A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States



          Onward....Actually, backward.....!
To understand the status and struggles of women during the Progressive period, one has to--you guessed it--go back, in this case to the early 1800's. By that time (if not earlier) women's status had been legally defined in most states.
As you know, most women had no political rights until almost one-quarter of the way into the 20th Century: that is, they lacked the right to vote. Many people, however, don't know that women suffered many more disabilities that this.
When women were married, they entered into a legal status called "civil death." This term means they ceased to exist in the eyes of the law, as far as many of their personal rights went. Here are some examples:

             1) Women lost the right to sue without their husbands permission.
             2) Any wages earned by a woman were considered the property of her 
             3) In the event of divorce, the children went to the husband.
             4) If a husband died without leaving a will, only 10% of the estate--the so-called   "widow's portion"--went to the wife; the rest of the property went to his male  children.
             5) The husband owned any and all property acquired during the marriage.
             6) Women couldn't sign contracts without their husband's permission.
             7) Husbands were given the right to "chastise" (translation: beat) their wives with a stick no thicker than a man's thumb (The origin of the expression:"the rule of thumb"!).

        In short, upon marriage, women became legal "non-persons."  And this situation continued into the post-Civil War period (1865-1890). Not so great, eh?
It's against this backdrop that one must understand the emergence of the first Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) in U.S. history. The immediate cause which stimulated this movement into being was the Abolitionist Movement, the great moral struggle to abolish slavery through petitions and a variety of protests. Incidently, Boston was a center of this movement, which reached its peak in the 1840's and 50's. The story goes like this:

          In the 1840's, two sisters named Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a wealthy South Carolina planter, found themselves the owners of many slaves after their father's death. Morally repulsed by the institution of slavery, they freed their slaves. More than that, the two sisters decided to move north, join the abolitionists and lecture against the evils of slavery, of which they were prime witnesses. They were in for a shock. You are hereby officially in suspense until the next paragraph.
The shock derived from the fact that wherever they spoke, while standing proudly on the platform with other abolitionists, they would be hooted at and jeered. Why? Because of their anti-slavery views? Because they were poor speakers? No, Because they were women, and because being publicly active and speaking out on the issues of the day was not considered a part of "women's proper sphere." If you have already guessed that the "proper sphere" was somewhere considerably closer to the kitchen, give yourself one point and a pat on the back. At any rate, the experiences of these two women underlined an important realization for many abolitionist women; indeed this revelation came (forgive the cliche) with the blinding light of a lightening bolt: women could not even fight for the freedom of others (the slaves) without first winning their own. Thus the idea of women's liberation was born and thus the WLM emerged from the Abolitionist Movement (in much the same way that many of the movements of the 1960's emerged from the Civil Rights Movement).
Not only did women abolitionists get a hard time from the general public, they also got a not-so-pleasant a time from male abolitionists!  Yes, these great white, male champions of justice, who could weep over the plight of the enslaved Blacks, were pretty insensitive to the rights of women. Indeed, these male freedom fighters usually had their female members licking envelopes in some back room. In fact, check out this incredible story. In 1842, a "World Anti-Slavery Conference" was held in London, and two female American abolitionists attended. The good news is that after some struggle, they were admitted as delegates. The bad news is that, in deference to their gender, they were required to sit in the balcony--and behind a curtain! These abolitionists women were further chagrined, when, after the Civil War, they were informed that this was now "the Negro's Hour",  and that the 15th Amendment would give the right to vote only to Black males, not to women of either race.
In 1848, the Women's Movement began to form. It was initiated by Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had recently moved to the small town of Seneca Falls in upstate New York. With a large household to manage, this brilliant advocate of woman's rights found herself increasingly isolated from her friends and completely bored by the endless drudgery of housework. She had many hours to muse about the condition of women in this world, and she decided to do something about it: she issued a call for the first women's rights convention to meet in Seneca Falls in the year mentioned above. (See a recent photo of the historical site of this meeting place). Out of the sometimes stormy convention (some male delegates had walked out) came the Seneca Falls Declaration. It made a penetrating analysis of female oppression. It mentioned the lack of the right to vote, but it went beyond that and protested all the manifold ways that inequality was woven into society through institutions such as marriage, the Church, the law, and even customs of dress. (Please read the preamble to this famous document. Does it sound familiar? It should.)
  Here's the important point. This "Phase I" of the WLM (1848-1890) was not just a suffrage movement, fighting only for the right to vote, but an attempt to entirely transform the status of women in every sphere of life, social, economic, cultural, and political. During Phase I, people like Susan B. Anthony (Stanton's close friend) trudged through snow storms in upstate New York gathering signatures on petitions which called for changes in women's legal status. The Movement met with some success and by the 1870's, she and others had succeeded in undermining some of the "CIvil Death" reality with respect to laws governing divorce, custody, and wages. Twenty years before, Amelia Bloomer has initiated the Dress Reform Movement which encouraged women to wear the "Bloomer costume", specifically designed to allow women more mobility and freedom from physically-constricting corsets and dresses.

The "Bloomer Costume." Judge for Yourself.

