By Pamala Nolan
“The legal theory is, that marriage makes the husband and wife one person, and that person is the husband.” Lucretia Coffin Mott.
This year marks the Centennial of the passage of the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guaranteed women the right to vote. On August 26th, we will celebrate Women’s Equality Day on the date the amendment was signed into law. Let us recognize and appreciate the countless men and women who worked to make that right a reality.
Women may have appeared to accept their lot in life, but as far back as the American Revolution era, a dawn was breaking. In 1776 Abigail Adams famously wrote that “if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Because women were not specifically written into the constitution, it became accepted dogma that women did not have the same rights as men, or any at all. Men exercised total control of their wives and children and treated them as property.
The first book written by an American woman addressing women’s roles was Hannah Mather Crocker’s “Observations On The Real Rights of Women” published in 1818.
A Scottish-born woman, Frances Wright, was the first woman to speak publicly in the United States about social issues in the late 1820s. Although her lectures were well-attended, she was vilified and called a disgrace to her sex.
It’s impossible to separate the origins of the women’s rights campaign from the anti-slavery movement centered in the Northeast in the 1830s. As women became more involved, a few became recognized speakers for the abolition of slavery.
If men and women were assembled together to hear a speaker, they were considered a “promiscuous audience.” Females who defied gender expectations and addressed mixed groups were publicly condemned for having the audacity to step out of their home spheres.
In 1832 a free-born black woman named Maria Miller Stewart became the first known American woman to address a group of men and women together.
Perhaps because of the harassment and ridicule they suffered, especially from the clergy and male abolitionists, women began to make a plea for their own sex, along with that of the slave.
In the late 1830s sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke addressed thousands about the evils of slavery. They drew parallels between the oppression of women and that of female slaves.
In 1837 Sarah wrote, “But I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren, is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of The Liberator out of Boston, provided a forum for the writings of many women and black reporters in his newspaper. Garrison championed civil rights for women and called for the immediate end to slavery. The Liberator was hugely influential, but faced harsh criticism from those opposed.
The truth of their second-class status was fully brought home to American women who attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. Male delegates voted to exclude women from participation, and even created a separate seating area for them. They could listen, but not speak. William Lloyd Garrison sat silently with the women in protest.
One of the most important early pioneers was Lucretia Coffin Mott who was married to fellow Quaker reformer, James Mott. She was a renowned speaker who lectured to large audiences in the United States and Great Britain. An ordained minister, Mott was able to effectively counter religious leaders’ arguments against a woman’s public role by citing biblical references. She is considered the spiritual leader of the women’s rights movement.
Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the London conference, and profoundly influenced Stanton. The two women spent many hours discussing women’s cultural restrictions, and vowed to meet again when they returned to the States. That fateful day would come eight years later.
Each of the Pioneers sowed the seeds of reform and contributed to the evolution of the women’s rights movement. Later their beliefs would all be tested as black men gained the vote before women.
Next week: The Radicals