Woman’s Place in 19th Century America
Women of the early 19th century were free individuals, but society and the law placed severe limits on that freedom. Fathers and husbands controlled the women in their families economically and socially, while the U.S. Constitution restricted the women politically. Since politics were considered to be outside the role of wife and mother, women were not afforded the full protection of the Bill of Rights. Some of the restrictions they faced were:
- Females could not control their own bodies, property, or money. The father, brother, or husband made all decisions. Any income a woman earned was turned over to the man of the family.
- Mothers did not have guardianship of their children.
- Fathers and husbands could beat their women with anything smaller than the thickness of their thumb—“The rule of thumb”.
- Women could not wear their hair down. Skirts had to touch the ground so ankles were not exposed. Young girls could wear their hair down and shorter skirts, but legs were covered with pantalettes.
- Women could neither vote nor serve on juries.
- Females could not attend schools of higher learning for fear it would be too stressful and affect their ability to have children.
- Girls were expected to be quiet, moral beings – not physically active.
- Although women were sometimes expected to pay taxes, they could not vote.
The Woman Question in the Anti-Slavery Movement
Should a woman be allowed to speak before a promiscuous (made up of both men and women) audience? In the 1800s it was considered impolite and unwomanly, but female speakers drew crowds. Fanny Wright of Great Britain was ostracized when she boldly spoke in New York City in 1826. Six years later Maria W. Stewart, a black woman, became the first American female to speak in public on the antislavery issue. Five years later, Angelina and Sarah Grimké claimed their right to speak. Their actions caused an immediate outcry from the Congregational ministers in 1837. In this turbulent atmosphere, Abby Kelley began her career as a public speaker and in her turn would mentor other young women like Lucy Stone and Sallie Holley.
In 1840 Abby Kelley was nominated to serve on the Business Committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society because of her good work as a lecturer and fundraiser. The 451 to 557 vote in her favor caused a split in the movement. A new, more conservative organization, the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, was created by those who felt women were not equal to men and therefore had no place in speaking in public or running the organization. This “new org” also differed from the original on issues of political abolitionism and nonresistance. The term “Abby Kelleyism” was coined to refer to bold women who used their minds and skills and stepped out of their traditional places.
In the summer of 1840 the tension over the question of woman’s role in the movement increased when the female delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London were denied access to the floor. It was here that Lucretia Mott met the new Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They vowed to deal with this blatant inequality when they returned home.
Eight years passed before a local convention was called in Seneca Falls, New York. The convention accepted the “Declaration of Sentiments” written by Stanton calling for equality for women. Woman’s rights conventions were held in Rochester, New York and Salem, Ohio to continue discussing the issues, but anti-slavery remained the most visible reform movement in the nation (along with the temperance movement). Despite their commitment to abolition, Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone and several other female lecturers called for a National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts on 23-24 October 1850. The ties to the abolitionist movement were shown by the resolutions passed at this convention calling for “equality before the law without distinction of sex or color” and “to remember the million and a half of slave women at the South, …and omit no effort to raise…a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.”
Abby spoke at the Second National Woman’s Rights Convention held in Worcester in 1851. Abby claimed that when women feel their responsibilities sufficiently to go forward and discharge them, they would inevitably obtain their rights. Otherwise, they were just lazy. Obviously, these comments made the audience upset until she concluded with, “I did not rise to make a speech—my life has been my speech. For fourteen years I have advocated this cause by my daily life. Bloody feet, sister, have worn smooth the path by which you have come hither.”
To keep the discussion alive, annual national meetings, as well as state and regional conventions, continued until the Civil War. Following the Civil War, the New England Suffrage Association would become the first regional association in the nation. The national Equal Rights Association formed in 1866, but split three years later. The schism developed over whether to support a Universal Suffrage Amendment or a Black Male Suffrage Amendment (the 15th Amendment), which would give black men the right to vote. Supporters of Black Male Suffrage formed the American Woman’s Suffrage Association and would focus on a state-by-state effort to change the voting laws. Abby became part of this group, which was led by Lucy Stone. Supporters of Universal Suffrage formed the National Woman’s Suffrage Association to focus on a federal amendment, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Abby and Lucy’s daughters, Alla Foster and Alice Stone Blackwell, would later heal the rift by helping form a united National American Woman’s Suffrage Association in 1890.
Suffrage goal achieved in 20th Century America
After a 72-year battle the vote for women was secured with the passage of the 19th Amendment on 26 August 1920. However, other gender inequities still remain in our nation. At the turn of the 21st century, just three states were needed for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to address these needs. Check the Equal Rights Amendment website for the current status.
- Equal Rights Amendment. Alice Paul Centennial Foundation. 11 September 2003. www.equalrightsamendment.org.
- “Historical Resources.” Worcester Women’s History Project. 19 August 2003. www.wwhp.org.
- Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870.
- Boston: Bedford/St. Marin’s, 2000.
- Sterling, Dorothy. Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and The Politics of Antislavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
- Women’s Rights National Park. National Parks Service. 19 August 2003. www.nps.gov/wori.