          At about the same time that Bloomer was doing her thing, another women's activist, Lucy Stoner, bent her efforts to re-examining the institution of marriage. At her own marriage
ceremony, she shocked the country by making public an agreement between herself and her husband pledging to make their marital relationship one of equality. Moreover she decided to keep her own name. The many women who were inspired to emulate her called themselves "Lucy Stoners." I hope you have gotten the idea that the original women's movement was an all-out attack on sexist American institutions, a veritable feminist revolution, led by middle-class women not traditionally considered radicals. Progress , if slow, was made. These women outraged many, and theirs would be a long, continuing struggle. (If you now examine the sheet of male quotes about women, you will see how deeply embedded in the male mind sexist images of women were--and are).

"Civil Death"
Abolitionist Movement
World Anti-Slavery Convention
The Grimke Sisters
15th Amendment
The "Negro's Hour"
Seneca Fall Declaration and Convention
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Susan B. Anthony
Amelia Bloomer
Lucy Stone
Phase I of the WLM

          Time marches on.....In 1890, Stanton and Anthony organized the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and thus began Phase II of the WLM. What had been a broad attack on sexism wherever it reared its ugly head now became a movement which focused on one issue: suffrage (the right to vote). After struggling for over four decades, feminists had come to the conclusion that until women had gained political power, men could and would frustrate the demands of women for complete liberation.
And so the Suffrage Movement was born. (Incidentally, the women called themselves Suffragists, not Suffragettes, a word which was used as male put-down). There are a few important things to know about NAWSA; it was a middle class organization and quickly was integrated into the Progressive Movement, which made women's right to vote part of its agenda. NAWSA was very low-key, using the gathering of petitions as its main tactic. Somewhere, in some government warehouse, old boxes with thousands of NAWSA petitions are still being stored, covered with dust now. Its main strategy was for women to get the vote through changes in all the different state constitutions. In short, they chose to go the "state route."
Watch out, competition! In 1916 the Suffrage Movement took a more radical, more militant turn. A new organization appeared on the scene, the Women's Party, organized by Alice Paul, who had recently returned from England where she had witnessed and participated in the British women's suffrage struggle, which was a very dramatic, even violent struggle. Paul's group differed from NAWSA in many ways. First, they decided to go the "federal route," to concentrate on getting the Federal Constitution changed since the "state route" was such a long row to hoe. Though still middle class in membership, the Women's Party's tactics were much more militant and dramatic. These tactics included:

1) Direct actions such as demonstrations and dance pageants on the steps of the  capital; also picket lines

2) Getting arrested, refusing bail. Going on hunger strikes (great for sympathetic publicity) followed by highly publicized forced feedings

3) The "Watch Fire" -- this was a small fire they kept going outside the White House   through out WWI. Whenever President Wilson made a speech using the word  freedom," they would burn the speech. And as the President had much  occasion during the war to use that word, the fire burned brightly indeed,  with speeches that the women considered hypocritical. (See our mural)
        Well folks, at this point our story comes to a temporary end, in a minute that is. The national discussion and debate over women's suffrage was reaching a climax. The discussion shaped up like this:


a) The "consent of the governed" argument
b) Women were equal to men, so why not the same rights?
c) Armed with the vote, women could help wipe out vice (prostitution ,alcoholism,etc) and wars
d) Women would help pass more protective social legislation (e.g., child labor laws)
e) Women made many contributions during WWI so they've earned this right
f) Some women argued that their vote would be a counter-balance to the votes of ignorant immigrant and black voters (a racist and nativist argument)
a)  Women's right to vote would break up the family by taking women out into public life
b) Women were too emotional to vote (stay calm, young women in the class)
c) Liquor business interests were afraid that women voters would push too hard for prohibitiond) Machine politicians were afraid that the Machines might be endangered because women voters might not take bribes

          By this time you are probably dying with the suspense, so here's what happened. In 1920, the 19th Amendment -- a one more fruit of the Progressive Movement & Women's Movement -- was ratified. Women won the right to vote. Well almost; it actually wasn't quite that dramatic. From the "Little-Known-Fact Department" comes this news: by the time the Amendment was added to the Constitution,18 of 27 million women of voting age could already vote! How could this be? The states they lived in had already changed their state constitutions to allow women to vote in some or all elections. Oh well. Thus ended Phase II of the WLM. (Phase III would come in the 1960's, when the WLM returned in a radical feminist form.)

"state route"
Women's Party (& tactics)
Alice Paul
"Federal route"
the Pro's and Con's
the Watchfire

          Tune into class, where we will finish talking about women during the Progressive Era. We will then focus on the radical women who roamed through the underside of that period and who weren't quite as respectable and acceptable as the Suffragists had become. Get ready to be shocked, outraged, and sputteringly exasperated.

A Special Note:
Please do remember that when students are being presented a U.S. history that contains much social history and which focuses on groups and classes, women are always present and playing an important role in strikes, movements, wars etc. Same goes for African-Americans. I separate out women and African-Americans
in order to better throw a spotlight on their particular problems,
achievements, and concerns.

Good Night!


All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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