Neglected Americana: The Woman’s Rights Movement


Winter 2002 (Vol. III, No. 4) Table of Contents

Relics of revolutions are avidly collected— uniforms, bullets, swords, guns, and propaganda, are carefully preserved. Until recently, however, relics of one of the most sweeping revolutions, the social revolution in women’s rights that culminated in the suffrage struggles of the early twentieth century, gathered dust or were discarded. As interest in the feminist movement has increased, so has interest in its collectibles. In the following article, the first of two or more articles dealing chronologically with the suffrage movement, I’ve tried to cover the most important events of the movement between 1848 and 1873, fill in a little background and refer to the most important books and collectible ephemera of that period.

Susan B. Anthony House

Susan B. Anthony House

Thirty years ago, the home of Susan B. Anthony in Rochester, NY was rarely open to the public, barely maintained by the contributions of a few dedicated volunteers, and almost entirely unknown to Rochesterians. Thanks to recent interest in the history of the women’s rights movement, it’s now much expanded, open to the public, fully staffed, and a favorite site for visiting politicians’ press conferences. I became a docent there about ten years ago and have found myself increasingly absorbed in the history of the women’s movement—much of which happened here, in upstate New York. Books and ephemera inscribed and/or published by Anthony, as well as other suffrage items turn up here with some frequency. Or, at least, they used to. They are now much scarcer.

The suffrage movement was a battle fought and won largely with words—with mountains of paper and hours of speeches at meetings and conventions, with lobbying, and with banners and sashes, pins, handbills and posters. According to historian Andrea Kerr Moore, the American Women Suffrage Association “sent out almost 216,000 leaflets from its Boston headquarters” in one year. Even during the most “violent” period of the suffrage movement, the early 20th century, when militants marched, chained themselves to the White House fence, and were jailed and force fed, the great majority of suffrage workers pursued a comparatively moderate course.

The History of Woman Suffrage and The Life and Works of Susan B. Anthony are, essentially, the official records of the movement. They were intended to be exactly that and, without them and the incredible amount of information they contain, much of the history of the women’s movement would be lost. The most frequently repeated stories of the suffrage movement are largely drawn from those works and from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Memoir, Eighty Years and More.

Both works were written by the leaders of one group, the “ultras,” the radical wing of the movement led by Anthony and Stanton, and reflect their point of view. The work of the more conservative and broadly inclusive wing led by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe, Mary Livermore and others is less well remembered.

grimkesistersAlthough the first women’s convention, held in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848, is usually considered the beginning of the suffrage movement, its origins in the United States may be found in the temperance and abolitionist movements. These were causes that appealed to women who, apparently, had little thought at first of demanding property rights or the right to an education, much less the right to vote, but became involved in the anti-liquor and abolitionist movements of the 1820s. The Grimke sisters, Lydia Child, Stone, Stanton, and Anthony all came to the women’s movement via the antislavery movement.

Abolitionist and temperance newspapers of that period sometimes contain articles and speeches referring to or that were written by Anthony, Stanton, or Stone. One of the earliest temperance papers, The Lily, published by Amelia Bloomer in Seneca Falls, NY, was strongly influenced by Stanton, then living in Seneca Falls. Stanton essentially changed the direction of both the paper and its editor from temperance to women’s rights.

As a student at Oberlin, Lucy Stone began speaking for women’s rights during the mid-1840s and when, in 1847, she became a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Association, she spoke part of the time for women’s suffrage and part of the time for the abolition of slavery.

When Stanton and Anthony and Stone were girls, the legal situation of women, especially married women, in the United States was abysmal. Stanton contended that married women were essentially enslaved: “the condition of married women under the Common Law, was nearly as degraded as that of the slave on the Southern plantation.” [The History of Woman Suffrage] They had no legal existence apart from their husbands. Unmarried women, unless they had unusual resources, were either dependent upon family members or worked for miserably low wages. Women were not allowed in the professions and, with a few exceptions, notably the Quakers, not permitted to speak in public. They were rarely educated beyond eighth grade. They could not, of course, vote although the founding fathers had not excluded women from voting and, for a time, women in New Jersey were allowed to vote. By the time that Stanton and Anthony died, in 1902 and 1906 respectively, all of those restrictions had been removed except the prohibition against voting. Four western states did allow women to vote in federal elections during the 19th century and more were added during the early 20th century, but not until 1920 was the nineteenth amendment, franchising all adult women, ratified.

Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone

Anthony, Stanton, Lucy Stone and numerous other less well-known women worked to bring about the revolution through the last half of the 19th century. Each pointed to incidents of injustice that exemplified the need for change—Stanton was especially effective at writing the history of the suffrage movement. Her account of the background of the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, now memorialized by the U.S. Park Service with the Women’s Historic Park in Seneca Falls, NY, is famous.

Stanton married abolitionist Henry Stanton in 1840 (“obey” was not in the marriage ceremony) and they immediately left for London to attend The World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, an event that turned out to be, arguably, as significant for women’s suffrage as for the abolition of slavery. The American delegation to the convention included not only such stalwarts of the movement as Henry Stanton but also it was the first to include women, among them Lucretia Mott, a prominent Philadelpha Quaker. The inclusion of women had already led to a split in the American abolitionist movement with the Garrisonians favoring women as delegates and the “political abolitionists” opposing their inclusion.

British hosts, many of them clergymen, were shocked at the appearance of the women and debate over whether or not to include them occupied the first day. (Henry Stanton argued for their admission.) The Garrisonians were voted down by a “crushing majority,” according to Stanton’s biographer, Elisabeth Griffith, and the women were seated in the gallery, behind a curtain, to observe but not to participate.

Stanton and Mott became friends as a result of the anti-slavery convention—discussed the necessity for a change in women’s place in society, both legally and in the perception of women’s “proper place”—and talked about having a convention as soon as possible after their return to the United States. It was not, however, until 1848 when Mrs. Mott was visiting in the Seneca Falls area and Mrs. Stanton, now the mother of three (later seven) children, sat down with three Quaker women in Jane Hunt’s parlor in Waterloo, NY, a few miles from Seneca Falls, and planned the convention.

At the convention, which has been well documented and is usually thought of as marking the beginning of the suffrage movement, eighteen resolutions were passed. Stanton, the primary author, modeled theDeclaration of Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence, and included eighteen resolutions because there had been eighteen resolutions in the Declaration of Independence. Most controversial turned out to be the ninth resolution, resolving that women should have the franchise. Unlike the other resolutions, which passed unanimously, the ninth resolution was strongly opposed and passed by a small majority, pressed by Frederick Douglass and Stanton. As a result of the ensuing furor, especially from the press and clergy, a number of the signers of the Declaration later withdrew their signatures. One of the few favorable accounts was in Frederick Douglass’ famous North Star, the abolitionist paper he published in Rochester.

The Seneca Falls Convention was soon followed by a convention in Rochester, NY and the first national convention in Worcester, Ma. Conventions continued to be a main vehicle for organizing the suffrage movement. The History of Woman Suffrage records these conventions quite completely and original documents as well as pins, admission tickets, delegate badges, programs, etc. from them are now collectibles.

Until the Civil War, suffrage and abolitionist workers, men and women, worked together in reasonable unity for the rights of women and slaves. During the Civil War, suffrage workers partially put aside their work for women’s rights and, in 1863, Stanton, Anthony, and Stone formed the Women’s Loyal League to work for passage of the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery.

 National Woman Suffrage Association

National Woman Suffrage Association

After the war, suffrage and abolitionist supporters differed over the problem of supporting the passage of the fourteenth amendment, which extended the franchise to black men and, for the first time, specified males as voters. Stanton and Anthony, feeling betrayed by their former allies, including Douglass, formed The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). A more conservative group, The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell and included Julia Ward Howe, Mary Livermore, and the prominent male reformers of the period. The two groups remained separate until 1890 when they merged and became the National and American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

During the period between 1867 and 1872, the leaders of NWSA were involved in events which brought the entire suffrage movement an enormous amount of unfavorable publicity and which, according to historians of the movement, set the cause back for a long time. The first was the association with George Francis Train, an open racist, who campaigned with Anthony in Kansas for the passage of a state amendment granting women’s rights and who offered to finance a suffrage newspaper. The second involved the association of Victoria Woodhull with the suffrage movement. Woodhull, who published a newspaper and was a self-nominated candidate for President of the United States, was also well known as a “free love” advocate. Third was the Beecher Tilton scandal, which also involved leaders of the suffrage movement. It was the tabloid story of its time and the popular press, especially, reveled in accusations that Beecher and Tilton’s wife were lovers. Beecher, a prominent clergyman, was President of AWSA. Theodore Tilton, who had been President of NWSA, accused Beecher of seduction and Woodhull, too, was involved. All three stories are fascinating, too complicated to summarize, but exhaustively covered by the contemporary press.Other Powersa 1998 book by Barbara Goldsmith, covers the Woodhull and Beecher events in detail and constitutes just about the only recent “light” reading available on the suffrage movement. Goldsmith makes the case that the Beecher Tilton scandal largely explains why the suffrage movement failed to gather greater support during the last part of the century.

