Spencer, Sara J.

The sources presented as “Women Already Voters” were assembled to reconstruct events mentioned in a volume of the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—specifically, in the second volume, Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1865 to 1873.  For their insight into Reconstruction, however, the sources are useful for many more purposes.

“Women Already Voters” was a claim women made after the Civil War while they took direct action to test its truth.  Around them, men in Congress and the press debated how far the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments reached in protecting citizens’ rights and what linked citizenship to voting rights.  At the moment in American history when former slaves became citizens and the men among them became voters, white and black women hoped to walk through the door to political participation.  They embraced the idea that the United States could eliminate from fundamental law all distinctions of sex while eliminating distinctions of race.

In at least twenty-two of the United States, hundreds of women tried to register to vote and tried to cast ballots, assisted by family and friends in their communities. The cases here were the best known of this social movement.  With one exception, the women in this group were stopped by local officials or state courts or federal courts or federal marshals or justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, but they took their cause to the courts.  Through their cases, defense attorneys raised difficult questions about discrimination and constructed expansive definitions of rights, while prosecutors and judges settled the constitutional questions by reasserting male prerogatives and, in the end, extolling a category of citizenship without political rights, suitable to women. For a working list of the hundreds of women who tried to vote between 1868 and 1873 but never contested their exclusion, see http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/resources/wompolls.html

Most credit for the work amassing this collection goes to Susan I. Johns.  Danielle Bradley and Katharine Lee made this presentation of the sources possible.  Ann D. Gordon, editor of the papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, is responsible for omissions and errors.

Well-orchestrated test cases developed in Washington, D.C., under the direction of former congressman Albert G. Riddle, activist Josephine Griffing, and businesswoman Sara Spencer. Sixty-four women, accompanied by Frederick Douglass, sought to be registered first at the city's Board of Registrars and then in their respective districts on 10 April 1871. They demanded that officials put their refusal in writing. On 20 April 1871 more than seventy women went to the polls, presenting evidence of their attempts to register. Riddle and his co-counsel Francis Miller crafted two cases out of this demonstration: Sara J. Spencer v. the Board of Registration and Sarah E. Webster v. the Judges of Election, both of which were heard by the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in the October term of 1871.

Josephine White Griffing pulled away from the action as her health declined; she died in February 1872.  Sara Jane Andrews Spencer (1837–1909) and her husband Henry Caleb Spencer owned and taught in Washington's Spencerian Business College. Since 1866, when the Spencers moved to the District of Columbia, Sara had emerged as a leader in its philanthropic and suffrage activities. She first held office in the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1873, and over the next decade, she provided efficient leadership in the national campaign for a sixteenth amendment.

Created by Katharine Lee .
Last edited by Danielle Bradley .