The Macksey Journal


In the 1870s and 80s, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) advocated for suffrage in a cultural climate fraught with sexual censoriousness and “respectability” politics. In contrast to the rival American Woman Suffrage Association, the NWSA worked with all women who demanded suffrage, putting them in the unique position of collaborating with women on opposite sides of the marriage ideology spectrum. Victoria Woodhull and other free-lovers held that all marriage was oppressive, while Mormon women in Utah stridently defended plural marriage. Neither group was considered acceptable for public association, but both worked with the NWSA. Scholars have examined the relationships between Susan B. Anthony and Elisabeth Cady Stanton with the Mormon women and, separately, with Victoria Woodhull. However, there has been little scholarly effort to put these works in conversation with one another. NWSA newsletters and writings from the women involved reveal the NWSA’s evolving attempts to balance acceptability with activism in this period. The early strategies that Anthony and Stanton applied to justify their associations with Woodhull and the Mormon women undermined the women’s agency in their marriage choices and ignored the way their ideologies informed their conceptions of suffrage. But the ongoing conversations between the NWSA and the judgmental public reflected an internal struggle between the NWSA and the women’s groups themselves. These relationships illuminate a crucial history of a celebrated movement, as the NWSA adopted and then adapted tactics to preserve their own moral authority while supporting opposite fringe groups of women towards the same progressive goal.