Indiana AAUW

Last Updated November 19, 1999; comments to

Women, Men and Suffrage
Nancy Kohlhoff, Valparaiso branch

(Ed Note: This is the first in a series of our exclusive publication of the manuscript written by Nancy after much research to fill in the gaps left by history books when dealing with women’s issues and their struggle to gain the vote.)

Chapter One

Standard history books traditionally do not include the deeds of women who played important roles in the development of the United States. Over the years, thousands of women worked side-by-side with men in settling the new land and developing its democratic form of government. Some were leaders in reform movements such as abolition and suffrage, which changed the course of the nation's history and resulted in consequences that affect the way Americans live today. Yet, their stories are rarely told, their efforts are undervalued, and their contributions are marginalized.

In response to the silence surrounding woman's past, women scholars since the 1960s have researched, written and published "woman's history" as a separate field of study. To the surprise of many who delved into the subject, a wealth of old books, documents and records were found collecting dust in libraries and private collections throughout the country. These accounts, written long ago by women who actually participated in the historical events they described, are fascinating reading. Left out of the vast historical record of male accomplishments, the women told their own stories.

Remarkable Women

Some years ago when I first began reading woman's history, I fell in love with the human-interest stories surrounding the remarkable women, and men, who initiated and sustained the Suffrage movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. The events they experienced and the ways in which they responded were, to me, wonderfully exciting, often humorous and sometimes poignantly sad. Their "flowery" language, so unlike the way we speak and write today, is as quaintly appealing as the heroines, and heroes, it describes.

And heroes there were, too. As is frequently the case in American history, the true heroes were the ordinary, common men who, despite the uncertainties and hardships of forging the new nation, devoted themselves to the ideas of freedom and equality set forth by the early founders. Historian and biographer Rheta Childe Dorr said it best. "To the everlasting credit of the American Husband let it be remembered that he, first among men, at a time when complete self-suppression was the ideal for wives, granted to his the elemental right to go away from home and talk about themselves!"

Woman’s Rights Convention

In the summer of 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Jane Hunt, Martha C. Wright and Mary Ann McClintock sponsored a Woman's Rights Convention to be held "Wednesday and Thursday, July 19th and 20th current, in the Wesleyan Chapel at Seneca Falls (New York) beginning at 10 o'clock AM." (Seneca County Courier, July 14, 1848 in History of Woman Suffrage vol 1, 67). It would not be inaccurate to say that in those days, when a person or group of people thought there was something important to be said, handbills were printed and sent out calling for a public meeting. That is what these women did, the exception being they were women, not men. Public speaking in 1848 was the exclusive right of males. Female's speaking in public was thought scandalous.

Before the Convention, these women had written out a "Declaration of Rights and Sentiments" patterned after the Declaration of Independence. It began, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…" The "Declaration" actually listed the alleged injuries inflicted upon women by a male-dominated society. It was received with about as much enthusiasm as the British crown received the original Declaration of Independence in 1776.

When the women arrived at the Chapel, a large crowd was gathered outside, many coming simply out of curiosity. Frightened, but at the same time excited, these daring women, carrying their "Declaration," edged their way toward the Chapel door. They could not know what to expect, for any crowd of curiosity seekers contained at least a few roughnecks and rascals.

A ripple of smothered giggles and muffled jeers could be heard when the women, arriving at the church door, found they were locked out. The door to the Chapel was bolted from the inside, probably by a parson who had second thoughts about permitting women to hold a meeting about women in his church. But Elizabeth Stanton, not to be denied, hied her nephew through an open window to unlock it.

Upon entering the Chapel, the women had another moment of near panic. None of them had any experience in conducting a meeting. In planning the Convention, the women had decided that no men would be allowed to participate on the first day. Now, however, it appeared they needed a man's expertise. So they let the men enter and asked James Mott, Lucretia's husband, to chair the first session. James was a very kind man, a Quaker, abolitionist and reformer who believed in equality for females. He graciously agreed, and the first Woman Rights Convention was called to order.

Henry Stanton, Elizabeth's husband, it was observed, left town for the day to avoid embarrassment.

One Voted

Only one woman attended the Convention that day who lived to vote in 1920 when women were finally given the right. Her name was Charlotte Woodward. She was seventeen and a village school teacher living in a boarding house in Waterloo, NY. All the money she earned she was obliged to give to her father who allotted her back what he thought she should have.

Charlotte grew up in the region on a farm with thirteen brothers and sisters. Work was unending and the rewards were never her own. She had no sympathy for slavery and thought Frederick Douglass, a freed black man and editor of the North Star in Rochester, was a hero. As it happened, Douglass attended the Convention, too, and hitched a ride back to Waterloo that evening with Charlotte and her friends in their borrowed farm cart.

Charlotte excitedly told her fellow boarders of the day's events when she returned that night. An eligible young man who listened did not know which was worse, women who demanded rights or women who rode about with a black man. "Young ladies who do such things cannot expect attention from gentlemen," he snobbishly said to her. Charlotte ignored him.

When Charlotte was discovered still living in 1920 when women were enfranchised nationally, she was past her 90th year. When asked if she were going to the polls, she replied sprightly, "I'm going to vote if they have to carry me there on a stretcher!"

(Quotes from Frost, Elizabeth, and Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn, Women's Suffrage In America, An Eyewitness History, Facts on File, New York*Oxford, 1992; Dorr, Rheta C., Susan B. Anthony the Woman Who Changed the Mind of a Nation, AMS Press, New York, 1928; general background from various published sources on woman's history. Copyright 1993)

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