WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE. Cleveland and northeast Ohio played an important role in the long struggle for women’s rights and the passing of the 19th Amendment.
Cleveland was a center for the ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT before the Civil War. Many abolitionists, men and women, saw the issue of suffrage as crucial to the goal of achieving equality and citizenship status. In 1848 --the year of the famous Seneca Falls convention, which for the first time articulated the demand for women suffrage—The Colored National Convention gathered in Cleveland, under the leadership of Fredrick Douglass, and made similar commitment to fight for “unqualified citizenship” for all.
The nascent movement found many supporters in Cleveland. While the 1848 gathering was a regional event, by 1850, the movement gained more national scope with the first National Woman’s Rights Convention held in Boston, MA. The 1850 convention attracted 900 people (three times as many as attended Seneca Falls) from regions across the United States, and such national conventions would continue to be held annually for the duration of the suffrage movement. These national conventions would soon come to Northeast Ohio, with the 1851 convention in Akron being most noted as the location where Sojourner Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.
Cleveland resident CAROLINE SEYMOUR SEVERANCE was one of the women who actively participated in the temperance, abolition, and women’s rights movements. Truth’s speech in Akron inspired Severance to help found the Ohio Women's Rights Association and led their first convention in 1853. A year later, Severance spoke to the Ohio legislature, advocating for women’s rights to inherit property and control their wages. Also in 1853, Cleveland became the host of the fourth National Woman’s Rights convention, placing the city as an important center for suffrage activity.
While female activists continued to speak, write, and organize locally in the years leading up to the CIVIL WAR, no national women’s rights movements emerged until after the war ended. In 1866, Severance, together with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone was of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), an organization that worked to “secure Equal Right to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color, or sex.”
The organization was active during the years 1866 and 1869, but by then, the movement was divided regarding its support of the 15th Amendment, that prohibited discrimination in voting on account of race or former slavery, yet for the first time inserted the word “male” into the constitution, effectively making suffrage available to men only.
In May 1869, Anthony and Stanton decided to split from AERA and to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which focused primarily on gaining suffrage for women through a federal amendment. On the other hand, other suffragists, led by Lucy Stone, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which focused on universal suffrage, largely through a change to state constitutions. Severance allied herself with the AWSA, attending the first convention held in Cleveland on November 24-25, 1869, and helping to organize support for the association.
A day before the AWSA convention, on November 23, a group of 35 men and women founded the OHIO WOMAN’S SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION (OWSA) in Cleveland. The organization would lead the fight for the right to vote for the next half a century, presenting memorials to the state legislature asking for woman suffrage. OWSA leaders, Harriet Taylor Upton and ELIZABETH J. HAUSER would step up to the national ranks of suffrage leadership. After the merger of AWSA and NWSA in 1890 to form the NATIONAL AMERICAN WOMEN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION (NAWSA), Hauser became its press secretary, while Upton became its treasurer in 1894.
Amendments to add woman suffrage to the constitution to Ohio failed multiple times, though suffragists’ persistence was remarkable, getting these introduced in 1888, 1890, and 1891. They saw a small success in 1894, when women were finally allowed to elect school board officials, as well as run for the office.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, suffrage activity received a boost throughout the country, and in Ohio and Cleveland in particular. In 1908, the first College Equal Suffrage League chapter was founded at WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY, and after a few years of inactivity regained its presence on campus in 1915.