Suffragist City

Suffragist City

Two new books examine the history of the first women’s rights campaign.


This past October, during a brief residency at Cornell University Law School, the retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, accompanied by other female lawyers, visited the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. The group stood on the spot once occupied by the Wesleyan Chapel, which was the place where the Seneca Falls convention issued its “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848. “We read Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech [the Declaration of Sentiments],” she told a Cornell Chronicle reporter. “It was so moving it brought tears to our eyes.” Stanton, daughter and wife of lawyers, had written in the Declaration of how the generic “mankind” had denied to women “all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself.” No women, she continued, were allowed to be teachers of “theology, medicine, or law,” and colleges were closed to them. Considering that O’Connor graduated near the top of her class at Stanford Law School in 1952 but was offered only a position as a legal secretary, is it any wonder she was moved when she heard those words?

More than a decade younger than Justice O’Connor, I too was deeply moved when I first visited the site of the Wesleyan Chapel soon after it opened to the public in the summer of 1993, and to this day in my women’s history courses, I find it hard to keep myself from tearing up when I read Stanton’s famous lines. They deliberately mimic the Declaration of Independence, substituting “man” for George III: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal…. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” When I related this to a few students I took to Seneca Falls myself, they looked surprised. One remarked later that she had felt no special emotion but supposed that she owed her absence of feeling to the success of the women’s rights movement since the 1970s, which meant that she had never had to confront the barriers that O’Connor and, to a lesser extent, women of my generation had faced.

Perhaps my student’s lack of connection to Seneca Falls helps to explain what has been until quite recently a relative dearth of studies of the history of the nineteenth-century movement for women’s political and legal rights, which formally began there in 1848. Before the development of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, the few books available on American women’s history focused almost exclusively on that movement, but between the mid-1970s and the late ’90s, most historians of nineteenth-century American women concentrated on topics like religion, sexuality or immigration, or on women who participated in benevolent associations or abolitionism. Somehow the history of women’s rights seemed as antiquated as Wesleyan Chapel, or at least less urgent than exploring hitherto unknown aspects of nineteenth-century women’s lives.

But that seems to be changing. Groundbreaking books by historians Judith Wellman, Lori Ginzburg and Jean Baker, among others, have appeared in the past few years, and more are in the publication pipeline. Wellman and Ginzburg uncovered important new information about women’s rights activity in upstate New York in the years before 1848, and Baker produced an elegantly written, well-received joint biography of five suffragist leaders. One reason for the renewed focus on the history of the first women’s rights campaign is quite likely a sense that feminism has stalled in the face of a concerted backlash–witness women’s ongoing struggle to break the “glass ceiling” of political and corporate leadership and the considerable success of the antiabortion movement during the past two decades. To contemporary feminists, as to their nineteenth-century counterparts, a woman’s right to control her own body is a fundamental principle. This right was most recently called into serious question by the Supreme Court decision Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), which upheld the federal statute prohibiting so-called “partial-birth” abortion. Such a situation tends to direct historians’ attention to investigations of similar political struggles. Further fueling the renewed interest in American women’s political history is the ongoing effort–under the able editorship of Ann Gordon–to produce a definitive edition of the papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the two key leaders of the women’s rights movement. The fourth and most recent volume of letters and selected speeches appeared in 2006.

Sally McMillen and Allison Sneider draw extensively on the Stanton and Anthony papers in their new books (Sneider worked for a year in the Stanton-Anthony editorial office). Although steeped in primary-source materials, McMillen’s Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement is clearly aimed at a popular or student audience and essentially reworks ground familiar to many historians. Sneider’s Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870-1929 examines a novel topic: the links between the suffrage movement and American expansionist thinking. McMillen’s two previous books focused on the antebellum social history of Southern women. Her rambling, poorly organized introductory chapters reveal that she is less familiar than she should be with current historical scholarship on colonial America, the North and early American political and legal history in general. (Indeed, she reveals that this book grew from a casual conversation with James McPherson of Princeton University, editor of the Pivotal Moments in American History series–of which this book is a part–rather than her own scholarly interests.) But she hits her stride when the narrative reaches the 1830s, ably describing the women who served as lecturers in the antislavery movement and demonstrating how negative public reactions to them as women led them to begin to advocate for women’s rights.

