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Why the radical Republicans discontinued their support for women’s civil rights during the Reconstruction Era

Updated on February 26, 2015

The Civil War was an amazingly transitional period in American history. Many even wanted it to be another revolution. During and after the Civil War there were many different political parties. This war symbolized a great transition within those parties, as well. The Republican Party played a large role during the war and Reconstruction; as did it's radical sector. Although they were called “radicals” they really were rather conservative; their name could be rather misleading. They were not one of the largest groups but they were very powerful and influential. The Republicans were in full support of civil rights at this time but their aid to women became increasingly shallow.

The radical Republicans lasted all the way up until 1874 and accomplished many things that paved the way to the society we live and prosper in today.

This group thrived through the presidencies of Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant. They were able to put strong pressure on each of them for what they believed was right. The radical Republicans had quite a few people in Congress and some people of this party such as Edwin M. Stanton, William Fessenden, William Seward, and James Speed were even recruited to be in Lincoln’s Cabinet.

Abraham Lincoln

The Republicans shifted their focus almost entirely off of women. My research still has me looking to find speeches promoting women’s rights, bills attempted in favor of women’s rights, and their political strategies for attaining gender equality.They opted out. After the Civil War the radical Republicans did not support women’s suffrage but they continued to support black suffrage. This political group of people was known for wanting all men to be equal. People’s civil rights were a hot topic and goal for many after the Civil War. Women during this time were quite oppressed with few civil liberties. “…after marriage they did not have the right to own property, maintain their wages, or sign a contract, much less vote” (History of Women’s Suffrage). The time of Reconstruction opened up an era where previously repressed people could finally have hope for political changes that would lead to their liberty and a sense of equality.

Reconstruction really took off after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Johnson took office. Even in looking at the theater of the time, civil rights were the basis and themes of many of the current plays. Apparently most of the radical Republican’s views of equality did not apply to women. They made claims for womens’ suffrage before and during the war. So, what went wrong? Why did the radical Republicans not support women’s suffrage after the Civil War? Their support ceased after the Civil War because they did not see it as a practical goal, they preferred to focus on black suffrage, the strong ideals of their time period, and they had overall bigger things to focus on that had a “real” effect on them.

One of the reasons that the radical Republicans did not continue their fight for women suffrage was because they didn’t see practical value in it. Women belonged in an internal domain rather than the external domain men belonged in. They felt as if women already had power, just in different domains than men. They had power in the home, in children’s lives, in the church, and in the well-being of the community. The Republicans honestly could not understand why women even really wanted political rights. After all, the political world was a man’s world.

Such feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony did not much care for this view and had hoped that the Civil War would help women's suffrage. They felt that once the war was over and everything was said and done, women and African-Americans would all be liberated and given the same rights as white men. Therefore, they fought for both causes alike. During the Civil War there were many groups that were formed by women to support both black suffrage and female suffrage. They heavily promoted “universal suffrage” until they began to realize how unsupported their cause for women’s civil rights was (Barber).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Many radical Republicans were very much for black suffrage but did not see any correlation whatsoever between black suffrage and women's suffrage. They sidestepped it all together. In one of Lincoln’s speeches in reference to black suffrage and women’s suffrage he was actually quoted saying, “This hour belongs to the negro" (History of Women’s Suffrage). This infuriated many feminists and that led to the separation of the two causes.

And so, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) eventually emerged. Originally it was two groups. The first one was the National Women’s Suffrage Association formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “Using the Declaration of Independence as a guideline, Stanton presented her Declaration of Principles in her hometown chapel and brought to light women's subordinate status and made recommendations for change” (History of Women’s Suffrage). The other group was the American Women Suffrage Association formed by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell. Through time they combined into the NAWSA. It was solely directed toward women’s suffrage. Women were outraged at the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments because neither gave women any recognition whatsoever. The Fifteenth Amendment even raised the question of whether women were American citizens at all.

Along with a few others, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments are known as the Civil War Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified July 9, 1868 and discusses the apportionment of representatives in the House of Representatives. It modifies the Three-Fifths Compromise giving more equality to African-Americans (O’Connor 73). However in reference to human beings it still referred to “males”. It gave women no more equality.

The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified February 3, 1870. It states that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (O’Connor 74). Similar to the Fourteenth Amendment there is no mention of equality for gender. It addressed almost every other type of group a person could be in. I looked through every Civil War Amendment and there was no mention of women or gender equality of any kind. It wasn’t until I looked at the Nineteenth Amendment that I finally found something that gave women rights in our country.

Susan B Anthony

After the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments it became undeniably clear to women that they were not being supported even close to how they thought they would be. They could see that the country was transforming but it wasn’t changing in their direction. They were disappointed immensely. Their standards for what was awaiting them once the war was over were completely shot down. Douglas was quoted in saying “If the elective franchise is not extended to the Negro, he is dead...Woman has a thousand ways by which she can attach herself to the ruling power of the land that we have not” (Enduring Vision).

Some people during this time were serious abolitionists with a true moral stance against slavery. However, most people were not. In the eyes of the radical Republicans if slaves were not truly and undeniably liberated and did not receive any help to get on their feet then they would be trampled over once again. African-Americans of the time were treated with insane cruelty and without the help of the government this would continue. The radical Republicans who actually saw it as a moral issue were absolutely uninterested in women’s suffrage because any type of women’s suffrage was nothing compared to the suffrage of African-Americans. Their view was that women had many other outlets and many freedoms whereas blacks had none; they lived a life of cruelty and enslavement that women did not.

