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Women, Men and Suffrage

Nancy Kohlhoff, Valparaiso branch

(Ed Note: This is the fourth 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 Four

Although wife beating was tacitly sanctioned by most church and civil authorities, married women in the United States in the first half of the 19th century were not routinely beaten with horsewhips by their husbands. Male declarations of superiority as told in the Bible were enough to convince most wives of their subordinate place. The majority of married women, however, did have "the pains of maternity" visited upon them frequently. Even among the educated and more prosperous classes, large families were commonplace.

But the chief concerns of the sponsors of the Convention were not wife beating or unending pregnancies, although they were very much aware of those hardships. The sponsors addressed the plight of women in legal, political and cultural terms. In 1848, the common law, for instance, precluded all women from voting. It also denied married women the right to claim their wages if forced to work outside the home, sue for divorce or claim custody of their children if divorced by the husband. In certain trusts established by equity law, more fortunate married women could own property in their own names or inherit directly. These, however, were the exceptions. By custom, women could not enter colleges or universities, speak in church or in public meetings or enter the professions of law, medicine or theology. However, if happily the owner of some property, by law they were required to pay taxes.

These grievances, frankly stated in the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, threatened or outraged most men who read the document or heard about it. Most women, who accepted their place in society as "fixed by divine decree," were simply shocked. Very few people in the region supported the women who participated in the Convention. But Frederick Douglass, in an editorial which appeared July 28, 1848, in The North Star, did.

A Beginning

Douglass declared the Convention was conducted in a dignified fashion by able women. He recognized there the beginning of a movement for civil, social, political and religious rights for women, but added, "A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the ‘wise’ and the ‘good’ of our land, than would a discussion of the rights of women."

Further, he wrote, "…we are free to say that in respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for woman." And, "…if that government only is just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is that ‘right is of no sex.’ We therefore bid the women engaged in this movement our humble Godspeed."

Some Male Abolitionists

Douglass was one of only a few male abolitionists who advocated equality for the sexes as well as equality for the races. Most abolitionists would gladly free the slaves, but not so gladly their wives and daughters. They denied there was an analogy between the status of slaves and the status of women. But Douglass, a black man and an oppressed minority, had experienced discrimination first hand. He knew.

Speaking for the majority, the Rev. Henry Bellows commented in the Christian Inquirer, "Place woman unbonneted and unshawled before the public gaze, and what becomes of her modesty and her virtue?" He was referring to a few women reformers who dared to wear "bloomers," a costume of pantaloons with a knee-length overdress which enabled them more easily "to scurry up and down stairs with a baby in one hand and a candle in the other."

Elizabeth Stanton

But Elizabeth Stanton was not put off by lack of modesty and virtue. In the fall of 1848, she wrote to George G. Cooper, editor of the National Reformer, "We did not meet to discuss fashions, customs, or dress,…but simply our own inalienable rights, our duties, our true sphere."

Only 32 years old, married and the mother of three children, Elizabeth was the daughter of wealthy parents and "the product of a privileged childhood." Instead of the legal education she desired, however, she was sent to Emma Willard’s seminary for girls where she graduated in 1833.

At 17, she was "single though eligible for marriage" and was not required to support herself by teaching, sewing or factory work, the most common means of self-support for females who were not wealthy or the product of a privileged childhood.

During a brief interval after her schooling, she joined a church auxiliary and helped finance the education of a young minister. She assisted with "sewing, baking, brewing and stewing, fairs, socials" and other projects to raise money to support him. When he graduated, the women presented him with a "new suit, a high hat and a cane" and invited him to their home congregation to preach.

Unwisely, the young minister chose as the text for his sermon, "I suffer not a woman to speak in church." According to Elizabeth’s autobiography written years later, she and the other young women in the audience got up and walked out.

Some of Elizabeth’s biographers say the tale is too pat to be trusted, but throughout her life she demonstrated great disdain for the patronizing treatment of female parishioners by the then all-male clergy. During the last years of her long life, Elizabeth published her own version of scriptures, The Woman’s Bible. It scandalized the respectable, middle-class women who had by that time come into the woman’s movement and nearly caused a split in the membership of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association. It was never accepted as a serious piece of Biblical scholarship even though it was a "best seller, went through seven printings and was translated into several languages."

(Quotes from Frost, Elizabeth, and Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn, Women’s Suffrage In America, An Eyewitness History, Facts on File, New York*Oxford, 1992; Griffith, Elizabeth, In Her Own Right, Oxford University Press, 1984; general background from various published sources on woman’s history. Copyright 1993)

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