19th at 100: Commemorating the Suffrage Struggle and Its Legacies in Northeast Ohio


As you explore articles on this website, you will find yourself coming across a lot of acronyms: AWSA, NWSA, NAWSA, NACW, OWSA, and so on. Why were there so many different organizations that all campaigned for women's suffrage? Wouldn't all these groups have shared a common goal? While the organizations behind each acronym did indeed all advocate for women's suffrage, many organizations differed on what issues they wanted to focus on alongside women's suffrage. This debate over what the suffrage movement should entail lead directly to the formation of both the National Woman's Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman's Suffrage Association (AWSA). 

The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States constitution was aimed at protecting the rights of black men to vote. While some suffragists supported the amendment as it was, others felt that pressure should be put on the government to include women in the amendment as well. This disagreement eventually came to a head at a suffrage convention held at Case Hall in Cleveland in 1869, causing Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to found the National Woman's Suffrage Association shortly thereafter. This group focused its efforts on women's, rather than universal, suffrage. In response, Lucy Stone and several other reformers founded the American Woman's Suffrage Association the same year, which advocated for universal suffrage alongside women's suffrage. It is important to note that not every woman who joined NWSA was necessarily against universal suffrage; in fact, many prominent suffragists like Susan B. Anthony had once been abolitionists. The founders of NWSA instead argued that women's suffrage and gender equality were more urgent issues than the suffrage of other minority groups, and that focusing on securing suffrage for women first was a better strategy than trying to earn suffrage for every oppressed group at once. 

Initially, AWSA was gained more membership than NWSA. AWSA, despite advocating for universal suffrage, ended up being viewed as the less controversial of the two, as it focused solely on voting rights while NWSA advocated for more radical shifts in women's social equality. However, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had pushed NWSA to the forefront of the suffrage movement by the latter half of the 1880s through skilled publicity efforts and the publication of their History of Women's Suffrage. Meanwhile, AWSA membership had been in decline, which perhaps drove AWSA co-founder Lucy Stone to approach Anthony about merging the two organizations in 1887. The two organizations would then merge into the National American Women's Suffrage Association, or NAWSA in 1890. Again, though many NAWSA members supported universal suffrage, the group decided to put their time and resources towards securing female suffrage. NAWSA would play a major role in the suffrage movement in the 20th century, and its efforts helped to pass the 19th amendment.

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