I have noticed, while writing these blogs about the work of women in America beginning in the early 1700s, that I am particularly incensed that women did not get the right to vote in our democracy until 1920. Nearly 40 years ago, I found myself at lunch with a former ambassador and a female member of Congress, who politely disagreed on a political point or two over crab cakes, with all the dancing & bowing inherent in such genteel disagreements.
When the congresswomen excused herself, the gentleman declared, "She doesn't know her place. I can remember, when women couldn't even vote." It was as if I wasn't even there, although there were only two of us left at the table; or as if I weren't a woman as well. That memory inspires this very quick review of the women's rights movement.
(For all those courageous women that I leave out of this overview, and for all those scholars who have spent years searching for them, I am truly sorry.)
Basically, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) created the agenda for the woman’s rights movement. Elizabeth grew up in a period when women were expected to restrict their activities to home and family. Most were not encouraged to pursue a serious education or a career. After marriage, women did not have the right to own their own property, keep their own wages or inheritance, or sign a contract. In addition, no woman in America had the right to vote. Before the American Revolution, women could vote in several British American colonies. After 1776, most states rewrote their constitutions preventing women from voting. After 1787, women were able to vote only in New Jersey; until 1807, when male legislators officially outlawed woman suffrage.
During the years Elizabeth Cady was growing up, thousands of American women were becoming interested in abolishing slavery. Women wrote articles for anti-slavery papers and circulated abolitionist petitions for Congress. Southerners Angelina Grimke Weld (1805-1879) and Sarah Moore Grimke (1792-1873) became famous for making speeches to mixed (male and female) audiences about slavery.
Clergymen rebuked them for their “unwomanly behavior." As a result, in addition to working for abolition, the Grimke sisters began to advocate for women’s rights. The Grimke sisters found it strange that society would condemn them for making speeches to both men and women, but do nothing to condemn "gentlemen" like their deceased father, South Carolina Judge John Grimke, who had owned hundreds of slaves enduring daily horrors and injustices.
The sisters came from a family of 14; but eventually they left Charleston heading to Philadelphia to join the Quaker faith, where they could rail against slavery, especially the brutal slaveowning practiced in South Carolina and by their brother Henry, who fathered three children by one of his slaves. Sarah was one of the first to compare the restrictions on women and slaves, writing that "woman has no political existence . . . . She is only counted like the slaves of the south, to swell the number of lawmakers."
When Elizabeth Cady was a young girl, her only brother died; and her grief stricken father declared, "Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" Elizabeth vowed to be as good as any boy. She excelled in Greek, Latin, and mathematics, while obtaining the finest education then available to women at Troy Female Seminary. In March, 1840, Elizabeth married abolitionist lecturer Henry Stanton, and they eventually had 7 children. In an unusual choice, the newlywed Stantons decided to travel to London for their honeymoon to attend a World’s Anti-Slavery convention.
There convention officials rejected the credentials of American delegate Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880), Quaker preacher and abolitionist. Santon and Mott became furious with male abolitionists (and the general patriarchal system they represented), who had excluded women from the London conference. They vowed to call a woman’s rights convention back in the United States.
Stanton and Mott, like other activist women in the United States, began to see the obvious similarities between their status and that of the slaves. Nearly 8 years later, they convened the first Woman’s Rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. There Stanton presented “The Declaration of Sentiments,” demanding changes in America's law and society - educational, legal, political, social, and economic - to elevate women’s status and to give women the right to vote.
After the Seneca Falls conference, Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818-1894) introduced Stanton to Susan Brownell Anthony (1820-1906). Bloomer was noted for her pioneering temperance and woman’s rights newspaper, The Lily (1849), and for wearing a "reform" dress featuring full pantaloons and a short skirt – "bloomers." Freedom from the strictures of womanhood, even if they
looked ridiculous. Ultimately Bloomer and other feminists abandoned the more comfortable outfit, deciding that too much attention swirled around clothing rather than the issues at hand.
Susan B. Anthony first became interested in equality for women while teaching in New York state, where she discovered that male teachers were paid several times her salary. She led a woman's protest at the 1876 Centennial delivering a Declaration of Rights written by Stanton and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-1884), whose gravestone reads, "There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven; that word is Liberty."
Anthony, Stanton, and Cady were also joined by the likes of Ernestine Louise Siismondi Potowski Rose (1810-1892). Rose had been born in Poland; and at 16, she petitioned Polish courts to obtain the inheritance she received from her mother. As was the custom, her father had assigned Rose and her "dowry" in marriage to a man his age. After successfully appealing to retain her inheritance at court, she fled Poland and ended up in the United States, lobbying for the passage of a married women’s property bill. At the first woman’s rights convention in her heavy accent, she boldly called for “political, legal, and social equality with man.” Rose merged anti-slavery, temperance, and freedom of thought philosophies into the woman’s rights speeches she delivered at many rights conventions between 1850 and 1870.
