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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·THE NEW POLITICAL DEMOCRACY · The National Struggle for Woman Suffrage·»

The Rise of the Woman Movement

Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams

Protests of Colonial Women.—The republican spirit which produced American independence was of slow and steady growth. It did not spring up full-armed in a single night. It was, on the contrary, nourished during a long period of time by fireside discussions as well as by debates in the public forum. Women shared that fireside sifting of political principles and passed on the findings of that scrutiny in letters to their friends, newspaper articles, and every form of written word. How widespread was this potent, though not spectacular force, is revealed in the collections of women’s letters, articles, songs, dramas, and satirical “skits” on English rule that have come down to us. In this search into the reasons of government, some women began to take thought about laws that excluded them from the ballot. Two women at least left their protests on record. Abigail, the ingenious and witty wife of John Adams, wrote to her husband, in March, 1776, that women objected “to all arbitrary power whether of state or males” and demanded political privileges in the new order then being created. Hannah Lee Corbin, the sister of “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, protested to her brother against the taxation of women without representation.

The Stir among European Women.—Ferment in America, in the case of women as of men, was quickened by events in Europe. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published in England the Vindication of the Rights of Women—a book that was destined to serve the cause of liberty among women as the writings of Locke and Paine had served that of men. The specific grievances which stirred English women were men’s invasion of women’s industries, such as spinning and weaving; the denial of equal educational opportunities; and political disabilities. In France also the great Revolution raised questionings about the status of women. The rights of “citizenesses” as well as the rights of “citizens” were examined by the boldest thinkers. This in turn reacted upon women in the United States.

Leadership in America.—The origins of the American woman movement are to be found in the writings of a few early intellectual leaders. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, books, articles, and pamphlets about women came in increasing numbers from the press. Lydia Maria Child wrote a history of women; Margaret Fuller made a critical examination of the status of women in her time; and Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet supplemented the older histories by showing what an important part women had played in the American Revolution.

The Struggle for Education.—Along with criticism, there was carried on a constructive struggle for better educational facilities for women who had been from the beginning excluded from every college in the country. In this long battle, Emma Willard and Mary Lyon led the way; the former founded a seminary at Troy, New York; and the latter made the beginnings of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Oberlin College in Ohio, established in 1833, opened its doors to girls and from it were graduated young students to lead in the woman movement. Sarah J. Hale, who in 1827 became the editor of a “Ladies’ Magazine,” published in Boston, conducted a campaign for equal educational opportunities which helped to bear fruit in the founding of Vassar College shortly after the Civil War.

The Desire to Effect Reforms.—As they came to study their own history and their own part in civilization, women naturally became deeply interested in all the controversies going on around them. The temperance question made a special appeal to them and they organized to demand the right to be heard on it. In 1846 the “Daughters of Temperance” formed a secret society favoring prohibition. They dared to criticize the churches for their indifference and were so bold as to ask that drunkenness be made a ground for divorce.

The slavery issue even more than temperance called women into public life. The Grimké sisters of South Carolina emancipated their bondmen, and one of these sisters, exiled from Charleston for her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” went North to work against the slavery system. In 1837 the National Women’s Anti-Slavery Convention met in New York; seventy-one women delegates represented eight states. Three years later eight American women, five of them in Quaker costume, attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, much to the horror of the men, who promptly excluded them from the sessions on the ground that it was not fitting for women to take part in such meetings.

In other spheres of activity, especially social service, women steadily enlarged their interest. Nothing human did they consider alien to them. They inveighed against cruel criminal laws and unsanitary prisons. They organized poor relief and led in private philanthropy. Dorothea Dix directed the movement that induced the New York legislature to establish in 1845 a separate asylum for the criminal insane. In the same year Sarah G. Bagley organized the Lowell Female Reform Association for the purpose of reducing the long hours of labor for women, safeguarding “the constitutions of future generations.” Mrs. Eliza Woodson Farnham, matron in Sing Sing penitentiary, was known throughout the nation for her social work, especially prison reform. Wherever there were misery and suffering, women were preparing programs of relief.

Freedom of Speech for Women.—In the advancement of their causes, of whatever kind, women of necessity had to make public appeals and take part in open meetings. Here they encountered difficulties. The appearance of women on the platform was new and strange. Naturally it was widely resented. Antoinette Brown, although she had credentials as a delegate, was driven off the platform of a temperance convention in New York City simply because she was a woman. James Russell Lowell, editor of the “Atlantic Monthly,” declined a poem from Julia Ward Howe on the theory that no woman could write a poem; but he added on second thought that he might consider an article in prose. Nathaniel Hawthorne, another editor, even objected to something in prose because to him “all ink-stained women were equally detestable.” To the natural resentment against their intrusion into new fields was added that aroused by their ideas and methods. As temperance reformers, they criticized in a caustic manner those who would not accept their opinions. As opponents of slavery they were especially bitter. One of their conventions, held at Philadelphia in 1833, passed a resolution calling on all women to leave those churches that would not condemn every form of human bondage. This stirred against them many of the clergy who, accustomed to having women sit silent during services, were in no mood to treat such a revolt leniently. Then came the last straw. Women decided that they would preach—out of the pulpit first, and finally in it.

