Women's Suffrage: How the Woman Suffrage Movement Began

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff
by Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler
Why the Book is Written
The Averted Triumph

How the Woman Suffrage Movement Began

When, during the last decade, the great suffrage parades,-armies of women with banners, orange and black, yellow and blue and purple and green and gold,-went marching through the streets of the cities and towns of America; when “suffrage canvassers,“ knocking at the doors of America, were a daily sight; when the suffragist on the soap box was heard on every street corner; when huge suffrage mass meetings were packing auditoriums from end to end of the country; when lively “suffrage stunts“ were rousing and stirring the public; when suffrage was in everybody's mouth and on the front page of every newspaper, few paused to ask how it all started, where it all came from. It was just there, like breakfast.

To the unimaginative man on the street corner, watching one of those suffrage parades, the long lines of marching women may have seemed to come out of no-where, to have no starting place, no connection with his grandmother and his great grandmother. To the same man the insistent tapping of those suffrage canvassers, the commotion of the suffrage mass meetings, the repetition of those suffrage stunts, the incessant news of suffrage in the daily press, may have seemed unrelated acts, irrelevant to social history. Yet it was all part of social history, and had immediate connection with other phases of social history. For the demand for woman suffrage was the logical outcome of two preceding social movements, both extending over some centuries: one, a man movement, evolving toward control of governments by the people, the other a woman movement, with its goal the freeing of women from the masculine tutelage to which law, religion, tradition and custom bound them. These movements advanced in parallel lines and the enfranchisement of woman was an inevitable climax of both.

Neither the man movement nor the woman movement had a dated beginning. In the struggle upward toward political freedom, men were called upon to overthrow the universally accepted theory of the Divine Right of Kings to rule over the masses of men; women, the universally accepted theory of the Divine Right of Men to rule over women. The American Revolution forever destroyed the Divine Right of Kings theory in this country, but it left untouched the theory of the Divine Right of Man to rule over woman. Men and women believed it with equal sincerity, the church taught it, customs were based upon it, the law endorsed it, and the causes which created the belief had been so long lost in obscurity that men claimed authority for it in the “laws of God.“ All opposition to the enfranchisement of women emanated from that theory.

Students of human progress might have predicted at the inception of the American Republic that, should it continue, universal manhood and womanhood suffrage would become inevitable. The official announcement of the causes that led the American patriots into revolution emphasized two maxims as explanatory of all their grievances, namely, “Taxation without representation is tyranny“ and “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.“ Although in the minds of the Colonists these aphorisms undoubtedly were limited in application to the relation which the Colonies bore to their Mother Country, it was as clear to individual men and women then, as to hundreds of thousands of them a hundred and forty years later, that a nation that proclaimed these principles upon the one hand and denied them upon the other, applied them to men and refused to apply them to women, presented so untenable an inconsistency that sooner or later professions and deeds would have to be squared.

Yet not only was the battle for woman suffrage fought longer in the United States, it was fought harder. It engaged the lifelong energies of a longer list of women, called into action a larger organization in proportion to population, and involved a greater cost in money, personal sacrifice and ingenuity, than the suffrage campaign of any other land. And when, in 1920, the final victory came to the woman suffrage cause in the land of its birth, the rejoicing was sadly tempered by the humiliating knowledge that twenty-six other countries had outdistanced America in bestowing political liberty upon their women. More, American suffragists knew that their victory had, even then, been virtually wrung from hesitant and often resentful political leaders, while the vote had come to the women of many other lands as a spontaneous and liberal concession to the common appeal for justice; and that, too, without serious effort on the women's part.

The delay in America was not due to the retarded growth of the general woman movement, for the rate of progress of that movement had been more rapid in the United States than in any other country, as a brief review will show.

