Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited

By Jean H. Baker | Go to book overview

3
NEW YORK STRATEGY
The New York Woman's Movement and
the Civil War
Faye Dudden

The traditional story of woman suffrage has been shaped by the assumption that women had to win the vote before they could hope to exercise political power or influence. In this account, the Civil War figured as a mere hiatus in women's activism or at best a prelude to the flurry of suffrage agitation that marked the Reconstruction era. During the war, it was argued, women's rights activists, who had hitherto shunned formal organization, learned its value through an organization called the Women's Loyal National League (WLNL) through which they mounted a massive petition campaign for the final abolition of slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment. At the end of the war, emancipation accomplished, these abolitionist women sought recompense for their patriotic labors in the form of woman suffrage. But the women were, in Eleanor Flexner's words, “so inexperienced in politics” that they failed to realize that in the 1860s woman suffrage was “far ahead of practical political possibilities.” 1

The New York woman's movement during the Civil War provides a case study that challenges this traditional account: it reveals that prominent women's rights activists in fact entered politics before suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and their coworkers in New York State were anything but naïve about politics, and the war years were not really a hiatus. Their political activities before and during the war, which were organized around what I will term a “New York strategy,” gave them an advanced education in legislative maneuver and partisan politics. They

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