McMillen builds her narrative around four prominent leaders of the women’s rights movement: Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony. She also devotes considerable attention to other activists of the day, such as Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Abby Kelley Foster, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Victoria Woodhull, along with some of their most prominent male allies (for example, Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips). Readers learn more interesting details about the personal traits and experiences of the participants in the story than they would have if McMillen had chosen to emphasize institutional development; but at times the narrative deteriorates into scattered updates on the health and circumstances of her primary subjects, requiring an awkward organizational method that might best be characterized as “meanwhile, back at the ranch. . . .” Occasionally, the stress on personalities leads her to present the disagreements among the movement’s leaders, which were especially pronounced later in the century, as driven largely by petty jealousies, whereas they had originated in serious tactical and strategic disagreements that she inadequately acknowledges.

A crucial turning point came in 1840, when the newlywed Elizabeth Cady Stanton met the older Lucretia Mott at the World Antislavery Convention in London, at which conservative English and American men refused to seat the women who had come from the United States to participate. Mott and Stanton both later recalled that thereafter they agreed they should organize a convention to consider women’s rights. But because of family and other obligations, such a meeting did not occur for another eight years. Early in July 1848, when they were brought together for afternoon tea by a mutual friend, they planned a women’s rights gathering in Stanton’s home village of Seneca Falls.

At conventions that occurred periodically during the next decade, women and men met to debate women’s place in the American polity and society, and Lucy Stone and Susan B. Anthony joined as new recruits. The discussions ranged widely, covering such topics as religion and marriage as well as suffrage and legal status. Since the conventions were open to all comers, opponents of women’s rights often attended to challenge the organizers or to disrupt the proceedings. Still, McMillen contends, there were signs of progress on a number of fronts–until the Civil War erupted in April 1861. Then the women and men of the movement, all Northerners, reoriented their energies and devoted themselves to the war effort and the abolition of slavery.

Following the war, debates over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments (ratified in 1868 and 1870, respectively) led to a major breach in the women’s rights movement. Some leaders–Stanton and Anthony, most notably–insisted that women should be included in the coverage of the amendments intended to ensure suffrage rights for the newly freed slaves; others, led by Stone, agreed with Wendell Phillips that including such a provision would endanger the passage of the amendments and that women should wait their turn. The latter position prevailed. Stanton and Anthony then split organizationally with Stone and her allies, forming the National Woman Suffrage Association (open initially to women only), which gave rise to Stone’s American Woman Suffrage Association (with male and female members). Until 1890 the two groups worked independently for the same goal but with divergent tactics: the AWSA adopted a state-by-state approach and the NWSA focused more of its attention on the federal government. Whereas Anthony concentrated on winning suffrage, Stanton engaged in more wide-ranging activities, including producing her controversial Woman’s Bible, which compiled and reinterpreted numerous biblical passages, including an argument that Adam and Eve were created simultaneously. McMillen ends the book–except for a brief epilogue describing the final victory of women’s suffrage in 1920–with an account of the 1890 reunification of the competing organizations, which she attributes to the rise of a new generation of suffragists for whom the old quarrels meant little, and to the impact of the movement’s achievements, including full or limited female suffrage in several states and territories.

Although McMillen clearly sympathizes with her protagonists and applauds their efforts, she is also honest about their shortcomings. The white, relatively privileged activists, she notes, proposed such reforms as access to better education and professional careers, which meant little to ordinary American women; no wonder, then, that most women responded with indifference, if not hostility, to the activists’ message. McMillen accurately pronounces some of Stanton’s speeches “unquestionably racist and xenophobic” in their complaints that ignorant black and immigrant men had been enfranchised while well-educated white women still lacked the vote. Admitting the “discomfort” Stanton’s words cause the contemporary reader, McMillen offers as a partial excuse the fact that at the time such statements “were commonplace not only for someone of her background and education but also among a broad spectrum of society.” She closes the final chapter on an upbeat note, quoting Stanton at the 1890 convention calling for the enfranchisement of “colored women, Indian women” and “Infidels,” among others.