Taking the year 1800 as a fixed point from which to measure progress, the investigator will find the civil and legal status of women practically the same as that of several preceding centuries, although there were signs of a coming revolt, and in North America the personal liberty of women had been much extended under the influence of the freer institutions of the Western Hemisphere. Married women at that date were not permitted in any country except Russia to control their property nor to make a will; to all intents and purposes they did not own property. The Common Law in operation in Great Britain and the United States held husband and wife to be “one, and that one the husband.“ The legal existence of the wife was so merged in that of her husband that she was said to be “dead in law.“ Not only did the husband control the wife's property, collect and use her wages, select the food and clothing for herself and children, decide upon the education and religion of their children, but to a very large extent he controlled her freedom of thought, speech and action. The husband possessed the right to will the children, even unborn children, to other guardians. If the wife offended the husband, he possessed the legal right, upheld by public opinion, to punish her, the courts interfering only when the chastisement exceeded the popular idea of appropriate severity. Humane, affectionate husbands treated their wives as loved companions, and there were happy wives and homes, but upon the wives of fickle, ignorant, brutal husbands, always numerous, the oppression of the law fell with crushing force.

Although single women were legally as independent as men, it was contrary to accepted form for them to manage their own business affairs. What women were unaccustomed to do the world believed them incapable of doing, and they had in consequence neither confidence in themselves nor public encouragement to attempt ventures of independence. Very few occupations were open to women and these were monopolized by the poor. It was accounted a family disgrace for women of the middle or upper classes to earn money. The unmarried woman of such classes, dubbed “old maid,“ forbidden by public opinion to support herself, even were work and wages available, became a dependent in the home of her nearest male relative. Pitied because she had never “had a chance,“ regarded with contempt as one of the world's derelicts, she was condemned to a life of involuntary service, and the fact that she legally possessed property enough to insure her independence did not greatly alter her status.

In the church, then a far greater power in the making of opinion than now, women with few exceptions were not allowed to preach, sing, pray, testify or vote. During church services women were seated upon one side, and men upon the other in order that “men might commend themselves to God without interruption.“

It was “indelicate“ for a woman to appear upon a business street without a male escort or to go to a bank to transact business, and any woman seen unattended upon the street after dark was regarded with suspicion. No college in the world admitted women, and there were no high schools for girls. It was the universal belief that Greek and higher mathematics, then the two chief corner stones of the collegiate curriculum, were utterly beyond the capacity of women. Convents and boarding schools wherein girls of wealth were educated taught nothing more than the rudiments of learning, with so-called “accomplishments.“ The daughters of the poor received no education at all.

It recital of the legal and social disabilities of women at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century is shocking to modern thought, but it conveys only a partial understanding of the timid, self-distrustful, untrained character of the average woman of the day. Taught that it was unwomanly to hold opinions upon serious subjects, that men most admired clinging weakness in women, and that woman's one worthy ambition was to secure men's admiration, it is no wonder that women made little effort to think for themselves.

An English book which appeared at this time, Dr. Gregory's “Legacy to My Daughters,“ and which was much read on both sides of the Atlantic and recommended by the clergy as expressing the correct attitude for women, said: “If you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from men, who look with a jealous, malignant eye on a woman of great parts and a cultivated understanding.“ The author counseled girls “not to dance with spirit when gaiety of heart would make them feel eloquent, lest men who beheld them might either suppose that they were not entirely dependent on their protection for their safety or entertain dark suspicions as to their modesty.“

The philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, which had largely influenced the thought of France during the closing years of the eighteenth century, was still representative of thought and feeling in the beginning of the nineteenth. With regard to women Rousseau had said: “The education of women should always be relative to that of man. To please Us, to be useful to Us, to make Us love and esteem them, to educate Us when young, to take care of Us when grown up, to advise, to console Us, to render Our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times and what they should be taught from their infancy.“

In reply “The Vindication of Women“ was wrung from Mary Woolstonecraft. Her eloquent appeal for larger opportunities for women was received in the hostile spirit with which the world receives all new ideas, and Horace Walpole doubtless reflected public opinion when he called her a “hyena in petticoats.“

In the Western World there were more robust signs of coming change. Mistress Brent, a relative of Lord Baltimore and the owner of a vast estate in Maryland, not only demanded a voice in the State Assembly, composed of land holders, but defended her contention with so much spirit and logic as to create a lively if unsuccessful debate in that body and all of its constituencies. In March, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote her husband, when he was sitting with the Continental Congress, “I long to hear you have declared an independency, and, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound to obey any laws in which we have no voice or representation.“

In New Jersey, tax-paying women were granted the vote by the constitution of July 2, 1776, two days before the Declaration of Independence was declared. In 1790 and 1797 legislative enactments confirmed them in the right. The vote was taken from them by the Legislature in 1807, and the explanation was that although qualified women had used the vote quite generally, they had not supported the right candidates in the election. The legislators therefore sought and won a party advantage by the disfranchisement of electors who had voted against them!

