The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was a single-issue national organization formed in 1869 in Boston. The AWSA lobbied state governments to enact laws granting or expanding women's right to vote in the United States. Its most prominent leader, Lucy Stone, began publishing a newspaper in 1870 called the Woman's Journal. Designed as the voice of the AWSA, it eventually became a voice of the women's movement as a whole.
In 1890, the AWSA merged with a rival organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association. The new organization, called the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was initially led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been the leaders of the NWSA.
Following the Civil War, in 1866, leaders of the abolition and suffrage movements founded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) to advocate for citizens' right to vote regardless of race or sex. Divisions among the group's members, which had existed from the outset, became apparent during the struggle over the ratification of two amendments to the United States Constitution. The proposed Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed equal protection of the laws to all citizens, regardless of race, color, creed, or previous condition of servitude, added the word "male" to the Constitution for the first time. The proposed Fifteenth Amendment extended franchise to African American men, but not to women. Following its contentious 1869 convention, the AERA dissolved, leading to the formation of two organizations lobbying for woman suffrage, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).
The AWSA was founded in November 1869 at a convention in Cleveland that was organized by leaders of the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA). The NEWSA had been created in November 1868 as part of the developing split within the women's movement. The AWSA and the NEWSA operated separately with somewhat overlapping leadership. In 1870, Lucy Stone, the leader of the AWSA, began publishing an eight-page weekly newspaper called the Woman's Journal as the voice of the AWSA. Eventually it became a voice of the women's movement as a whole.
The more radical NWSA, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, condemned the Fifteenth Amendment as an injustice to women. The AWSA was the more conservative of the two groups. Its founders, including Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe and Josephine Ruffin, strongly supported the Republican Party and the Fifteenth Amendment, which they felt would not win congressional approval if it included the vote for women. Another of its members was noted abolitionist and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth.
AWSA distinguished itself from NWSA in several additional ways:
Several modest but significant gains for women suffrage occurred during the twenty-year period of AWSA activity. Women in two Western states, Wyoming and Utah, won the right to vote. An average of 4.4 states per year considered, but did not adopt woman suffrage. Eight additional states also considered referenda on the issue; none, however, were successful.
The AWSA was initially larger than the NWSA, but it declined in strength during the 1880s. Stanton and Anthony, the leading figures in the NWSA, were more widely known as leaders of the women's suffrage movement during this period and more influential in setting its direction.
During the 1880s, it became increasingly clear that group rivalries were counterproductive to the goal of votes for women. Conversations about a merger between the AWSA and NWSA began in 1886. After several years of negotiations, the organizations officially joined together in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The leaders of this new organization included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Frances Willard, Mary Church Terrell, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Anna Howard Shaw. Stanton served in a largely ceremonial capacity as the NAWSA's first president while Anthony was its leading force in practice.The suffrage movement distanced itself from labor groups and kept its focus on the more affluent levels of society.
The first three volumes of the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage were written by the leaders of the NWSA prior to the merger. It included a 107-page chapter on the history of the AWSA, the NWSA's bitter rival, but provided much more information about the NWSA itself that was written from its own point of view. This unbalanced portrayal of the movement influenced scholarly research in this field for many years. Not until about the middle of the 20th century did the AWSA begin to receive adequate scholarly attention.