The Nineteenth Century
During the Colonial era and the first decades of the Republic, there were always women who strove to secure equal rights for themselves. Some assumed the business interests of a husband after his death. A few women challenged male domination of religious life, though they met with criticism from their communities—or banishment, as in the case of Anne Hutchinson. Women were also active in the fight against the Crown and organized boycotts of British goods. During the struggle for independence, prominent females such as Abigail Adams wrote and spoke privately about the need for male leaders to rectify the inferior position of women, promising rebellion if their words were not heeded. But only later, over the course of the nineteenth century, did women's demands for equal rights change from a series of isolated incidents to an organized movement. This movement was far from unified, however; strife and division often arose as activists faced the difficulties of meeting the diverse needs and priorities of the women of America.
Enormous changes swept through the United States in the nineteenth century, altering the lives of women at all levels of society. The country moved away from an agrarian, home-based economy and became increasingly industrialized. Beginning in the 1820s, many white single women found work in the mills that opened across the Northeast, where they often lived in boarding houses owned by their employers. As working-class women and men of all classes began to work outside the home, middle-class women were increasingly associated with, and confined to, the domestic sphere. Prescriptive literature defined the ideal middle-class wife as pious, pure, and submissive. Her main responsibilities consisted of creating a haven away from the harsh workplace in which her husband toiled and raising virtuous, productive citizens of the Republic.
The new century saw changes in the lives of female slaves as well, when on 1 January 1808 the importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed. In response, slaveowners placed increased pressure on enslaved women to produce children. They also subjected these women to sexual advances against which they had little defense.
The changing nature of women's lives helped create the circumstances that allowed them to begin to act politically, on their own behalf and for others. "Mill girls" often worked long hours under dangerous conditions. By the 1830s female workers were organizing protests in an attempt to improve their work environment and wages. Middle-class women's role in the home, on the other hand, led them to develop a sense of themselves as members of a cohesive group; this consciousness would later translate, for some, into the idea that they could collectively demand rights. Concern about the urban poor, moreover, allowed middle-class women to engage in charity work and temperance campaigns, in which they saw themselves as working toward the "moral uplift" of society in the same way that they cared for the moral wellbeing of their families at home. While coded as domestic and benevolent, these campaigns gave women a public voice and significant social power.
Women's work in the abolitionist movement played a particularly important role in the creation of an organized women's rights movement. Early organizers for women's rights began by working with black women who had escaped slavery and wanted to learn how to read and write. The women who first spoke in public about slavery and female abuse were viciously attacked, and those who organized schools in the early 1800s met with incessant harassment. Black women, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs, fought for the rights of both their race and their sex, while also fighting the often condescending attitudes of white activists who saw themselves as the sole liberators of passive, childlike slaves.
For white women like Lydia Maria Child and Sarah Grimké, campaigning for abolition made them aware of their own lack of rights, and the sexism they found within the abolitionist movement sharpened this awareness. In 1840 the organizers of the World Antislavery Convention in London refused to seat female delegates, including the American activist Lucretia Mott. Before leaving England, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose husband was a delegate at the convention, decided to launch a campaign for woman's rights on their return to the United States. On 19 and 20 July 1848 Mott and Stanton's plan reached fruition, as they staged the country's first formal women's rights convention (see Seneca Falls Convention). Three hundred people gathered in Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, where they ratified the Declaration of Sentiments. Based on the Declaration of Independence, the document proclaimed that men and women were "created equal," and that women should therefore have legal and social parity with men, including the right to vote. The declaration was greeted with a storm of criticism in newspapers and from religious leaders. By 1850, however, activists had organized similar gatherings in Ohio and Massachusetts and established an annual Woman's Rights Convention.
The campaign for dress reform became closely associated with the women's rights movement, as advocates such as Amelia Bloomer argued that the tight clothing women wore—especially whalebone corsets—was unhealthy and restrictive (see Bloomers). Many early women's rights advocates also became involved in spiritualism, a belief system based on direct communication with God and the dead, which offered women a greater voice in their religious life than did the male hierarchies of the Christian churches.