It was upon such signs and portents that the curtain of the nineteenth century rose; the century which the prophetic voice of Victor Hugo proclaimed the “Century of Woman.“

Of special significance were the indications of a definite movement in the United States for education for girls. School Districts taxed their own residents for the maintenance of schools. As it cost more to build schoolhouses large enough for both boys and girls than for boys alone, the discussion was at once precipitated as to whether “schools for she“ should be maintained, the liberal-minded contending for them and the conservative and ungenerous against them.

Many districts compromised by permitting girls to attend school in summer months when boys vacated seats to work on the farms. In Boston, from 1789 to 1822, girls were allowed to attend the public schools under this rule, although for a portion of the time an exception was made and they were admitted for two hours in the afternoon after the boys had gone home. In 1826, Boston, amid a storm of opposition, opened a high school for girls, but yielded to hostile clamor and closed it in 1828. It had been an “alarming success“; the school had been full and not a girl had quitted it in the eighteen months of its existence, in spite of the persecution of doubters.

The discussion of educational opportunity for women received a fresh impulse when it was proposed to include geography in the instruction of girls. The proper schedule for girls was held to be confined to the three R's, “Readin', 'Ritin' and 'Rithmetic,“ with some knowledge of a fourth R, Religion; so a battle royal was fought around geography. Girls whose parents approved the innovation were chased from the schoolhouse to their homes by bands of rollicking boys, throwing dirt, stones or snow balls, and shouting in tones of derision-“Geography girl, Geography girl! There goes a Geography girl.“

It was not uncommon for a teacher to give private instruction to girls after school hours, and consequent “Dame Schools“ for girls, that is, teaching by women in their own homes, sprang up in all parts of the country in response to the demand. In time women began teaching in country districts during summer months when schools were small, one dollar a week and “boarding round“ being considered good terms for such teachers. In 1821 the Troy Female Seminary was opened by Mrs. Emma Willard, the first institution in the United States offering “higher education“ to women. It became an immediate storm centre of abuse. The complainants charged that time was wasted in teaching girls two subjects utterly nonsensical for them to know, physiology and mathematics. A struggle similar to that which brought geography into the list of subjects permissible for a girl's education was next waged around physiology. As late as 1844, when an exceedingly gifted woman, Paulina Wright Davis, attempted to lecture on physiology and used a manikin for illustration, she reported that so “indelicate was the theme considered that women frequently dropped their veils, ran out of the room or even fainted.“ Mary Gore Nichols, another gifted woman, also gave lectures on anatomy and received similar condemnation for the “indelicacy“ of the act. A graduate of Troy Seminary [1]* gave evidence in after years of the custom, inaugurated during the controversy, of pasting thick paper over illustrations of the human body in text books on physiology, in order that the modesty of young girls might not be shocked. The graduates of Mrs. Emma Willard's school seem to have felt the responsibility of extending the study of physiology, for they introduced it later into their own schools, yet several reported that visiting mothers on examination day left the room in a body when the examination in physiology was called. Of two clergymen visitors at the Willard school one was as incensed as the other at the “unwarranted attempt to teach girls higher mathematics.“ But their reasons were different. One contended that as the female mind was incapable of comprehending mathematics, any effort to teach it to girls was opposing nature and God's will. The other declared, as vehemently, that young women might become so enamored of mathematics that they would employ all their time in solving abstruse problems in algebra and geometry, to the exclusion of proper attention to husbands and babies.

Thus, popular ideas concerning education for girls slowly evolved from the zero point of no education to the acknowledgment of a girl's right to acquaintance with the four R's to be gained in free public primary schools; from the four R's to the inclusion of geography; from geography to physiology; from physiology to higher mathematics and high schools,-each new step being an outpost around which intolerant and bitter controversy raged.

