American Equal Rights Association

AERA - Working for Equal Suffrage Rights in the Nineteenth Century

Lucretia Mott
Kean Collection / Getty Images

As the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution were debated, and some states debated Black and woman suffrage, women's suffrage advocates tried to join the two causes with little success and a resulting split in the women's suffrage movement.

About the American Equal Rights Association

In 1865, a proposal by Republicans of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution would have extended rights to those who had been enslaved, and to other Black Americans, but also would introduce the word "male" to the Constitution.

Women's rights activists had largely suspended their efforts for sexual equality during the Civil War. Now that the war was ended, many of those who had been active in both women's rights and activism against enslavement wanted to join the two causes — women's rights and rights for Black Americans. In January 1866, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton proposed at the annual meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society the formation of an organization to bring the two causes together. In May of 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper gave an inspiring speech at that year's Women's Rights Convention, also advocating bringing the two causes together. The first national meeting of the American Equal Rights Association followed that meeting three weeks later.

The fight for passage of the Fourteenth Amendment was also a subject of continuing debate, within the new organization as well as beyond it. Some thought that it had no chance of passage if women were included; others didn't want to enshrine the difference in citizenship rights between men and women in the Constitution.

From 1866 through 1867, activists for both causes campaigned in Kansas, where both Black and woman suffrage were up for a vote. In 1867, Republicans in New York took female suffrage out of their suffrage rights bill.

Further Polarization

By the second annual meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1867, the organization debated how to approach suffrage in the light of the 15th Amendment, by then in progress, which extended suffrage only to Black males. Lucretia Mott presided at that meeting; others who spoke included Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abby Kelley Foster, Henry Brown Blackwell, and Henry Ward Beecher.

The Political Context Moves Away From Women's Suffrage

The debates centered around the increasing identification of racial rights proponents with the Republican Party, while women's suffrage proponents tended to be more skeptical of partisan politics. Some favored working for the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, even with their exclusions of women; others wanted both defeated because of that exclusion.

In Kansas, where both woman and Black suffrage were on the ballot, the Republicans began actively campaigning against women's suffrage. Stanton and Anthony turned to Democrats for support, and especially to one wealthy Democrat, George Train, to continue the fight in Kansas for women's suffrage. Train carried out a racist campaign against Black suffrage and for woman suffrage — and Anthony and Stanton, though they had been abolitionists, saw Train's support as essential and continued their association with him. Anthony's articles in the paper, The Revolution, became increasingly racist in tone. Both woman suffrage and Black suffrage were defeated in Kansas.

Split in the Suffrage Movement

At the 1869 meeting, the debate was even stronger, with Stanton accused of only wanting the educated to vote. Frederick Douglass took her to task for denigrating Black male voters. The 1868 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment angered many who had wanted it defeated if it did not include women. The debate was sharp and the polarization clearly beyond easy reconciliation.

The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded two days after that 1869 meeting ​and did not include racial issues in its founding purpose. All members were women.

The AERA disbanded. Some joined the National Woman Suffrage Association, while others joined the American Woman Suffrage Association. Lucy Stone proposed bringing the two woman suffrage organizations back together in 1887, but it did not happen until 1890, with Antoinette Brown Blackwell, daughter of Lucy Stone and Henry Brown Blackwell, leading the negotiations.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "American Equal Rights Association." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). American Equal Rights Association. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "American Equal Rights Association." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).