn’t try and change the political order through campaigning, through voting, through office holding. No. You change people’s hearts and minds. In some ways, there’s an interesting parallel going on right now in some of the anti-racism work. It’s much more focused on either things like white privilege or white fragility or things of that sort. And I’m not saying that the abolitionists were completely on the same page as some of this, but there is an interesting parallel between wanting to change things not through political channels, but through moral channels.

Nowadays, we probably say psychological channels.

Now, Lucretia Mott was not saying women should not vote. She was just saying that voting was not going to change this country.

“Far be it from me to encourage women to vote or take an active part in politics in the present state of the government.” Given what we have, this is pre-civil war. Women, go ahead, you can vote. But let’s be clear, it’s not going to do everything you might hope. Interestingly enough, Frederick Douglass, most well known as former slave, abolitionist, great speaker, one of America’s greatest public speakers, I want to say, he was at Seneca Falls. Unlike Lucretia Mott, and they agreed on many things, he was much more sympathetic to giving women the vote. “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of great injustice happens, but the meaning and repudiation of one half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.”

Now, I want to just go over that just a little bit more, because that is very much 19th century language. Frederick Douglass, as many people at that time, believe that each individual had certain kinds of powers inside themselves: intellectual powers, moral powers, spiritual powers. If women were voting, that meant their intellectual and moral powers would be more developed, which means they might have, he hoped, an influence on American politics. He is the one who starts expressing this idea.

If you let women vote, America may become more moral.

And they were certainly concerned about that with respect to slavery.

And later, as we’ll see, they started to be concerned about liquor and wanting to ban alcohol, which we now call the temperance movement.

In 1865, after the Civil War or as the Civil War is coming to a close, people are realizing that the Constitution needs to be amended and anything it had in it about slavery needs to be removed and there needs to be an affirmative statement that slavery is not American.

The 13th Amendment in 1865 which reads neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime, where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

And that language is important for the ending of chattel slavery. But people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they’ve already seen themselves as suffering some of the indignities of slavery, particularly under those laws of couverture that were their wages are taken from them if they are married, if their property is taken from them or is owned by their husband. As the reconstruction starts to gather steam, suffragists start saying, this is good for us because we feel enslaved.

Maybe we can change the marriage laws. Now, the marriage laws did not happen on the federal level. They happened on the state level. But, hey, slavery happened on the state level. The federal government, yes, for a while it allowed slavery in the District of Columbia. But the federal government early on in the buildup to the Civil War began to find ways to reduce slavery within its territories.

Why shouldn’t women who are seeing themselves in, I don’t want to exaggerate the overlap, but to say that they started to see a political opportunity; if slavery was over, certain marriage laws should be over as well.

Unfortunately, their ideas were not where the what they call the radical Republicans in Congress at that time, their ideas did not merge with the members of Congress who were drafting the 14th Amendment. They first stated the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and then they moved to the 14th Amendment. And the 14th Amendment begins with this broad claim. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. Seems like perfectly banal language, but it overthrows a Supreme Court decision which said that African-Americans, descendants of slaves, could even free Black people were not citizens of the United States. This language is very strong to a race, the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott.

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

The suffragists saw that language, that’s Section I, and felt, OK, privileges and immunities, rights of citizens. Let’s take this and go and vote. There was an an expectation with the broadening of citizenship rights that that would include political rights, which meant the vote. But Congress was not going to let that sort of thing happen. Section II of the 14th Amendment for the very first time in the history of the Constitution, the word male is inserted. I don’t want to go into all the details of Section II. It has to do with apportionment of representatives in Congress. It’s one point in this section it says, but when the right to vote in election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state the basis of representation therein shall be reduced. That’s the first time we get the word male in the Constitution.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton says is if the word male be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out. OK. It wasn’t as bad as she said. Women got the vote before 1968, but she realized that in fact, instead of going forward and being brought up on this wave of enthusiasm for broadening citizenship rights, broadening the franchise that women were being cut right out. It was a devastating blow to many of them. Some of them did try and vote using a 14th Amendment claim. But those votes did not count. In fact, election officials who allowed women to vote and they made claims they had this 14th Amendment right now privileges and immunities clause. Their property should not be taken away without due process of law. They gave voting as a type of property.