Yet that positive impression is deceptive, as we learn from Allison Sneider, who details the increasingly vocal racism of the women’s rights movement that developed not only in response to the question of the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men in the United States but also in relation to the acquisition and governance of new imperial territories. Deliberately abandoning the biographical and institutional approach adopted by McMillen and others, Sneider has written an innovative study of the intersections of suffrage and expansionism.

Building her slim volume around episodes of expansion that placed suffrage squarely on the national agenda, Sneider explores the ways women’s rights advocates and other American political leaders came to terms with the implications of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, which for the first time created a national definition of citizenship. Some suffragists claimed voting as a right of national citizenship, but the Supreme Court rejected that argument in Minor v. Happersett (1875). Case closed? Certainly not. When Congress later debated citizenship and the vote for Indians, the disenfranchising of male and female polygamists in Utah Territory and the entry into the Union of the territories of Washington and Wyoming (both of which, like Utah, had enfranchised women), the matter of women’s suffrage necessarily returned to the national stage. Confronted with a choice between maintaining their longstanding insistence on states’ (or territorial) rights over voting and preventing women’s suffrage, Congressional ideologues adopted the latter course, passing laws depriving polygamists and Washington women of the vote. Wyoming did become a state with women’s suffrage in 1890, but only after verbal assurances in Congressional debates that no national precedent was being set.

The issue of women’s enfranchisement next arose in the context of the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars. Suffragists had no unified position on the wars or, for that matter, on the United States’ imperial ambitions; but they concurred that if new territories were to be acquired and retained, their female residents should not be excluded from the franchise. Accordingly, in early 1899 they sent Congress an address they termed the “Hawaiian Appeal.” The “Appeal,” which not surprisingly failed, asked that the word “male” be omitted from the Hawaiian Constitution but specifically admitted that restrictions other than sex (for example, literacy tests) could legitimately be placed on voting “for the time being.” The “Appeal” affirmed the existing disenfranchisement of native Hawaiians and Asian migrants to the islands and revealed the female activists’ abandonment of any commitment to immediate claims of universal suffrage for all disenfranchised peoples under American rule.

As the nation was debating what level of home rule Puerto Rico and the Philippines should have, suffragists drew analogies to women’s political position within the United States. When the issue of women’s enfranchisement arose in the context of territories that were not slated to become states, it was impossible for critics to trot out traditional states’ rights arguments to oppose the idea. In the end, laws were adopted for both jurisdictions and for Hawaii that left women’s suffrage up to local legislators. That outcome, Sneider contends, gave the movement “important national victories…that anticipated the Nineteenth Amendment.” Puerto Ricans were designated US citizens in 1917, but because the wording of the Nineteenth Amendment (ratified in 1920) referred to “states,” female residents of the island had to wait until 1929 for enfranchisement (unless they chose to move to the mainland), and Filipinas did not acquire the vote until 1935.

Although it is dense, episodic and at times hard to follow, especially on the finer points of constitutional history, Sneider’s argument is nonetheless important. She avoids a celebratory tone (indeed, she has a less celebratory tale to tell) and recognizes the links between the racial circumstances of the post-Reconstruction United States and Americans’ attitudes toward the peoples of color who inhabited the newly acquired territories, whether they were on the mainland, in the Caribbean or in the Pacific. She refers frequently to the positions taken by African-American female suffragists, stressing their persistent efforts to win the vote despite being largely ignored or excluded by their white contemporaries, who tended to think in terms of white women and black men. Sneider’s book makes one wonder how much McMillen’s would have benefited from the African-American suffragist Sojourner Truth being one of its biographical focal points.

Scholars will appreciate both McMillen’s accessible narrative and the way Sneider has moved the history of women’s suffrage out of the intellectual cocoon to which it has often been consigned. And average readers, male and female, will learn that struggles for women’s rights and dissent within feminist ranks are nothing new but that, indeed, victories are possible despite seemingly long odds.

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