Change at their fingertips: Women’s petitions to Congress

March is Women’s History Month. Today’s post comes from Melanie M. Griffin from the National Archives Education and Public Programs Office.

Rediscovery #: 04172Job A1 09-137 First Americans
Petition to Congress from Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joselyn Gage, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of the National Woman Suffrage Association enclosing a copy of their constitution, 1873. (National Archives Identifier 306687)

Often when one thinks of the freedoms embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one doesn’t immediately think of the right to petition.

A petition is a plea from an individual or a group asking their government to do something. Today it can be an email or signed via the internet, but before the age of electronics, petitions were addressed with pen and paper.

Women in particular have helped shaped the history of the United States by their petitioning efforts. From the anti-slavery movement to woman suffrage, women have actively called for a change through petitioning.

The woman suffrage movement was the most significant achievement for American women during the Progressive Era. Since the formation of the union, women’s rights were neglected and dismissed.

Throughout the 19th century, not only did we see a fight for civil rights for blacks, but there was a relentless fight for equality for women.

Women possessed their own identities and decision-making abilities just as as much as men, yet they couldn’t vote. Women no longer wanted to be reduced to society’s expectation of a “woman’s place.” They recognized a change was at their fingertips, which prompted the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848.

“Appeal for a Sixteenth Amendment” from the National Woman Suffrage Association, 11/10/1876. (National Archives Identifier 306647)

Following the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott created the National Woman Suffrage Association.

These women served as prominent activists for women’s rights and called for the circulation of petitions from women to Congress.

With over a hundred members from almost every state, the National Woman Suffrage Association was among the most powerful women’s group to call for change.

The National Woman Suffrage Association stated, “it is necessary that some person, or society in each State and District should take the matter in charge, print, and send out petitions to reliable friend in every country urging upon all thoroughness and haste.”

The organization’s influence not only resonated to hundreds of women in the United States but also served as an example of power for women across the globe.

Support for the National Woman Suffrage Association continuously grew, and as petitions circulated, the signatures of black Americans were not left off. Among the signatures on the petition for woman suffrage were Frederick Douglass’s son and daughter.

Petition for Woman Suffrage signed by residents of the District of Columbia including two of Frederick Douglass’s children: Frederick Douglass Jr., and Rosetta Douglass Sprague (Mrs. Nathan Sprague), 1887. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives).

Frederick Douglass and his children knew the importance the woman suffrage movement held for not just white woman, but all woman. Black woman such as Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell also contributed greatly to the liberation of women. The question “aint I a Woman?” would linger on the lips of women across the nation for years to come.

Petition from citizens of Newport, New Hampshire, opposing woman suffrage, 7/7/1913. (National Archives Identifier 74884401)

The woman suffrage movement was monumental in itself, but the support of petitions added fuel to the fire of equality. Nonetheless, with such a push for change, there were many women opposed to woman suffrage.

Some women were content with the “preservation of the traditional American home” and did not want equal rights extended to them.

In 1913, a petition was created and signed by over 50 citizens of Newport, NH, proclaiming, “With the demands of society, the calls of charity, the church, and philanthropy constantly increasing, we feel that to add to the distracting forces of political campaigns would wreck our constitutions and destroy our homes.”

Although their efforts ultimately failed in 1920, when the 19th Amendment extended the vote to women, they successfully practiced their first amendment right to petition.

For years women used their right to petition to fight for their right to vote. What will you use it for?

To learn more about National Archives records related to Women’s History Month visit our website.

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