History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.
This may sound odd coming from a scholar of women’s history and a newly minted legislator, but I think we’ve heard enough about women’s suffrage.
When New York State recently marked the 100th anniversary of its passage of women’s right to vote, I ought to have joined the celebrations enthusiastically. Not only have I spent 20 years teaching women’s history, but last year’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C. was one of the most energizing experiences of my life. Like thousands of others inspired by the experience, I jumped into electoral politics, and with the help of many new friends, I took the oath of office as a Dutchess County, New York legislator at the start of 2018.
So why do women’s suffrage anniversaries make me yawn? Because suffrage—which still dominates our historical narrative of American women’s rights—captures such a small part of what women need to celebrate and work for. And it isn’t just commemorative events. Textbooks and popular histories alike frequently describe a “battle for the ballot” that allegedly began with the famous 1848 convention at Seneca Falls and ended in 1920 with adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For the long era in between, authors have treated “women’s rights” and “suffrage” as nearly synonymous terms. For a historian, women’s suffrage is the equivalent of the Eagles’ “Hotel California”: a song you loved the first few times you first heard it, until you realized it was hopelessly overplayed.
A closer look at Seneca Falls shows how little attention the participants actually focused on suffrage. Only one of their 11 resolutions referred to “the sacred right to the elective franchise.” The Declaration of Sentiments, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, protested women’s lack of access to higher education, the professions and “nearly all the profitable employments,” observing that most women who worked for wages received “but scanty remuneration.”
Emancipation for Women
Most of all, the Declaration protested coverture, the legal doctrine that treated a married woman’s possessions, wages, body and children as property of her husband, available for him to use as he pleased. Coverture gave husbands total control—from finances and place of residency to wife-beating and marital rape. A wife, as Stanton wrote, was “compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master.”
In using such language, pre-Civil War women’s-rights advocates of course referenced an even more extreme form of oppression, racial slavery, the legal basis for which also rested on men’s control over women. Partus sequitur ventrem—the legal doctrine that “progeny follows the womb”—perpetuated slavery across the generations by assigning infants at birth to their mothers’ owners. (Notoriously, those owners had sometimes fathered the children they claimed as property.) Though mentioned briefly at Seneca Falls, slavery received far more emphasis at the first national women’s-rights convention, held at Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. “The cause we are met to advocate,” Worcester delegates declared, “…bids us remember the million and a half of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women; and in every effort for an improvement in our civilization, we will bear in our heart of hearts the…trampled womanhood of the plantation, and omit no effort to raise it to a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.”
These women never saw suffrage as their only goal or even their main one. The combined injustices of marital coverture, racism, economic oppression and sexual violence were more central to their vision.
Indeed, the 19th Amendment wasn’t a global fix. Passed in the Jim Crow Era, it did little to expand political rights for African-American women in the South, who remained disfranchised until the later civil rights movement. White Southern suffragists, in fact, argued that their states should ratify the amendment because only white women would be enfranchised—and their votes could help bolster white supremacy. In the South, especially, some white women who worked for the vote went on to advocate restrictive anti-immigrant legislation or even join the Ku Klux Klan.
Beyond suffrage, 19th-century American feminists worked more broadly for what they often called “women’s emancipation.” The heroes of that movement include not only Stanton and Susan B. Anthony but also Harriet Jacobs and Frances Watkins Harper, who testified against slavery—including the sexual exploitation of enslaved women and the legal denial of their right to protect their children. After Emancipation, racial-justice activism continued with the leadership of such women as Mary Church Terrell, leader of the National Association of Colored Women and a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Such women always treated racial justice and women’s rights as interlinked goals.
Historians of women’s rights have also devoted much attention lately to the American West. There, removal of native peoples was accompanied by widespread rape of native women as well as sexual exploitation of desperate, often starving, indigenous wives and mothers whose plight was as harrowing as that of any refugee today. In some places (like California, as Stacey Smith shows in her haunting book Freedom’s Frontier), white conquerors undertook the long-term enslavement of indigenous women and children. This history, long soft-pedaled in textbooks, calls our attention to feminist heroes like Paiute activist Sarah Winnemucca and Dakota author Zitkala-Sa.
While American women have never been a unified political force, some began early to work across race and class lines to address shared issues. Before the Civil War, abolitionist women helped build the first cross-racial American movement for social justice. As early as 1848, when Seneca Falls delegates called for access to education and professional careers, working-class women had already launched fights for fair, equal wages and workplaces free of sexual harassment.
The Power of Personal Testimony
Women in these movements sometimes marched, but that was just one arrow in their activist quiver. Personal testimony also played a powerful role in advancing women’s rights. (“Testimony, testimony is the great desideratum,” abolitionist Theodore Weld advised the sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimké, exiles from South Carolina who could speak from personal experience about the horrors of slavery that they witnessed.) In the late 1800s, labor leaders such as Leonora Barry and Eva Valesh interviewed women workers to expose conditions they faced on the job. Journalist Helen Campbell conducted similar investigations in tenement districts, publishing women’s household budgets to show affluent readers what challenges their poorer sisters faced. Author Dorothy Richardson went undercover to work in dangerous and low-paid industries and reported her experiences in The Long Day, published in 1905.
