The Fifteenth Amendment and Changes for Women

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss the changes brought about by the Fifteenth Amendment
  • Describe the women’s suffrage movement during the Reconstruction era

Ulysses S. Grant

In November 1868, Ulysses S. Grant, the Union’s war hero, easily won the presidency in a landslide victory. Grant ran on a platform that proclaimed, “Let Us Have Peace.” The Democratic nominee was Horatio Seymour, but the Democrats carried the stigma of disunion. The Republicans, in their campaign, blamed the devastating Civil War and the violence of its aftermath on the rival party, a strategy that Southerners called “waving the bloody shirt.”

The Fifteenth Amendment

Though Grant did not side with the Radical Republicans, his victory allowed the continuance of the Radical Reconstruction program. In the winter of 1869, Republicans introduced another constitutional amendment, the third of the Reconstruction era. When Republicans had passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which addressed citizenship rights and equal protections, they were unable to explicitly ban states from withholding the franchise (the vote) based on race. With the Fifteenth Amendment, they sought to correct this major weakness by finally extending to Black men the right to vote. The amendment directed that “[t]he 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.” Unfortunately, the new amendment had weaknesses of its own. As part of a compromise to ensure the passage of the amendment with the broadest possible support, drafters of the amendment specifically excluded language that addressed literacy tests and poll taxes, the most common ways Blacks were traditionally disenfranchised in both the North and the South. Indeed, Radical Republican leader Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, himself an ardent supporter of legal equality without exception to race, refused to vote for the amendment precisely because it did not address these obvious loopholes. When Black men went to vote, they might be required to take a difficult literacy test. In fact, the test would be hard for any person to pass, Black or White. They might also be required to pay poll taxes, or fees to vote. Poll tax laws often included a grandfather clause, which allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax.

Despite these weaknesses, the language of the amendment did provide for universal manhood suffrage—the right of all men to vote—and crucially identified Black men, including those who had been enslaved, as deserving the right to vote.

This, the third and final of the Reconstruction amendments, was ratified in 1870. With the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, many believed that the process of restoring the Union was safely coming to a close and that the rights of freed slaves were finally secure. Black communities expressed great hope as they celebrated what they understood to be a national confirmation of their unqualified citizenship.

Although the Fifteenth Amendment was supposed to provide universal manhood suffrage, it did not include Native Americans. Native Americans did not get the right to vote until the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, and even then it was left up to the states.

An illustration depicts a series of scenes and portraits, shown in gilded frames and surrounded by American flags, relating to black rights and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. A large central scene shows the parade celebrating the Fifteenth Amendment’s passage. In the upper corners, portraits of Ulysses S. Grant and Schuyler Colfax are shown. Other scenes include a black man reading the Emancipation Proclamation; three black men with Masonic paraphernalia (labeled “We Unite in the Bonds of Fellowship with the Whole Human Race”); a Bible (labeled “Our Charter of Rights”); a black classroom scene (labeled “Education Will Prove the Equality of the Races”); a black pastor preaching to a congregation (labeled “The Holy Ordinances of Religion Are Free”); two free blacks tilling their own fields; a black officer commanding his troops (labeled “We Will Protect Our Country as It Defends Our Rights”); a black man reading to his family (labeled “Freedom Unites the Family Circle”); a black wedding ceremony (labeled “Liberty Protects the Marriage Alter”); a black man voting (labeled “The Ballot Box Is Open To Us”); and Hiram Revels in the House of Representatives (labeled “Our Representative Sits in the National Legislature”). Other individual portraits include Abraham Lincoln, Hiram Revels, Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown.

Figure 1. The Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated May 19th, 1870, a commemorative print by Thomas Kelly, celebrates the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment with a series of vignettes highlighting Black rights and those who championed them. Portraits include Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown, as well as Black leaders Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Revels. Vignettes include the celebratory parade for the amendment’s passage, “The Ballot Box is open to us,” and “Our representative Sits in the National Legislature.”

Link to Learning

Visit the Library of Congress to take a closer look at The Fifteenth Amendment by Thomas Kelly. Examine each individual vignette and the accompanying text. Why do you think Kelly chose these to highlight?

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Women’s Suffrage

While the Fifteenth Amendment may have been greeted with applause in many corners, leading women’s rights activists, who had been campaigning for decades for the right to vote, saw it as a major disappointment. More dispiriting still was the fact that many women’s rights activists, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had played a large part in the abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War.

American Equal Rights Association (AERA)

On May 10, 1866, just one year after the war, the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention met in New York City to discuss what many agreed was an extraordinary moment, full of promise for fundamental social change. Elizabeth Cady Stanton presided over the meeting. Also in attendance were prominent abolitionists with whom Stanton and other women’s rights leaders had joined forces in the years leading up to the war. Addressing this crowd of social reformers, Stanton captured the radical spirit of the hour: “Now in the reconstruction,” she declared, “is the opportunity, perhaps for the century, to base our government on the broad principle of equal rights for all.”[1] Stanton chose her universal language—“equal rights for all”—with intention, setting an agenda of universal suffrage. Thus, in 1866, the National Women’s Rights Convention officially merged with the American Anti-Slavery Society to form the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) for the expressed purpose of securing “equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” This union marked the culmination of the long-standing partnership between abolitionists and women’s rights advocates.