The radical Republicans during the time of Reconstructions held much more disdain for the South than Lincoln, Johnson, and most other political parties during that time. They opposed Johnson’s new Reconstruction plan for allowing southern states re-entry because they felt it was much too lenient. They wanted the South to have punishment for their mutinous acts of treason. One of their ways of ensuring that they would have power in the South was to gain Republican votes down in the South. Considering that most white Southerners greatly disagreed with the Republican ideals they needed another group of people down there that would agree with them and give them the votes they wanted. A large number of the people living in the South were African-American.

The Radical Republicans fought and got the Fourteenth Amendment put into place giving black men the right to vote and count as whole people for representation in the House of Representatives. This was one of the largest reasons that the Republicans were in support of black suffrage and not in support of women suffrage. The last thing they wanted was Southern Democrats gaining political power. They worked very hard to prevent that. They had a lot of fighting to do in order to uphold black suffrage; they had to get amendments ratified, fight against Black Codes, defend them from the KKK, and just get their hands dirty overall. I guarantee that if they didn’t have such a stake in all this, meaning the votes, most of them would not have been involved in that entire process.

Fighting for women’s suffrage would be a gargantuan issue to take on. What power could they gain from women suffrage? Allowing women to gain equality among men would do very little in favor of the Republican’s goals. It would not give them the vote in the South or give them any type of power they didn’t already have. It would be a very long arduous fight that would expend a lot of their resources and energy and it really wouldn’t do much for them at all. They also held the firm belief that women would just vote according to their husbands anyway.

Most men during this time period, including the men of the Republican Party, wanted men to be men and women to be women. Although this was not the most practical idea considering the rocky state of the economy, men wanted to go out to work while their wife stayed home to cook, clean, participate in church functions, and raise the children in a “wholesome manner”. Understanding this mind-set of the time is the only way to get any semblance of a realistic insight into the reasons why women’s suffrage went unsupported.

Many of the powerful radical Republicans mapping out the party’s ideals and goals were more educated than the everyday person but they still had the same basic mind-set of everyone else in that time period. “Women were considered sub-sets of their husbands” (The History of Women’s suffrage). There was also a religious element to this at the time that the Republicans did not necessarily want to mess with or ruffle any feathers about.

The religions that most of the people followed in their day-to-day lives preached certain sex roles that should be held up by each individual person and the community as a whole. “It was expected that women be obedient wives, never to hold a thought or opinion independent of their husbands” (The History of Women’s Suffrage).

There was also the well spread belief that women were object of beauty that could not come anywhere near men in aspects of intellect or physical strength. Small doses of sexism sprinkled here and there surely had something to do with it. However, it was mostly the fantasy of the male being the provider and the woman taking care of the household.

Andrew Johnson

The Republicans saw very little to gain in women’s suffrage in comparison to their other goals. They expended most of their energy into one goal: keeping Republican power in the North and in the South. They did not need women’s votes to gain and maintain those votes. They had the freedmen’s votes in the South and the massive Republican vote in the North. Another thing the radical Republicans had their attention aimed at was making sure that the South felt some sort of punishment for the Civil War to keep them from rising up once more. Helping to liberate women may upset Southerners because of their stereotypical sexist outlooks. For that reason alone, the idea of supporting women suffrage seemed petty and really just not all that productive.

Their goal of making the South accountable for what they did took up much of their attention because within this goal there was another one: impeaching President Johnson. While they did get him impeached they did not get him kicked out entirely like they wanted, they tried very hard. As it turned out, it was still impossible for them to do so. Some even say that their inability to do so led to the ultimate demise of their party.

During this time the country had just gone through a civil war and was in a state of identity crisis. When I was reading about this I pictured a bunch of people stumbling around with one eye closed and one leg cut off. Everybody seemed so confused and the country was in such disarray. America was also beginning to transition from a rural society into an urban industrial society. Some were adamantly resisting these changes because they felt like they world and the economy would start to decline.

This group of radical Republicans was very aggressive and adamant about supporting industrialization. They wanted tariffs, national banking, expansion of the railroad, and a strong capitalistic economy. They were great promoters of “the Gospel of Prosperity”. “By throwing the public credit into the pockets of railroad promoters, Republicans hoped that the people would grow prosperous, that prosperity would service the public debts, and that grateful voters would return Republican majorities to office” (Lauritz). They wanted to have a strong, rich, liberal country that could stand on its own. Women’s suffrage really just didn’t stand up to that on a scale of importance.

They also held great concern for the Ku Klux Klan and wanted to see its demise. The formation of the KKK actually had a great deal to do with the Republicans. The framers of this group hated everything these radical Republicans were about; they truly were their antithesis. The Ku Klux Klan participated in many activities that debased the Radical Republicans and fought against them. They were an avid foe that needed to be demolished. The topic of women’s suffrage was much less prevalent to the radical Republicans than members of the Ku Klux Klan committing disturbing hate crimes against them and their new votes.

In conclusion, radical Republicans had their hands dipped into so many things that they were fighting for and gaining immensely from the results. Women’s civil rights really just did not compare to all of their things that were so important to them that they were fighting so hard for. They did not view women’s suffrage as a practical goal because they felt that women had plenty of power through other avenues than politics. They needed Republican control in the South so they needed to focus on getting the freedmen’s votes by liberating the African-Americans. It was also important to them to uphold the social ideal of keeping the women in the domestic lifestyle they were raised in. We are all so inundated in our own culture and that was theirs. Overall, they just had much larger things to concern themselves with that, in their view, had an actual effect on them and the country they hoped to develop.

Questions for WOMEN

Have you made less money than a man in an equal position?

See results

Do you feel that sexism is still a large issue facing Americans today?

See results

Questions for MEN?

Would you identify yourself with the term(s) feminist/male feminist?

See results

Do you believe there is strong sexism geared toward men in modern American society?

See results


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