Most courageous were the anti-lynching investigations of African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, who in the 1890s and early 1900s undertook a one-woman crusade to expose the causes of racial violence in the South. Wells proved again and again that lynchings were not precipitated by rape, as Southern apologists claimed, but by whites’ insistence on keeping the political and economic upper hand—and sometimes by their anger at consensual interracial relationships.
On the all-important issues of marriage and coverture, both women and men engaged in direct action. Feminists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell issued the most famous “marriage protest” at their wedding on March 1, 1855, publicly rejecting the fundamental unfairness of Massachusetts marriage law. “While we acknowledge our mutual affection,” they wrote, “by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife,” they vowed to uphold a “great principle” by rejecting all “such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.”
Putting Sex in the Conversation
Given the diverse struggles for women’s emancipation, can we find a coherent way to tell this history that doesn’t overemphasize the fight for the vote? One approach is to reflect on sex and reproduction—issues that suffragists rarely discussed, since only “respectable” women could make claims to civic authority. By the tenets of 19th-century domesticity, such “ladies” could exercise political influence because of their piety, purity and devotion to motherhood and the home. Any hint of sexuality stigmatized women and discredited the causes they worked for. (Given how Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was tainted even by her husband’s infidelities, this seems to be an continuing problem.)
The dilemma wasn’t so obvious in the decades before the Civil War, when “marriage guides” and other information on sexual pleasure and fertility control circulated fairly widely. Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy, the first American birth-control manual, went through dozens of editions after its publication in 1832. Among married couples in the Northeast and parts of the Midwest, abortion became so widely practiced that doctors estimated one in three pregnancies was ending in abortion, obtained through both surgeries and mail-order abortifacient drugs. Lecturers gave talks on family limitation; as April Haynes shows in her book Riotous Flesh, women in Northeastern towns and cities formed “physiological societies” to share information about sexuality, pregnancy and childbirth (though their curriculum included stern warnings about the dangers of masturbation). Many women viewed this as part of their broader campaign for women’s rights.
Two events in the 1870s sharply curtailed such open conversations. First, suffrage activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a temporary but ill-fated alliance with glamorous “free love” advocate Victoria Woodhull during her moment of national celebrity in the 1870s. Stanton, in particular, was smitten by Woodhull’s bold libertarian attack on marriage. “Governments,” Woodhull declared, “might just as well assume to determine how people shall exercise their right to think…as to assume to determine that they shall not love, or how they may love, or that they shall love.” She topped this with a ringing declaration of her own sexual freedom: “Yes, I am a Free Lover. I have an inalienable, constitutional and natural right to love whom I may… ; to change that love every day if I please, and…neither you nor any law you can frame have any right to interfere.”
Woodhull shocked middle-class America, and suffragists who allied with her found themselves alienated from Protestant ministers and other allies. At the same time, discussions of sexuality and reproduction were forced underground by passage of the federal Comstock Act in 1873, championed and then enforced by anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock. Along with similar, often harsher state statutes, the law prevented circulation of any “obscene” materials through the U.S. mail—even private letters describing contraceptive methods. While evidence suggests the law didn’t change Americans’ reproductive practices (use of birth control actually increased in the Comstock era, encouraged after the 1880s by the mail-order availability of reliable, cheap rubber condoms and diaphragms), the Comstock law silenced public discussion of sexuality, contraception and abortion. By deepening shame around those issues, it helped isolate “free love” from the more respectable women’s-rights agenda.
Protesting the Double Standard
That, in part, is why the suffrage narrative ended up dominating the women’s-rights story. Stung by her encounter with Woodhull, Susan B. Anthony in particular became convinced that women’s-rights activists should focus solely on suffrage. In her History of Woman Suffrage and other writings, Anthony rewrote the movement’s early years, arguing that women’s rights had focused from the beginning on the ballot. She downplayed women’s myriad efforts to fight marital coverture, abolish slavery, advance labor rights and work for contraception, abortion and “free love.”
Yet the Declaration of Sentiments remains as testimony to a broader vision. Protesting the sexual double standard, Seneca Falls delegates denounced society for “giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.” They observed that through patriarchal laws, Man “endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy [woman’s] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
We are heirs not just of Anthony’s “suffrage story,” but also of Ida B. Wells, Sarah Winnemucca, Leonora Barry and Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. This history belongs to each of us when we go to the polls and when get out there marching—but also when we volunteer at a local women’s shelter, post a #metoo story or learn how to listen and be better allies to one another.
Our foremothers—and some courageous forefathers, too—offered myriad paths, many ways to work for emancipation. That history, I believe, can help us envision a more expansive future.