Two years later, with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, section 2 of which specifically qualified the liberties it extended to “male citizens,” it seemed as though the progress made in support of civil rights was not only passing women by but was purposely codifying their exclusion. As Congress debated the language of the Fifteenth Amendment, some held out hope that it would finally extend the franchise to women. Those hopes were dashed when Congress adopted the final language. The consequence of these frustrated hopes was the effective split of a civil rights movement that had once been united in support of rights for African-Americans people and women. Seeing this split occur, Frederick Douglass, a great admirer of Stanton, struggled to argue for a piecemeal approach that should prioritize the franchise for Black men if that was the only option. He insisted that his support for women’s right to vote was sincere, but that getting Black men the right to vote was “of the most urgent necessity.” “The government of this country loves women,” he argued. “They are the sisters, mothers, wives and daughters of our rulers; but the negro is loathed. . . . The negro needs suffrage to protect his life and property, and to ensure him respect and education.”

These appeals were largely accepted by women’s rights leaders and AERA members like Lucy Stone and Henry Browne Blackwell, who believed that more time was needed to bring about female suffrage. Others demanded immediate action. Among those who pressed forward despite the setback were Stanton and Anthony. They felt greatly aggrieved at the fact that other abolitionists, with whom they had worked closely for years, did not demand that women be included in the language of the amendments. Stanton argued that the women’s vote would be necessary to counter the influence of uneducated freedmen in the South and the waves of poor European immigrants arriving in the East.

Constitution of the National Woman Suffrage Association

Despite the Fifteenth Amendment’s failure to guarantee female suffrage, women did gain the right to vote in western territories, with the Wyoming Territory leading the way in 1869. One reason for this was a belief that giving women the right to vote would provide a moral compass to the otherwise lawless western frontier. Extending the right to vote in western territories also provided an incentive for White women to emigrate to the West, where they were scarce. However, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others believed that immediate action on the national front was required, leading to the organization of the NWSA and its resulting constitution.

ARTICLE 1.—This organization shall be called the National Woman Suffrage Association.
ARTICLE 2.—The object of this Association shall be to secure STATE and NATIONAL protection for women citizens in the exercise of their right to vote.
ARTICLE 3.—All citizens of the United States subscribing to this Constitution, and contributing not less than one dollar annually, shall be considered members of the Association, with the right to participate in its deliberations.
ARTICLE 4.—The officers of this Association shall be a President, Vice-Presidents from each of the States and Territories, Corresponding and Recording Secretaries, a Treasurer, an Executive Committee of not less than five, and an Advisory Committee consisting of one or more persons from each State and Territory.
ARTICLE 5.—All Woman Suffrage Societies throughout the country shall be welcomed as auxiliaries; and their accredited officers or duly appointed representatives shall be recognized as members of the National Association. OFFICERS OF THE NATIONAL WOMAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION.
SUSAN B. ANTHONY, Rochester, N. Y.

How was the NWSA organized? How would the fact that it operated at the national level, rather than at the state or local level, help it to achieve its goals?

These divisions came to a head early in 1867, as the AERA organized a campaign in Kansas to determine the fate of Black and woman suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her partner in the movement, Susan B. Anthony made the journey to advocate for universal suffrage. Yet they soon realized that their allies were distancing themselves from women’s suffrage in order to advance Black enfranchisement. Disheartened, Stanton and Anthony allied instead with White supremacists who supported women’s equality. Many fellow activists were dismayed by Stanton’s and Anthony’s willingness to appeal to racism to advance their cause.

These tensions finally erupted over conflicting views of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Women’s rights leaders vigorously protested the Fourteenth Amendment. Although it established national citizenship for all persons born or naturalized in the United States, the amendment also introduced the word male into the Constitution for the first time. After the Fifteenth Amendment ignored sex as an unlawful barrier to suffrage, an omission that appalled Stanton, the AERA officially dissolved. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while suffragists who supported the Fifteenth Amendment, regardless of its limitations, founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).

The NWSA and the New Departure

The NWSA soon rallied around a new strategy: the New Departure. This new approach interpreted the Constitution as already guaranteeing women the right to vote. They argued that by nationalizing citizenship for all people and protecting all rights of citizens—including the right to vote—the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments guaranteed women’s suffrage. Broadcasting the New Departure, the NWSA encouraged women to register to vote, which roughly seven hundred did between 1868 and 1872. Susan B. Anthony was one of them and was arrested but then acquitted in trial.

