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  5. “When Women Do Military Duty”: The Civil War’s Impact on Woman Suffrage

“When Women Do Military Duty”: The Civil War’s Impact on Woman Suffrage


This Teaching the JAH segment was created by Nicole Etcheson.

In United States history, wars have commonly been seen as periods when the rights of marginalized groups expand. African Americans used their military service during the Civil War and women used their contributions to the World War I war effort to gain the vote. Leaders of the antebellum women’s movement thought that women would acquire suffrage rights alongside African American men during the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that women would “avail ourselves of the strong arm and blue uniform of the black soldier to walk . . . by his side” through the “Constitutional door.” This did not happen. Historians have argued that woman suffrage failed because African Americans and their white male allies decided to prioritize universal male suffrage, fearing that including woman suffrage would make expanded rights too controversial and defeat both causes. In a groundbreaking book, Faye E. Dudden argued that, if supporters of African American and woman suffrage had worked together, woman suffrage could have been achieved in the Civil War era.

The Civil War, however, threw up obstacles to woman suffrage. Military service was fundamental to African American men’s successful claim to the vote. Women in the Civil War did not make war service central to their claim for the suffrage. The Civil War–era constitutional amendments, particularly the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, seemed to limit political rights to men. White southern hostility to African American enfranchisement created a further impediment to the post–Civil War woman suffrage movement. During World War I, however, Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association dedicated women to war service and successfully secured women the vote.