The election officials who let them in under those arguments then had charges brought against them. Eventually, those charges were dropped. But suffice it to say, the 14th Amendment did not help suffragists. It hurt them. That’s the 14th Amendment then we get to the 15th Amendment. And that one was finally ratified in 1870. And once again, the suffragists are feeling, and these are predominately at this point I’m going to say white suffragists, are feeling like they have a chance. Elizabeth Cady Stanton says, “We intend to avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the Black soldier to walk in by his side.” Here’s this beautiful picture. It’s the 15th Amendment is going to make it possible for African-American males to not have their franchise denied or abridged by any state. Why couldn’t it just be opened up to all women as well?

White suffragists start feeling very betrayed. Not surprisingly, given the history of race relations the United States, we start to see a split between white suffragists and Black suffragists. There have always been Black suffrages, Sojourner Truth. There is another Black abolitionist and a member of the temperance the emerging temperance movement. Her name is Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was born a free Black woman in Baltimore, received a great education in Bible studies, elocution and ancient rhetoric.

When she heard some of the white suffragists talking about how they had to have the vote, women needed to have the vote. Some of these white suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton among them, started floating the idea of women should have the vote because they are more educated than ignorant foreigners or ignorant Black men. When Francis Ellen Wadkins Harper, I’m going to call her Francis Harper for short, when she starts hearing this kind of rhetoric, these types of arguments, she says this is in a beautiful, beautiful speech called We Are All Bound Up Together. She gave this speech at the Women’s Rights Convention of 1866.

This is before the 14th is passed. But it’s during this time after the Civil War. Reconstruction is looking like a real possibility that the country can actually reconstruct itself.

Francis Harper is not convinced that women will necessarily make it a more moral country. “I do not believe that giving women the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life.

I do not believe that white women are dewdrops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men, women may be divided into three classes. The good, the bad and the indifferent.”

Basically, she’s saying you give women the vote, if they’re white women, they’re going to vote like most of the white people vote. If you give Black women the vote, they may vote like most Black men vote. She did not see women as being some special category. She also, like Lucretia Mott and all the abolitionists, despite the fact that the Civil War was won by the north and there was all these efforts, constitutional efforts being in place, they were not convinced that constitutional change, even reconstruction laws, would change the society.

During this same speech from the Women’s Rights Convention of 1866, Frances Harper says, “While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothing and selfishness, it is the white woman of America.


Sounds a little maybe like white fragility or some of these other terms around that are being used. Or there’s this other phenomenon, people are talking about Karens all the time now about white women who use the law more for their own benefit and don’t think about how the law disproportionately affects Black and brown men.

Some of those same arguments were being used over 100 years ago. She wants to change society and then she thinks the law will actually be able to do something.

However, the title of speeches, We’re All In This Together, the place where Francis Harper sees the possibility of real interracial cooperation has to do with temperance. “Believing, as I do in human solidarity,” she says, “I hold that the Women’s Christian Temperance Union has in its hands one of the greatest opportunities that God ever pressed into the hands of the womanhood of any country.”

By focusing on alcohol, which is going to be focusing on human beings tendency towards hate, fear, lust, anger – because alcohol can tend to exacerbate all these emotions – she felt that the women of America, through the Christian Temperance Society, could change the souls and then the laws would start to be better. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were working the idea that women’s morality would make the country better. They shared some of the ideas that Francis Harper had, but they also began to develop their own arguments.

In 1879, they said, “When our mothers, wives, sisters vote with us, we will have pure legislation and better execution of the laws. Fewer tippling shops, gambling halls and brothels.”

