The enfranchisement of women was part of a larger change in the role and status of women in American society that had been developing since the eighteenth century, that had accelerated after the Civil War, and that was clearly visible by the end of the nineteenth century. It became part of the complex of factors that have continued to generate historical change. Suffrage was a tributary flowing into the rich and turbulent river of American social development. That river is enriched by the waters of each tributary, but with the passage of time it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the special contribution of any one of these tributaries.
We do not yet have a means for analyzing the complex set of changes that have revolutionized not only relationships between men and women but also the way society, business, and government function. The convention is to attribute these changes to the accelerating urbanizationindustrialization of American society and to the ever-increasing productivity which was part of that process. Important as such factors clearly have been, it is not clear exactly how they worked together to create the structural change that made a woman's rights movement possible. The chicken-and-egg question is difficult: in Europe, for example, an active woman's rights movement sometimes preceded widespread industrialization. The improvement of women's educational opportunity was a vital piece of the picture, but what made that change possible? Questions abound; answers must be tentative.
The best we can do is to recognize how interrelated social changes can be and to understand the suffrage movement as part of such a complex of change.
In the twenty-first century, the process continues as the number of women college graduates, Ph.D. holders, lawyers, doctors, financial experts, political analysts, research scientists, and so on increases annually. Children are being raised differently in this generation; the role of fathers in families is also changing—though not always rapidly. Social change, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, moves forward but is only understood backward. Trying to puzzle out that understanding is the historian's task.