The events of the Civil War and Reconstruction dramatically affected the women's rights movement. As tensions between North and South intensified in the late 1850s, many women activists decided to devote themselves purely to abolition, until slavery had ended in the United States. After the Civil War, many women returned to the fight for women's rights, but new tensions soon split the movement. Radical Republicans lobbying for black male suffrage attacked women's rights advocates, believing that to demand the vote for women hurt their cause. Some women's rights activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, turned to the Democratic Party, portions of which supported white woman suffrage in order to stop black men from securing the vote. In 1869 Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which focused on enfranchising white women; they insisted on female control of the organization and focused their energies on action at the federal level. Soon thereafter, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed as a rival group, turning to
Republican and abolitionist men for leadership and agreeing to place black male suffrage ahead of votes for women, white or black, and to work at the state level. Both groups chose suffrage as their main issue, stepping back from an earlier, broader based agenda.
The women's rights movement continued to transform itself and to weather divisive tensions. In 1890 the two rival suffrage associations merged, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Both constituent groups, despite their differences, had originally based their case for woman suffrage on the argument that men and women were naturally equal. Even as the two groups consolidated their strength, this view lost political ground, and older advocates found themselves replaced by younger, more conservative suffragists. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Young Women's Christian Association, and hundreds of other women's clubs began to focus on winning the vote, as they came to believe they could not accomplish their goals without official political power. The National Association of Colored Women, formed in part due to the exclusion of black women's clubs from the General Federation of Women's Clubs (formed in 1890), became a central player in fostering the black woman suffrage movement. While these clubs had different agendas, many of their members believed that the vote would allow women to bring their moralizing influence to bear on the problems of society; in other words, women should have the right to vote not because they were the same as men, but because they were different.
Despite the new interest from clubwomen, the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth proved disappointing for advocates of woman's suffrage. Although there were some victories early in this period—by 1896, women in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah could vote and a few Midwestern states had enfranchised women in school and municipal elections—the suffrage movement would not enjoy another major victory until 1910. Racial and ethnic prejudice continued to haunt and divide the movement. As Southern women became more involved in the suffrage issue, many white suffragists began to court Southern politicians by portraying woman's suffrage as a method to secure white supremacy. African American women, in response, formed their own suffrage organizations. Some advocates also argued that female enfranchisement would allow educated native-born women—and their middle-class concerns—to overrule the growing immigrant vote.
As suffragists fought amongst themselves, they also fought an active anti-suffrage campaign. Because many feminists were also socialists, and because women workers often earned minimal wages, business interests solidly opposed the women's movement. The liquor industry, alarmed by the coalition between temperance advocates and the suffrage movement, campaigned particularly vigorously against the vote for women. Many females joined the anti-suffrage forces as well, arguing that women did not desire the vote.
In early decades of the twentieth century several suffragists introduced new approaches that both reinvigorated and once again divided the movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women in 1907, bringing females from all classes and backgrounds together to work for suffrage. The League organized large, lavish suffrage parades that brought publicity and respect to the cause. Carrie Chapman Catt, who served as the president of NAWSA between 1900 and 1904, recruited both college-educated professionals and socially prominent women to the campaign. In 1912, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns took over NAWSA's Congressional Committee. The movement had employed a state-by-state strategy since the 1890s, hoping eventually to secure woman suffrage nationwide, but Paul and Burns believed only a push for a federal constitutional amendment would bring about victory. The two women also believed in more aggressive tactics than those employed by their parent organization, including picketing the White House and hunger strikes. Eventually Paul and Burns broke with the NAWSA, forming the Congressional Union (later the National Woman's Party) in 1914.
Despite the split, the woman's suffrage movement had become a vital force. When Catt returned to the NAWSA presidency in 1915, she emphasized the importance of both state and national activity. Women in Arizona, California, Kansas, Oregon, and Washington had secured the vote by 1912; by 1913, Illinois women could vote in presidential elections. In January 1918 the House of Representatives passed the Nineteenth Amendment, sometimes known as the Anthony Amendment; a year and a half later, the Senate passed it as well. Suffragists worked tirelessly for the next year to obtain ratification by the required 36 states. On 26 August 1920 American women finally had the right to vote.
While the women's rights movement focused its energies mainly on suffrage after 1869, it both fostered and was fed by other changes in women's lives. Women's access to higher education expanded, as both single-sex and coeducational institutions opened their doors (see Education, Higher: Women's Colleges). As a result, females could begin to enter, at least in small numbers, traditionally male professions, becoming authors, doctors, lawyers, and ministers. Women also became involved in other political causes, especially labor issues, and opened settlement houses to aid the poor. Although American women had not achieved equality, by 1920 they had traveled far.
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