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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
REMEMBER THE LADIES
by Janelle Collett

"Created Equal": The Movement for Women's Suffrage

Seventy-two years after Abigail Adams asked her husband to "remember the ladies," a group composed of two-hundred women and forty men met in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss the rights of women in America. (i) Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the Seneca Falls Convention helped lay the foundation for the nineteenth-century women’s rights struggle. In their “Declaration of Sentiments,” the activists called upon the rhetoric of the Revolution, declaring that “all men and women are created equal,” and listing eleven resolutions. (ii) The most heavily debated resolution asserted that women had a “sacred right to the elective franchise.” (iii)

Throughout the 1850’s, women continued to meet in conventions and less formal gatherings to discuss their economic, educational, political, legal, and familial rights. The women, who were mostly white and middle class, participated in a broad spectrum of protest movements, fighting against alcohol and slavery, and for the rights of immigrants and the poor. All of these movements gave women the opportunity to develop and sharpen organizational and ideological skills. However, women were often discouraged or even barred from holding positions of power equal to those of their male counterparts. Thus, women began to focus more and more on their own status in America.

When the women’s movement emerged, it, and one of its main goals, proved quite controversial. The possibility of women’s suffrage stirred fear in Victorian society. According to the rules of Victorian America, men and women were supposed to remain in separate spheres – women in the private sphere of home and domesticity, and men in the public sphere of work and politics. Women taking an interest in the rights of other groups – slaves, poor immigrants, and families of alcoholics – fit with Victorian ideology because the women protested on behalf of others. In other words, the women protestors could be seen as simply extending their nurturing, mothering instincts to the public. Voting, however, was a right claimed for women in order to aid women. Such self-serving sentiments shocked a society in which women were valued most for quiet self-sacrifice and humble endurance.

Indeed, protests against women’s suffrage often came from women. These women believed that God had entrusted them with certain duties, and that enfranchisement would lead to the destruction of their sacred role as mother and housewife. They also felt that the proper way to exercise influence over the public sphere was through raising patriotic sons. (iv) Women’s suffrage was so radical a concept that women themselves feared it as a threat to the foundation of American society, the family.

Ironically, the anti-suffrage women who based their feminine ideals on morality and piety found allies with the liquor interests, who associated the temperance movement with the suffrage movement. However, they allied also with the Catholic Church and other similarly conservative groups that clung to traditions of inequality.

Even within the suffrage movement, divisions emerged. Though the women had a common goal, they did not share identical notions of how to achieve that goal. One of the major splits came over the Fourteenth Amendment, which used the word “male” to refer to a citizen’s voting rights. A number of suffragists, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, protested the amendment and widened a rift between women’s suffrage supporters and African American suffrage supporters. Frederick Douglass was one of the African American men alienated from the movement, declaring that it was “the Negro’s hour,” and that women, of all races, would have to wait. (v)

African American women, such as Sojournor Truth, found themselves caught between their race and their sex. This conflict and others led to a split in the women’s suffrage movement in 1869. While Anthony and Stanton led a faction still fighting for a national amendment, others focused on winning enfranchisement state-by-state. (vi)

By 1890, the suffrage movement was united again. More moderate, younger women gradually replaced the radical leadership of Stanton and Anthony, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association. White, middle-class women still dominated the movement, and even based their claim for suffrage on the assumption that their votes were needed to counteract the votes of ‘ignorant’ immigrant men in urban slums. (vii) It was under the leadership of these women that the movement finally achieved its goal – in 1920, an amendment to the Constitution guaranteed American women the right to vote.

Though earning the vote marks a landmark in the struggle for women’s rights, the suffragists found that their fight certainly did not end with the nineteenth amendment. Economic, familial, and legal inequalities abounded. Slowly, however, women won struggles in courts, in legislation, and in their homes. What the suffragists discovered, and what we are all bound to discover, is that while each struggle may be an exhausting battle, each victory brings us closer to winning the war.

Endnotes:
i. Sara M. Evans Born for Liberty, A History of Women in America. (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997) pp.94-95.
ii. Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Major Problems in American Women’s History. (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996). p.167.
iii. Mary Beth Norton and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Major Problems in American Women’s History. (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996). p.167.
iv. Jane Camhi Women Against Women. (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1994) pp.4-7.
v. Gary B. Nash and Julie Roy Jeffrey The American People. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986) p.544.
vi. ibid. pp.544-545.
vii. ibid. p.644.

Sources
1. Camhi, Jane Women Against Women. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing Inc., 1994.
2. Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty, A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.
3. Nash, Gary B. and Julie Roy Jeffrey The American People. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986.
4. Norton, Mary Beth and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Major Problems in American Women’s History. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at jcollett@email.msn.com.

 

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