After 1800 the legal disabilities of women also began to receive attention. In 1809 Connecticut gave married women the right to make a will. From that date legislative changes concerning the civil status of women were frequent. Southern states deserve the honor of a share in the leadership of the advanced legislation. The first of all States to grant the married woman the right to control her own property was Mississippi. The third State to give married women the right to make a will was Texas (1840); the fourth Alabama (1843); and the first suffrage for women in the United States, after New Jersey, was the school suffrage granted by Kentucky to widows with children in 1838.

Possibly the most permanent factor in giving impulse to the woman movement came with the announced and undisputed discovery by Von Baer, a German scientist, that the protoplasm of the ovule, the reproductive cell of the maternal organism, contributed at least half to the structure of the embryo child. Before that date it had been held that the mother had no essential share in the formation of the child, the comparison being usual that “man was the seed and woman the soil.“ The proof of “at least“ equal physical responsibility of parents opened the question of the extent of the mental and moral responsibility resting upon the mother, and by degrees this reversal of theory concerning fatherhood and motherhood changed the attitude of educated men toward all phases of the woman question.

At about this date Margaret Fuller upset the conventions of the staid City of Boston by sitting down at a table in a public library to read a book.

Meanwhile two great reforms were rapidly pressing forward, propelled by the controversy of earnest, consecrated protagonists on the one hand, and bitter, hostile antagonists on the other-the anti-slavery and anti-liquor movements. Both appealed strongly to the humanitarian sympathies of the better educated women. Whether the effort of women had any appreciable effect upon either movement between 1800 and 1850 may be doubted, but it is certain that these reforms furnished the most impelling motive that led women to come forth from their seclusion to take part in public affairs. They came timidly at first, but with the discovery that the majority of men not only did not want their help but expressed their antagonism in phrases and tones of bitter contempt, the spirit of many was stung into resentment. They chafed at the restraint of individual liberty, and the bravest boldly defended the right of any woman to give service to any cause and in any manner she chose. The controversy by degrees inevitably spread to all movements, churches and philanthropic societies.

In 1833, Oberlin College in Ohio was opened, admitting boys and girls, black and white, on equal terms. It was the first college in the world of modern times to admit women, but as the feeling of hostility against Negro rights was even more intense than that against women's rights, the advantage won was lightly regarded by the nation. The Negroes, too, shared the common view concerning women, and when colored students unfitted to enter the college were organized into preparatory classes they rebelled against being taught by Lucy Stone, one of the earliest students. After being persuaded that it would be better to receive education from a woman than not to have it at all, they resigned themselves to destiny and became eventually her loyal supporters, even saving her at one time from the savage threats of a mob.

Two courageous and remarkable women, the Grimke sisters of South Carolina, had freed their slaves in 1828 and gone North. They began speaking publicly in favor of abolition and were mobbed many times. They contended for the rights of women as well as of the slaves. Abby Kelly, “the most persecuted of all the women who labored in the anti-slavery cause,“ also began speaking at about this time, and these three fearless women blazed a trail, through a fusillade of rotten eggs, brickbats and vile abuse, to an acknowledgment of the right of women to speak on public platforms. Independence Hall in Philadelphia was torn down and set on fire while Angelina Grimke was speaking in it in 1837, and mobs were frequent incidents in the career of the sisters, but they were unafraid. Many men and women were expelled from their churches for having listened to the pleadings of these women for justice to the Negro. The persecutions continued for years and only ceased with the triumphant acknowledgment by the public of the right of women to organize, speak and work for public causes.

As an outcome of these events the National Female Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1833. It is claimed as not only the first organized women's society but also as the first effort of women to affect a political question. In 1835 at a meeting of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, auxiliary to the National Society, from six to ten thousand men, many being “gentlemen of property and influence,“ gathered about the hall to demand the adjournment of the meeting composed of fifteen to twenty women. The mayor appeared and ordered them to adjourn, as “he could not guarantee them protection any longer.“ The society adjourned to the home of its president, and the mob turned upon William Lloyd Garrison, who was in his office on the same floor, carried him out and tore off his coat. The authorities were obliged to place him in jail for safety. What proportion of this intolerance was aimed at the anti-slavery movement and what at the pro-woman movement, the mob itself probably did not know.

