Past & Present: The 15th Amendment

May 14, 2019


On May 15, 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. While this would seem to have been cause for celebration, the NWSA resulted from a bitter divide between abolitionists and women’s rights activists over the 15th Amendment.

Stanton and Anthony argued that women, as well as African American men, had demonstrated loyalty to the United States and that Congress should recognize suffrage, regardless of race or sex. Others saw that it was the “Negro’s hour” and that Congress should capitalize on support for African American male suffrage. The debate divided former allies, but in the end, Congress supported the 15th Amendment without including women. 

By founding the National Woman Suffrage Association, Stanton and Anthony envisioned that the organization would address women’s rights broadly, but with a primary focus on suffrage. Initially, Stanton and Anthony adopted the constitutional arguments put forth by Missouri suffragists, Virginia and Francis Minor. They interpreted birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment to include women. The Minors argued that if women were citizens, they already possessed the right to vote because citizenship implied voting rights. After the US Supreme Court rejected this argument in 1874, the NWSA turned its attention back to passing a federal women’s suffrage amendment. 

The NWSA may have reignited the conversation around a federal amendment, but at a cost. While some of the wounds inflicted during the debates over the 15th Amendment faded, the use of bitter and racist language, as well as prioritizing rights based on race and sex, demonstrates the long and complicated relationship between black men and white women in the fight for suffrage and civil rights in the United States. 

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