Indiana AAUW
Last Updated January 6, 2000; comments to

Women, Men and Suffrage

Nancy Kohlhoff, Valparaiso branch

(Ed Note: This is the sixth 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 Six

The movement for woman’s rights which was entangled with abolition from the beginning of the century had no impetus until Elizabeth Stanton took the lead. She was not the first to "analyze critically the plight of women and enumerate the changes needed to raise them from domestic servitude" to positions of equality with men. But, unlike most other reformers, Elizabeth believed reform must include more than the vote and property rights for women. She wanted to collapse the patriarchy, to remove the very underpinnings of entrenched social and religious customs. That was enough to keep her in conflict most of the time with relatives, friends and enemies.

In her letters, articles and speeches, Elizabeth boldly stated contraception should be available to women. The practice, barely discussed by respectable people in her time, was denounced by the clergy and most people living then who had ever had the good fortune to hear of it. She also said divorce should be obtained easily and custody of children awarded to their mothers. Consumption of alcohol, without government regulation or local control, was a serious social problem in the 19th century. Elizabeth observed the plight of women and children deprived of food, clothing and shelter, as well as their subjection to physical and emotional abuse, because of the excessive drinking habits of husbands and fathers. Yet, the law allowed that fathers, even though they may have abandoned the family, owned their children. It was common practice for custodial fathers to "farm out" their children for wages which were then collected by the drunkards and used to sustain their debilitating habits.

Elizabeth also argued that men whose wives worked for wages should not be allowed to collect those wages. She scorned husbands who came to the factories and mills on payday, took their wives’ earnings and spent the money gambling or at the local saloon before their wives had returned home after a twelve-hour-a-day, six-day work week. She demanded equal pay for women for equal work. A woman then was paid about one-quarter what a male earned for doing the same job. She advocated labor unions for the working poor, including men and women.

Women? College?

Elizabeth advocated admission of women into higher education. Until 1833, when Oberlin College admissions policy made "no distinction to color or sex," no college or university in the country which admitted men, admitted women. In 1838, Zeruiah Porter became the first woman to graduate from Oberlin although she completed only the "Literary Course," not the regular college course which men took. Elizabeth believed schools should be co-educational and provide the same training for females that was provided for males. She thought women should participate in sports, ride bicycles and exercise vigorously.

Elizabeth raised seven children but very infrequently left her home for public activity until she was fifty, when her last child became independent. However, she held controversial views on child rearing, too. She said babies should not be swaddled, as was the custom. She wanted them to be bathed daily and taken outside for sunshine and fresh air. She also encouraged mothers to give their infants water to drink in addition to their regular diet. She did not believe in corporeal punishment, but said children could be disciplined by reason and persuasion.

She thought the wale-boned corsets worn by young girls and women dislodged every vital organ in the female body, and she refused to wear them. About the only custom Elizabeth did not defy was women’s long dress. Although she wore the "bloomer" costume or "free dress" for several years, she finally gave it up because she thought it diverted attention from more important reforms for women. Women appearing in public in the bloomer dress were frequently jeered by passers-by and pelted with rotten fruit or vegetables by rowdy street urchins.

Because of her outspoken challenge to the status quo, Elizabeth was suspect to nearly every segment in society. Politicians, physicians, clergymen, businessmen and most women denounced her radical views. Although there was never a public rift between Elizabeth and Henry, he seemed to copy best by ignoring her and keeping his distance.

Progress at last

Nevertheless, throughout the years, people were reading her essays and listening to her speeches. As she grew older, her reputation remained essentially unaltered, but the people did not. She had changed the way people thought. Her 80th birthday was celebrated in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. A well-known newspaper editor paid her this tribute: "Every woman who seeks the legal custody of her children; who finds the door of a college or university open to her; who administers a post-office or a public library; who enters upon a career of medicine, law or theology; who teaches school or tills a farm or keeps a shop or rides a bicycle—every such woman owes her liberty largely to yourself and to your earliest and bravest co-workers."

During her last years, Elizabeth, then widowed, dwelt on woman’s self-reliance. In looking back over her life, it occurred to her that she had managed by her robust energy, intelligence, good-natured wit, and her own spiritual and moral strengths. Henry, always an advocate of equality in the abstract, apparently never made the connection between equality in the marriage and harmony in the home.

In her most famous speech, "The Solitude of Self," she said, (in abbreviate form) "No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men prefer to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone. The talk of sheltering woman from the fierce storms of life is sheerest mockery, for they beat on her just as they do on man. Whatever the theories may be of woman’ dependence on man, in the supreme moments of her life he cannot bear her burdens. [In] the tragedies and triumphs of human experience each mortal stands alone. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in government, in religion, in social life, is because she must relay on herself."

(Quotes from 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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