Women abolitionists were far from being intimidated by the public attitude. Eight hundred women in New York petitioned Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, a radical act at the time, as it was generally believed that the right to petition was confined to electors. John Quincy Adams, in his famous congressional campaign to establish the right of petition for all, introduced in 1837 several additional anti-slavery petitions from women. The National Female Anti-Slavery Convention met in New York that same year, the first representative body of women ever convened. Seventy-two delegates were present.

It was in 1837, too, that Catherine Beecher published an Essay on Slavery, with reference to the “Duty of American Females.“ It was answered by a pastoral letter, issued by the general association of the Congregational Churches of Massachusetts, in which all attempts of women to do public work were bitterly condemned. The letter included the following: “We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of women in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad and in leading religious inquirers to the pastor for instructions; but when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary, we put ourselves in self-defense against her. She yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural. We say these things not to discourage proper influence against sin, but to secure such reformation as we believe is Scriptural.“

In that unveiled resentment that male protection of the female should be found unnecessary, in that threat of self-defense, lies the world-old revelation of man's naive need to appear strong in his own eyes, even if he can do so only by making woman appear weak!

The women doing public work at that time promptly took issue with the letter. Sarah Grimke, in spirited defense of her sex, said: “The business of men and women who are ordained by God to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ to a lost and perishing world is to lead souls to Christ and not to pastors for instruction.“ John Greenleaf Whittier poured out his indignation, and Maria Weston Chapman her amusement in verse which traveled far. Sarah Grimke threw a bomb into the established views of society when in vigorous English she said: “If sewing societies, the fruits of whose industry are now expended in supporting and educating young men for the ministry, were to withdraw their contributions to these objects and give them where they are needed, to the advancement of their own sex in useful learning, the next generation might furnish sufficient proof that in intelligence and ability to master the whole circle of sciences, woman is not inferior to man, and instead of a sensible woman being regarded as she now is-a lapse of nature-they would be quite as common as sensible men.“

The controversy raised the Woman's Rights agitation into general notice and made it a burning question in all abolition societies, splitting some of them wide asunder.

The Men's and Women's Anti-Slavery Societies united in 1839, and a resolution endorsing the work of women in the anti-slavery field was passed, but left an embittered minority still unconvinced. Already many “tracts“ written by women were in useful circulation, while the propagandistic effect of the public addresses of the increasing number of women speakers was unquestioned. The next year, it was proposed in the same society to name Abby Kelly on a committee, whereupon the defeated minority of the year before vented its wrath upon all women workers. No question of the value of women's work was raised, the opposition to their participation in the work being based upon the claim that they were disobeying God's will. The women were sustained by a large majority, but two clergymen refused to serve upon the committee with a woman, and others left the Society.

In the same year (1840), the British Anti-Slavery Societies issued an invitation to all “friends of the slave“ to join in a World's Anti-Slavery Convention to be held in London in July, and all American Anti-Slavery Societies were especially urged to send delegates. Eight women were among those named.[2]* A stormy debate began in the very first session, in which it was vehemently declared that “all order would be at an end“ if “promiscuous female representation be allowed“ and “God's clear intention violated.“ The debate will always stand as a landmark showing the world's opinion of the capacities and rights of women at that date. It ended by a vote to bar out the women delegates. William Lloyd Garrison and Nathaniel P. Rogers, arriving after the convention had taken action, refused to take their places as delegates and sat behind the bar with the rejected women.

Lucretia Mott, delegate, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the wife of a delegate, with indignation thoroughly aroused by this experience, agreed to call a convention upon their return to the United States, to be devoted exclusively to the Rights of Women. Thus the unwarranted rejection of properly accredited delegates by the World's Anti-Slavery Convention, solely because they were women, gave impulse to the organized demand of women the world around for justice in every sphere of action.

Meanwhile women in larger numbers and bolder fashion kept on engaging in public work, and in unexpected fields individual women kept on startling the world by achievements generally believed impossible. Men of vision began to perceive that a powerful movement was under way. But few ventured at that date to predict either the direction it would take or its ultimate aim.


* Mrs. Russell Sage.


* Lucretia Mott, Sarah Pugh, Abby Kimber, Elizabeth Neal, Mary Grew, Mrs. Wendell Phillips, Emily Winston, and Abby Southwick.

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