Ballots and Bullets: Adapting Women's Rights Arguments to the Conditions of War

Article excerpt

Abstract: Wartime presents extraordinary challenges for women's rights advocates, because political dissent is often interpreted as an unpatriotic act. During the U.S. Civil War, many women redirected their efforts toward support of the war, because of the belief that their loyalty would be rewarded with suffrage. As this examination of the wartime rhetoric of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony explains, the two women's rights leaders continued to focus on their campaign for women's equality. By recognizing that the circumstances of war offered a unique rhetorical moment in the nation's history and creating strategies that took advantage of those circumstances, they kept the movement alive during the war and ensured its growth after the war when the postwar amendments failed to grant women suffrage.


Slaves, immigrants, those without property, people of color, and adherents to certain religious beliefs have been excluded from the rights and responsibilities of full citizenship at various times in American history. As Anna Yeatman (1993) explains it, "the dominant discourses of modern citizenship are predicated on systemic exclusions of those who are othered by these discourses" (quoted in Kingfisher, 1998, p. 128). When "woman" is added to the previously mentioned descriptors, another layer of exclusion is added. For example, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted after the Civil War, granted suffrage rights to black men, but excluded women of all races.

The citizenship of those whose civic status is already ambiguous becomes even more troublesome in times of war. This is because war challenges not only the material and human resources of a nation, but also its collective identity. Contemporary consequences of ambiguous citizenship status include the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II and the post 9-11 treatment of citizens of Middle Eastern heritage. Because the rights and responsibilities of citizenship that are emphasized in war (such as public policy making and military service) are activities from which women traditionally have been excluded, the idea of woman-as-citizen is even more problematic during times of war than it is during times of peace. For women who engage in challenges against the status quo, wartime presents particular difficulties, because dissent against the government is often characterized as unpatriotic. Thus, throughout U.S. history, wartime has presented extraordinary challenges for women's rights advocates.

This paper examines the discourse of women's rights activists during and after the Civil War in order to better understand how the rhetoric of social reform can take advantage of the circumstances of war to advance activists' causes. This analysis focuses on the Civil War because it was the first war that women's rights activists faced after the 1848 Seneca Falls women's rights convention. Therefore, it provides the first example of the rhetorical strategies used in wartime by an organized women's movement in the United States. I argue that some women's rights advocates in the Civil War era, specifically movement leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did not abandon their gender equality agenda to the war effort; rather, they adapted to the rhetorical situation presented to them by the war.

Women's Rights War Rhetoric

It is impossible to separate the beginning of the women's rights movement in the United States from many of the issues that led to Civil War, because the leaders acquired their social reform consciousness and strategies through their involvement in the abolition movement. Indeed, it was their exclusion from the World Anti-Slavery conference in England in June, 1840, that motivated Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mort to call the first women's rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 (Stanton, 1898/1971, p. 82).

During the years leading up to the Civil War, the campaign for women's rights was small compared to the abolition and temperance crusades. …