The struggle for women's suffrage in Pennsylvania has a long history. While the founding Society of Friends (Quakers) considered men and women equal in God's sight and permitted women to speak during their religious services, they did not grant political rights. Throughout the Colonial Period (1681-1776), only adult males who owned property could vote. Upper class women confined their attention to managing their homes and social affairs, while middle and lower class women also participated in the family business in the shops and farms.
The role of women increased during the Revolutionary Period (1775-1783). They came to be regarded as "public benefactors," shapers of the minds of their husbands and children, "entrusted with the care and guardianship of the rising generation." Philadelphia women sewed shirts for the troops, and one, Betsy Ross, is said to have made the new nation's first flag. Although Pennsylvania's revolutionary political leaders broadened male voting by abolishing the property qualifications, they did not extend the vote to women. Indeed, Massachusetts's Abigail Adams' admonition to her husband John to "consider the ladies" as he and others formed a new political structure was one of the few expressions of a desire by women for a greater role in government. John Adams answered his wife's admonition with derision and laughter.
A more obvious precursor to the women's suffrage movement was abolitionism. By 1804, all states above the Mason-Dixon Line provided for the "gradual abolition" of slavery. (Pennsylvania in 1780 was the first to do so by legislative action.) Subsequently northerners expressed opposition to slavery in the South as well. In 1838, women founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. After they and others were denied admission to an international anti-slavery convention in London in 1840 because of their gender, the women determined to hold a convention of their own at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. There they declared that the rights of women required the same emphasis as the rights of slaves. Leaders, such as Pennsylvania's Lucretia Mott proclaimed that "all men and women are created equal" and demanded full political rights. In 1852, a Women's Rights convention was also held in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
The movement to abolish slavery succeeded during the 1860s, but the campaign for women's suffrage continued. At the celebration of the nation's Centennial Anniversary in 1876 in Philadelphia, 150,000 people gathered at Independence Square for patriotic ceremonies. Unknown to the planners, Susan B. Anthony, whose name was synonymous with women's suffrage, ascended a platform and read a suffragette's declaration of independence. Most of the men in the audience failed to note the connection between the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1776 and the one that Anthony read in 1876. The movement in Pennsylvania seemed to languish temporarily, as Anthony's age curtailed her activity and Mott died in 1880.
Two notable women were helpful in keeping the issue before the public. One was Carrie Chapman Catt of the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA), formed in 1890 from two earlier societies, who stimulated the national movement to greater activity. Also involved in the revival and ultimate success of the suffragettes in Pennsylvania was Liliane Stevens Howard. She grew up in Indiana under the influence of her mother, also a proponent of women's rights. By the early 1900's, she was living in Pennsylvania. She joined both the Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia County Suffrage Associations. She and others often journeyed to numerous communities on behalf of either the Pennsylvania Federation of Women's Clubs or the state chapter of NAWSA, and made personal calls, conducted meetings, delivered lectures, gave interviews, and distributed literature. Her field report, probably made in about 1915 and excerpted here, indicates the kinds of reactions she received from citizens and groups in Lawrence and Clarion Counties.
By 1915, advocates of women's suffrage had succeeded in getting the legislature's approval for a referendum on an amendment to the state constitution, which, of course, was confined to male voters. Despite intense lobbying, the referendum failed; however state and national organizations maintained the pressure. At the end of World War I, women emphasized their contributions in medicine, industry, business, the professions, and in "shouldering the obligations of those who would never return." The United States Congress capitulated and on June 4, 1919, approved the women's suffrage constitutional amendment. It was then sent to state legislatures for ratification. Pennsylvania quickly approved it June 27, 1919, becoming the eighth state to ratify. When the requisite thirty-six states (3/4 majority) had ratified, the president signed it on August of 1920 and it went into effect as the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution. The amendment was brief and succinct, stating only that the "right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex," but had far-reaching implications. Would it lead to "block voting" by women, or to a woman's political party? Did it mean that women may or may not serve in the nation's armed forces? What about laws that protect women but not men in their work outside the home? Must employers pay women the same wages as they pay men for the same type of work? Some of these questions that resulted from the activities of Liliane Stevens Howard and others like her are still being debated.