The American Equal Rights Association
In 1866 the women’s rights movement, which had been mainly dormant during the Civil War, held its eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention. During the convention the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed. During the debate over the 14th Amendment, which was sent to the states for ratification following the Civil War and which introduced the word “male” to the Constitution, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony called for the formation of a group to revise the amendment to use the word persons instead of identification by gender.
In opposing the amendment as written the women’s rights movement lost much of the support they had enjoyed before the war from the abolitionist movement. Those supporting the enfranchisement of former slaves were concerned that the women’s movement would impede their goal, since most men still opposed women receiving the right to vote. The AERA elected Lucretia Mott as its president and began a campaign of petitions and meetings arguing for universal suffrage. Mott made it clear she opposed enfranchising Black males if women were not given full voting rights at the same time, since it would increase the number of men opposing universal suffrage.
In 1867 New York established a convention to revise its Constitution, and Anthony and Stanton lobbied the committee established to revise the voting laws. Chaired by Horace Greeley, a former abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights, the committee removed the property restrictions on New York voters, but refused to include female suffrage. Greeley responded to personal attacks by Anthony and Stanton by ending the support of the New York Tribune and beginning coverage more critical of the women’s movement. The AERA thus alienated a former ally and created a powerful new opponent to its goals.
In Kansas that same summer, the AERA campaigned to include voting rights for women in that state’s referendum for Black voting rights, only to find that the former white abolitionists and their new Black allies opposed the inclusion of women. In the search for allies in Kansas the AERA split into quarreling factions, with Stanton and Anthony exhibiting the willingness to work with openly racist opponents to Black enfranchisement if universal enfranchisement was not passed. Once again former abolitionist allies began to distance themselves from the women’s movement, seeing them as demanding all or nothing, unwilling to allow Black voting unless they received the franchise as well.
By 1869 the divisions ran so deep within the AERA that it dissolved. Before it did it lost yet another former ally, Frederick Douglas, who believed unimpeded voting rights for Blacks was a higher priority than for women. The divide formed two competing organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) led by Stanton and Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) led by Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone. They would remain separate until 1890, when the groups merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Anthony as the primary leader.