They also repeated at this time, and this is particularly Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that once again we will need women’s suffrage because it will dilute the ignorant foreign vote. Many Americans were getting concerned. There were all these immigrants coming over from Europe. Many of them were from southern Europe. They drank too much, they thought. They gambled too much. They had Catholic ideas that really got people very upset. Suffragists started to use some of this more nationalist, I would call it, rhetoric in order to promote women’s suffrage. W. E. B. Dubois raised a cautionary note. This is in 1912, we’re moving into the 20th century the temperance movement is gaining steam. And besides arguing for women’s morality, there was this other side that was a darker form of politics. He says in this speech, Disfranchisement from 1912, “It has been said in America, if paupers and Negroes would vote, why not college bred women of wealth and position? Such argument or neglect is both false and dangerous and while it’s phrasing may be effective at times, it represents a climbing of one class on the misery of another.” We start to see a split in the suffragist movement. Are they going to go all out politics and play on voters’ fears? Because who are the voters of voters are males for a while immigrants were able to vote prior to becoming full fledged citizens. This upset many suffragists, but states started to change their laws to make that less possible. There is increased anxiety on the part of the ruling elite that immigrants are coming in and some of the suffragists are wanting to make an argument for diluting the foreign vote. But then there were others. And we’re going to take a shift now to another way of understanding women’s special place in society. So building on some of these social stereotypes, perhaps we’d say, but in a way that began to reframe what the political order should look like. I want to spend the last little bit of our discussion on the 19th Amendment with Jane Addams. Jane Addams was a Hicksite Quaker or was influenced by the Hicksite Quakers as were many abolitionists. The Hicksite Quakers did not believe in dogma. They did not believe in doctrine; but they did believe that each person had inside themselves an inner light, a moral light. This is language that we heard in the earlier part of today’s talk where we were looking at these intellectual powers and moral powers. Here was this wild idea that the reason we needed to have equality and dignity was because basically the Quakers would say there was a light of God in every person.

Addams was very moved by this way of understanding things. She saw women as offering a different way of thinking about politics. She recognizes the fact that for the most of most of Western civilization, that having able bodied men as your voters was very useful because a lot of politics was defending your territory from foreign invasion. However, given the concerns of this new 20th century, she was for not an increased warrior class, but something she called in large housekeeping. She was particularly interested in places like Chicago where a lot of immigrants had come in, were not able to find decent housing, had to put together basically these one or two story shacks on roads that were not paved. People would throw their garbage into the street. The streets were feet thick in horse manure, refuse from the kitchen and other bodily fluids, I’ll say. She had this understanding that, yeah, you want women to be in charge because women are great at housekeeping. She wrote a newspaper article in 1906.

It says: Addams Declares Ballot for Women Made Necessary by Change Conditions. That’s the headline of the Chicago newspaper. In this, she says, there was a certain logic in giving the franchise only two grown men when the existence and stability of the city depended upon their defense. And when the ultimate value of the elector could be reduced to his ability to perform military duty.

But nowadays, look at what’s happening in the cities. We need enlarged housekeeping. Now no predatory instinct serves us. Nor does brute strength, not when one is dealing, and this what she really understood every human being, “delicate matters of human growth and welfare.” Politics needed to spend more time on taking care, particularly of immigrants, immigrant families, where they were working long hours and the housing was substandard to say the least. They were disenfranchised both from Chicago politics, oftentimes for language reasons.

Jane Addams creates something called Hull House, a beautiful building in the middle of an immigrant neighborhood. She’s surrounded by tenements and one or two story buildings and she opens up Hull House, this mansion, to the community. In it, she teaches people how to debate or they have debates.

Some of the Europeans, immigrants who are socialists come in and they have a socialist club. The well to do of Chicago were furious at Jane Addams. She said, no, this is great. We have. We’re going to have debates on ideas. She would bring in industrialists and they would argue with socialists. She believed that what mattered, that a city’s job was not just to rule according to the consent of the governed, which could be majority rule. No, she thought a just government was just because it allowed for human flourishing. It really took care of people. In 1913, she wrote a great spoof. You think of the background, there’s a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric. Amongst that anti-immigrant rhetoric are suffragists who are doing what they can to try and convince male legislators to give them the franchise. But Jane Addams frames it totally different. In this if men were speaking the franchise, she imagines another world. In this world, this parallel polus, the women are in charge and the men are not allowed to vote. And she imagines the men going to the matriarchs and asking them, Oh, come on, can’t we have the vote? We’re ready to vote. We proved ourselves. And the matriarch say, well, I don’t know. There’s three reasons. Always like a fairy tale, right? There’s three reasons we think we cannot give you the vote.