Women in Industry.—The period of this ferment was also the age of the industrial revolution in America, the rise of the factory system, and the growth of mill towns. The labor of women was transferred from the homes to the factories. Then arose many questions: the hours of labor, the sanitary conditions of the mills, the pressure of foreign immigration on native labor, the wages of women as compared with those of men, and the right of married women to their own earnings. Labor organizations sprang up among working women. The mill girls of Lowell, Massachusetts, mainly the daughters of New England farmers, published a magazine, “The Lowell Offering.” So excellent were their writings that the French statesman, Thiers, carried a copy of their paper into the Chamber of Deputies to show what working women could achieve in a republic. As women were now admittedly earning their own way in the world by their own labor, they began to talk of their “economic independence.”

The World Shaken by Revolution.—Such was the quickening of women’s minds in 1848 when the world was startled once more by a revolution in France which spread to Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. Once more the people of the earth began to explore the principles of democracy and expound human rights. Women, now better educated and more “advanced” in their ideas, played a rôle of still greater importance in that revolution. They led in agitations and uprisings. They suffered from reaction and persecution. From their prison in France, two of them who had been jailed for too much insistence on women’s rights exchanged greetings with American women who were raising the same issue here. By this time the women had more supporters among the men. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, though he afterwards recanted, used his powerful pen in their behalf. Anti-slavery leaders welcomed their aid and repaid them by urging the enfranchisement of women.

The Woman’s Rights Convention of 1848.—The forces, moral and intellectual, which had been stirring among women, crystallized a few months after the outbreak of the European revolution in the first Woman’s Rights Convention in the history of America. It met at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, on the call of Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mary Ann McClintock, three of them Quakers. Accustomed to take part in church meetings with men, the Quakers naturally suggested that men as well as women be invited to attend the convention. Indeed, a man presided over the conference, for that position seemed too presumptuous even for such stout advocates of woman’s rights.

The deliberations of the Seneca Falls convention resulted in a Declaration of Rights modeled after the Declaration of Independence. For example, the preamble began: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied....” So also it closed: “Such has been the patient suffering of women under this government and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.” Then followed the list of grievances, the same number which had been exhibited to George III in 1776. Especially did they assail the disabilities imposed upon them by the English common law imported into America—the law which denied married women their property, their wages, and their legal existence as separate persons. All these grievances they recited to “a candid world.” The remedies for the evils which they endured were then set forth in detail. They demanded “equal rights” in the colleges, trades, and professions; equal suffrage; the right to share in all political offices, honors, and emoluments; the right to complete equality in marriage, including equal guardianship of the children; and for married women the right to own property, to keep wages, to make contracts, to transact business, and to testify in the courts of justice. In short, they declared women to be persons as men are persons and entitled to all the rights and privileges of human beings. Such was the clarion call which went forth to the world in 1848—to an amused and contemptuous world, it must be admitted—but to a world fated to heed and obey.

The First Gains in Civil Liberty.—The convention of 1848 did not make political enfranchisement the leading issue. Rather did it emphasize the civil disabilities of women which were most seriously under discussion at the time. Indeed, the New York legislature of that very year, as the result of a twelve years’ agitation, passed the Married Woman’s Property Act setting aside the general principles of the English common law as applied to women and giving them many of the “rights of man.” California and Wisconsin followed in 1850; Massachusetts in 1854; and Kansas in 1859. Other states soon fell into line. Women’s earnings and inheritances were at last their own in some states at least. In a little while laws were passed granting women rights as equal guardians of their children and permitting them to divorce their husbands on the grounds of cruelty and drunkenness.

By degrees other steps were taken. The Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania was founded in 1850, and the Philadelphia School of Design for Women three years later. In 1852 the American Women’s Educational Association was formed to initiate an agitation for enlarged educational opportunities for women. Other colleges soon emulated the example of Oberlin: the University of Utah in 1850; Hillsdale College in Michigan in 1855; Baker University in Kansas in 1858; and the University of Iowa in 1860. New trades and professions were opened to women and old prejudices against their activities and demands slowly gave way.

«·THE NEW POLITICAL DEMOCRACY · The National Struggle for Woman Suffrage·»