In 1875, the Supreme Court addressed this constitutional argument: acknowledging women’s citizenship but arguing that suffrage was not a right guaranteed to all citizens. This ruling not only defeated the New Departure but also coincided with the Court’s broader reactionary interpretation of the Reconstruction amendments that significantly limited freedmen’s rights. Following this defeat, many suffragists like Stanton increasingly replaced the ideal of universal suffrage with arguments about the virtue that White women would bring to the polls. These new arguments often hinged on racism and declared the necessity of White women voters to keep Black men in check.

Social Transformation in the South

Advocates for women’s suffrage were largely confined to the North, but Southern women were experiencing social transformations as well. The lines between “refined” White womanhood and “degraded” enslaved Black femaleness were no longer so clearly defined. Moreover, during the war, Southern White women had been called on to do traditional men’s work, chopping wood and managing businesses. While White southern women decided whether and how to return to their prior status, Black women embraced new freedoms and a redefinition of womanhood.

The Civil War showed White women, especially upper-class women, life without their husbands’ protection. Many did not like what they saw, especially given the possibility of racial equality. Formerly wealthy women hoped to maintain their social status by rebuilding the prewar social hierarchy. Through Ladies’ Memorial Associations and other civic groups, Southern women led the efforts to bury and memorialize the dead, praising and bolstering their men’s masculinity through nationalist speeches and memorials. These memorials can be found throughout the South, and even in some places in the North. Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAs) grew out of the Soldiers’ Aid Society and became the precursor and custodian of the Lost Cause narrative. Proponents of the Lost Cause tried to rewrite the history of the antebellum South to deemphasize the brutality of slavery. They also created the myth that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights instead of slavery, which was the actual cause. LMAs and their ceremonies created new holidays during which White southerners could reaffirm their allegiance to the Confederacy and express their opposition to Black rights. For instance, some LMAs celebrated the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death on May 10. Through these activities, Southern women took on political roles in the South.

Southern Black women also sought to redefine their public and private lives. Their efforts to control their labor met the immediate opposition of southern White women. Gertrude Clanton, a plantation mistress before the war, disliked cooking and washing dishes, so she hired an African-American woman to do the washing. A misunderstanding quickly developed. The laundress, nameless in Gertrude’s records, performed her job and returned home. Gertrude believed that her money had purchased a day’s labor, not just the load of washing, and she became quite frustrated. Meanwhile, this washerwoman and others like her set wages and hours for themselves, and in many cases began to take washing into their own homes in order to avoid the surveillance of White women and the sexual threat posed by White men.

Similar conflicts raged across the South. White southerners demanded that Black women work in the plantation home and instituted apprenticeship systems to place Black children in unpaid labor positions. African American women combated these attempts by refusing to work at jobs without fair pay or fair conditions and by clinging tightly to their children.

Like White LMA members, Black women formed clubs to bury their dead, to celebrate Black masculinity, and to provide aid to their communities. On May 1, 1865, Black people in Charleston created the precursor to the modern Memorial Day by mourning the Union dead buried hastily on a race track turned prison. Like their White counterparts, the three hundred Black women who participated had been members of the local Patriotic Association, which aided freedpeople during the war. Black women continued participating in federal Decoration Day ceremonies and, later, formed their own club organizations. Racial violence, whether city riots or rural vigilantes, continued to threaten these vulnerable households. Nevertheless, the formation and preservation of Black households became a paramount goal for Black women.


Juneteenth is a holiday commemorating the end of slavery. It began in 1866 as the commemoration of the June 19th announcement made in Galveston, Texas in 1865 that proclaimed the official end to slavery. In 2021, Juneteenth was declared a national holiday in the United States. Visit the Smithsonian Institute to learn more about this important date in history.

WAtch It

This short video explains how freed Black women utilized their freedom to positively impact their families and communities.

You can view the transcript for “What Reconstruction Meant to Freedwomen | Reconstruction 360” here (opens in new window).

For all of their differences, White and Black Southern women faced a similar challenge during Reconstruction. Southern women celebrated the return of their brothers, husbands, and sons, but couples separated for many years struggled to adjust. To make matters worse, many of these former soldiers returned with physical or mental wounds. For White families, suicide and divorce became more acceptable, while the opposite occurred for Black families. Since the entire South suffered from economic devastation, many families were impoverished and sank into debt. Most southern women faced economic devastation, lasting wartime trauma, and enduring racial tensions.

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Review Question

What were the benefits and drawbacks of the Fifteenth Amendment?


Fifteenth Amendment: gave all men 21 years and older the right to vote

grandfather clause: a discriminatory rule that allowed any adult male whose father or grandfather had voted in a specific year prior to the abolition of slavery to vote without paying the tax, effectively making it near-impossible for former enslaved Black people to vote

Lost Cause: the practice of rewriting history to downplay the brutality of slavery

new departure: the interpretation of the Constitution as already guaranteeing women the right to vote

poll tax: fees required for voting

  1. Proceedings of the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention, Held at the Church of the Puritans, New York, May 10, 1866 (New York: Johnston, 1866).