Lucy Stone (1818-1893) was the first Massachusetts woman to receive a college degree in 1847. Shortly after graduating from Oberlin, Stone began lecturing for the American Anti-Slavery Association. As a protest of restrictive marriage laws, Stone kept her maiden name when she married, thereby coining the phrase “Lucy Stoner” for all women refusing to take their husband’s name. Stone began the Woman’s Journal which gained the reputation as the “voice of the woman’s movement.”
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is best known for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and co-founding the American Woman Suffrage Association with Lucy Stone. She helped Stone found its paper, the Woman’s Journal, which she edited for 20 years. She established and led major women’s clubs and suffrage organizations in the Northeast, and was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Howe fought for the right to vote and to liberate women from the confinement of the traditional “woman’s place” in often stifling marriages.
Caroline Maria Seymour Severance (1820-1940), pioneer organizer of women’s clubs, distinguished herself as “The Mother of Clubs,” founding the first club in the East, the New England Woman’s Club (1868), and the first club in Los Angeles. Viewing clubs as vehicles for social reform and a bridge for women from the home to the public arena, she brought political awareness and support of women's rights to the club movement.
By 1861, the Civil War curtailed most suffrage activity, as women from both the Union and the Confederacy, concentrated their energies on the war. After the war, women created memorial societies to help preserve the memory of their losses. This brought many white Southern women into the public realm for the first time. During this same period, newly emancipated Southern black women began organizing as well.
Sensing that it was time to energize the movement again, in 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for all women and men dedicated to universal suffrage.
In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified, to extend to all citizens the protections of the Constitution against unjust state laws. This Amendment was the first to define "citizens" and "voters" as "male." Now it was all spelled out. No women of any color simply could vote in America nor did they have equal protection under the Constitution.
In this same year, the Wyoming territory organized with a woman suffrage provision. In 1870, the 15th Amendment passed declaring that voting rights could not be denied on account of race but did not mention sex.
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote for in the presidential election. At the same time, civil and women's rights activist and former slave Sojourner Truth (1797?-1883) appeared at a polling booth in Grand Rapids, Michigan, demanding a ballot. She was immediately turned away.
Frances Gage attributed the inspiring “Ain’t I a Woman” speech to Truth. In 1867, Frances Gage spoke at the First Anniversary of the American Equal Rights Association. Gage wrote the lift all boats speech with a few jabs at the menfolk. "When we hold the ballot...Men...will actually respect the women to whom they now talk...silly flatteries: sparkling eyes, rosy cheeks, pearly teeth, ruby lips, the soft and delicate hands of refinement...The strength, the power, the energy, the force, the intellect and the nerve, which the womanhood of this country will bring to bear...will infuse itself through all the ranks of society, (making) all its men and women wiser and better."
From 1876 to 1879, lawyer Belva Ann Lockwood (1830-1917) was denied permission to practice before the Supreme Court. She spent three years pushing through legislation to allow women to practice before the Court and became the first woman to do so in 1879. Buoyed by her success, Belva Ann Lockwood ran for president in the 1884, on the National Equal Rights Party ticket. Although suffrage leaders opposed her candidacy, Lockwood saw it as an entering wedge for women. She polled nearly 4,500 votes and ran again in 1888. She was the first woman to dare to run for president, even though women could not vote.
A Woman Suffrage Amendment was introduced in 1878 to the United States Congress. The wording remained unchanged in 1919, when the amendment finally passed both houses. Progress was slow. In 1893, Colorado became the first state to adopt a state amendment enfranchising women. In 1895, the aging but still angry Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote The Woman’s Bible, questioning Biblical pronouncements on the inferiority of women, which she declared were the greatest obstacles to women’s progress.
Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 Progressive (Bull Moose /
Republican) Party was the first national political party to adopt a woman suffrage plank. In 1913, members of the Congressional Union organized a suffrage parade, carefully scheduling it for the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration and causing a commotion in Washington, D.C.
By 1916 , Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) unveiled her "secret" plan for suffrage victory at a large women's rights convention in New Jersey. Catt's tactics called for the coordination of activities by suffrage workers in all state and local associations. In the same year, Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first American woman elected to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives. The next year women won the vote in New York State.
Between 1917 and 1919, World War I slowed down the campaign as some--but not all--suffragists curtailed their activism in favor supporting the troops "over there."
But momentum propelled the drive ahead, and in the summer of 1919, the 19th Amendment passed both House and Senate and was sent to the states for ratification. On August 26, 1920, following ratification by the necessary thirty-six states, the 19th Amendment was adopted. Now female citizens could vote in the United States of America. That little boy, with whom I had lunch and who grew up to become an ambassador for the United States of America, was 10 years old in 1920.
Three years later, in 1923, the National Woman's Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender. It has never been ratified.