Both NWSA and AWSA published newspapers. NWSA’s paper, The Revolution, was underwritten for a time by Train (who also used it as a vehicle for his economic theories), and some of Stanton’s best writing appears in the early editions of The Revolution. It was the first of a number of suffrage newspapers, most of them listed in The History of Woman Suffrage, all of which are now highly collectible. Copies of The Revolution are scarce now and very collectible.

The most successful and long-lived of the suffrage papers, The Woman’s Journal, was published by the AWSA. 20th Century copies turn up most often; 19th century copies with interesting content are scarce. Newspapers published by and for workers in the suffrage movement served several purposes. They spread the news of the movement, news that was generally neglected or distorted by the popular press, and provided a sense of community to women who were often isolated. They also helped to create the new sense of self, which was so important in building the feminist movement. Two recent books on the long-neglected suffrage newspapers, one edited by Lana F. Rakow and Cheris Kramarae on The Revolution, the other, edited by Martha M. Soloman, on suffrage newspapers in general, are especially good reading on these not very well known papers.

By the beginning of the 1870’s, the suffrage movement had suffered serious set-backs: suffrage supporters were divided, The Revolution had been sold because Anthony, the publisher, was unable to get advertisers and Train, imprisoned in Ireland as a Fenian, had withdrawn his financial support. The movement was associated with scandal in the public’s mind and new approaches were clearly needed.

In the following bibliography I’ve tried to list only the most significant, recent and/or definitive works. A number of other good references, obviously, exist but many are out of print. I don’t know of a complete bibliography more recent than Albert Krichmar’s The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States 1848 – 1870published in 1972.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. Published in 1988, this is the most recent biography of Anthony. Earlier biographies by Alma Lutz, Kathleen Anthony, and Rheta Childe Dorr are, unfortunately, out of print. Barry’s is the most scholarly biography; Anthony’s is quite complete and very readable.

Gordon, Ann D., Editor. The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Two volumes have been published: Volume I: In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840 to 1866 and Volume 2: Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866 – 1873. Part of a massive project from Rutgers headed by Gordon, these two volumes include letters, diary entries, speeches and articles. Wonderful notes go along with the entries.

Harper, Judith. Susan B. Anthony: A Biographical Companion. This 1998 alphabetical reference includes entries on all the people and events of the suffrage and other reform movements with which Anthony was involved and is an invaluable “quick” reference.

Griffith, Elizabeth. The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This most recent and comprehensive biography of Stanton was published in 1984.

Harper, Ida HustedThe Life and Work of Susan B. AnthonyThe first two volumes were written during Susan B. Anthony’s life, based on her records, and with her active assistance. They were published in 1898 and constitute her “authorized” biography. The third volume was published in 1908, two years after Anthony’s death.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years and More, 1815 – 1897Stanton’s autobiography was first published in 1898. The most recent edition includes an Introduction by Ellen Carol DuBois and an Afterword by Ann D. Gordon, which add current scholarship and recent interpretation of Stanton’s work.

The Suffrage Movement

Goldsmith, Barbara. Other Powers. Thorough and entertaining coverage of the period between 1866 and 1871 when several leaders of the reform movements were involved in a series of widely publicized scandals .

Gurko, Miriam. The Ladies of Seneca Falls: The Birth of the Woman’s Rights Movement. A very readable history covering the women who led the suffrage movement and the period from 1848 through 1920. Originally published in 1974.

Kraditor, Aileen. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890 – 1920. Classic analysis of the philosophy and tactics of the leaders of the movement.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Anthony, Susan B.; Gage, Matilda Joslin; and Harper, Ida Husted. The History of Woman Suffrage. The six volumes were published between 1881 and 1922. The first three volumes are by Stanton, Anthony, and Gage; Volume 4 is by Anthony and Harper, and Volumes 5 and 6 are by Harper. They have been reprinted a number of times and are also available on CD-ROM.

Suffrage Newspapers

Rakow, Lana F. and Kramarae, Cheris. The Revolution in Words Righting Women 1868 – 1871. Excerpts and analysis of Stanton and Anthony’s suffrage paper.

Soloman, Martha, editor. A Voice of Their Own: The Woman Suffrage Press, 1840-1910Various authors on the suffrage newspapers.

*Thanks to Mary Huth, Assistant Director, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester, and Barbara Smith of Barbara E. Smith Books

 

Martha Kelly, Gutenberg Books
gtbooks@frontiernet.net

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