First of all, you are too interested in playing with guns. We know what happens when men are in charge because we’ve been looking at this other country, the United States, and every time a gun is fired in battleship in the United States, it expends seventeen hundred dollars as much as a college education. And if you guys were in charge, you would be spending all our resources just firing off your guns. We all know that you just enjoy the sound of shooting. So we can’t give you the vote yet. The second reason we can’t give you the vote is that we’ve notice that when you are in charge of countries, you exalt business profit over human lives. Again, we’ve heard of this place, United States, men are in charge. What are men doing? They are not putting money into making safe working conditions. No, they just want to extract profit and they have little kids working enormous hours, falling asleep at the wheel and losing limbs or worse. So I don’t know. Should men have the vote? You seem to be more interested in profit than in actual human lives. And then the third reason we are somewhat reluctant to give you the vote has to do with your obsession with punishment. The amount of money we have heard that in countries where men are in control, the amount of money that is spent on prisons is a terrible waste of public funds. She writes, “The United States alone spends every year five hundred million dollars more on its policemen, courts and prisons than upon all its works of religion, charity and education.” Why should we give you the vote?

Jane Addams says at the end of the article. OK, because I believe in the humanity of all. I’m sure if we give you a proper education, we will turn you into the kind of citizens that a country actually needs. She imagines that the matriarchs would put the money into education and that the men would eventually be allowed to have the franchise. After this comes out, and we have women showing their political power in moral family ways, more focus on well-being, on the health of families, that’s when the 18th Amendment is finally passed.

It says basically one year after the ratification of this amendment, the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within the importance thereof in to or to the exploitation thereof from United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. That was this short lived amendment. It was later overthrown. But it’s the first showing of women’s power, even if they’re not in the legislature. They were able to convince enough legislators because this has to first go through both the House and Congress and the Senate, and then it has to go through three quarters of all the states and those are all male legislatures, they’re able to get that pass.

Three years later, what finally made it go over the edge? 1920 women get the vote. They get that language, they were hoping to get way back during the Civil War, during Reconstruction, it’s the exact same language as the 15th Amendment. Instead of saying that the vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race, color or previous conditions of servitude, it says on account of sex. First time sex is put into the Constitution as a word, and it changes the language in the 14th Amendment around male. So that male language is now basically superseded by the 19th Amendment.

A big deal. It took 70 years from 1870 to 1920. Women have the vote. That means the electorate has now doubled in size. And you would think maybe all these amazing things happened. In fact, nothing changed. As Frances Harper predicted, there was no massive change in how the electorate voted. In fact, oddly enough, even though it was a Democratic President Wilson, President Wilson, who was in office when that amendment was proposed and went forward and the Republicans came in next. In fact I can tell you, the next two presidential elections put conservative Republicans in the White House, President Harding and President Coolidge of Vermont. The electoral turnout for women was less than the electoral turnout for men. And just because women got the vote did not necessarily mean they got all their political rights. Women had to fight to be able to sit on juries and to hold office. Some people say that the woman’s vote only really became institutionalized under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, under his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. That’s when you start to see progressive legislators. Just the kind of work that Jane Addams had been wanting to see. That’s when you start seeing that happen; but that was not right after women got the vote. Maybe the end of the story is women fought very hard for the vote. It took them many, many years. Sometimes they said things to get the vote that are now regrettable. And push comes to shove, it did not have, at least immediately, any major impact on American politics.

That’s professor Meg Mott, talking about the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. Visit to view the sessions recorded for our Fall Conference about democracy.

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