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Digital History ID 3539


At the outset of the century, women could not vote or hold office in any state, they had no access to higher education, and they were excluded from professional occupations. American law accepted the principle that a wife had no legal identity apart from her husband. She could not be sued, nor could she bring a legal suit; she could not make a contract, nor could she own property. She was not permitted to control her own wages or gain custody of her children in case of separation or divorce.

Broad social and economic changes, such as the development of a market economy and a decline in the birthrate, opened employment opportunities for women. Instead of bearing children at two-year intervals after marriage, as was the general case throughout the colonial era, during the early 19th century women bore fewer children and ceased childbearing at younger ages. During these decades the first women’s college was established, and some men’s colleges first opened their doors to women students. More women were postponing marriage or not marrying at all; unmarried women gained new employment opportunities as “mill girls” and elementary school teachers; and a growing number of women achieved prominence as novelists, editors, teachers, and leaders of church and philanthropic societies.

Although there were many improvements in the status of women during the first half of the century, women still lacked political and economic status when compared with men. As the franchise was extended to larger and larger numbers of white males, including large groups of recent immigrants, the gap in political power between women and men widened. Even though women made up a core of supporters for many reform movements, men excluded them from positions of decision making and relegated them to separate female auxiliaries. Additionally, women lost economic status as production shifted away from the household to the factory and workshop. During the late 18th century, the need for a cash income led women and older children to engage in a variety of household industries, such as weaving and spinning. Increasingly, in the 19th century, these tasks were performed in factories and mills, where the workforce was largely male.

The fact that changes in the economy tended to confine women to a sphere separate from men had important implications for reform. Since women were believed to be uncontaminated by the competitive struggle for wealth and power, many argued that they had a duty--and the capacity--to exert an uplifting moral influence on American society. Catharine Beecher (1800–1878) and Sarah J. Hale (1788–1879) helped lead the effort to expand women’s roles through moral influence. Beecher, the eldest sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was one of the nation’s most prominent educators before the Civil War. A woman of many talents and strong leadership, she wrote a highly regarded book on domestic science and spearheaded the campaign to convince school boards that women were suited to serve as schoolteachers. Hale edited the nation’s most popular women’s magazines, the Ladies Magazine and Godey’s Ladies Book. She led the successful campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday (during Lincoln’s administration), and she also composed the famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Both Beecher and Hale worked tirelessly for women’s education (Hale helped found Vassar College). They gave voice to the grievances of women--abysmally low wages paid to women in the needle trades (12.5 cents a day), the physical hardships endured by female operatives in the nation’s shops and mills (where women worked 14 hours a day), and the minimizing of women’s intellectual aspirations. Even though neither woman supported full equal rights for women, they were important transitional figures in the emergence of feminism. Each significantly broadened society’s definition of “women’s sphere” and assigned women vital social responsibilities: to shape their children’s character, morally to uplift their husbands, and to promote causes of “practical benevolence.”

Other women broke down old barriers and forged new opportunities in a more dramatic fashion. Frances Wright (1795–1852), a Scottish-born reformer and lecturer, received the nickname “The Great Red Harlot of Infidelity” because of her radical ideas about birth control, liberalized divorce laws, and legal rights for married women. In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910) became the first American woman to receive a degree in medicine. A number of women became active as revivalists. Perhaps the most notable was Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), a Methodist preacher who ignited religious fervor among thousands of Americans and Canadians.

Catalyst for Women’s Rights

A public debate over the proper role of women in the antislavery movement, especially their right to lecture to audiences composed of both sexes, led to the first organized movement for women’s rights. By the mid-1830s more than a hundred female antislavery societies had been created, and women abolitionists were circulating petitions, editing abolitionist tracts, and organizing antislavery conventions. A key question was whether women abolitionists would be permitted to lecture to “mixed” audiences of men and women. In 1837 a national women’s antislavery convention resolved that women should overcome this taboo: “The time has come for women to move in that sphere which providence has assigned her, and no longer remain satisfied with the circumscribed limits which corrupt custom and a perverted application of Scripture have encircled her.”

Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) and her sister Sarah (1792–1873)--two sisters from a wealthy Charleston, South Carolina, slaveholding family--were the first women to break the restrictions and widen women’s sphere through their writings and lectures before mixed audiences. In 1837 Angelina gained national notoriety by lecturing against slavery to audiences that included men as well as women. Shocked by this breach of the separate sexual spheres ordained by God, ministers in Massachusetts called on their fellow clergy to forbid women the right to speak from church pulpits. Sarah Grimké in 1840 responded with a pamphlet entitled Letters on the Condition of Women and the Equality of the Sexes, one of the first modern statements of feminist principles. She denounced the injustice of lower pay and denial of equal educational opportunities for women. Her pamphlet expressed outrage that women were “regarded by men, as pretty toys or as mere instruments of pleasure” and were taught to believe that marriage is “the sine qua non [indispensable element] of human happiness and human existence.” Men and women, she concluded, should not be treated differently, since both were endowed with innate natural rights.

In 1840, after the American Anti-Slavery Society split over the issue of women’s rights, the organization named three female delegates to a World Anti-Slavery Convention to be held in London later that year. There, these women were denied the right to participate in the convention on the grounds that their participation would offend British public opinion. The convention relegated them to seats in a balcony.

Eight years later, Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), who earlier had been denied the right to serve as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) organized the first women’s rights convention in history. Held in July 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, the convention drew up a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, which opened with the phrase “All men and women are created equal.” It named 15 specific inequities suffered by women, and after detailing “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of men toward woman,” the document concluded that “he has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”

Among the resolutions adopted by the convention, only one was not ratified unanimously--that women be granted the right to vote. Of the 66 women and 34 men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the convention (including black abolitionist Frederick Douglass), only two lived to see the ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution 72 years later.

By mid-century women’s rights conventions had been held in every northern state. Despite ridicule from the public press--the Worcester (Massachusetts) Telegraph denounced women’s rights advocates as “Amazons”--female reformers contributed to important, if limited, advances against discrimination. They succeeded in gaining adoption of Married Women’s Property Laws in a number of states, granting married women control over their own income and property. A New York law passed in 1860 gave women joint custody over children and the right to sue and be sued, and in several states women’s rights reformers secured adoption of permissive divorce laws. A Connecticut law, for example, granted divorce for any “misconduct” that “permanently destroys the happiness of the petitioner and defeats the purposes of the marriage relationship.”

Black women, too, were active in the campaign to extend equal rights to women. One of the most outspoken advocates for both women’s rights and abolition was Sojourner Truth, born a slave known as Isabella in New York State’s Hudson River Valley around 1797. She escaped from bondage in 1826, taking refuge with a farm family that later bought her freedom. She took the name Sojourner Truth in 1843, convinced that God had called on her to preach the truth throughout the country. Her fame as a preacher, singer, and orator for abolition and women’s rights spread rapidly. At a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, she is reported to have demanded that Americans recognize the African American women’s right to equality. “I could work as much and eat as much as a man--when I could get it--and bear de lash as well!” she told the crowd. “And ain’t I a woman?”

During the Civil War, Truth supported the Union, collecting food and supplies for black troops and struggling to make emancipation a war aim. When the war was over, she traveled across the North, collecting signatures on petitions calling on Congress to set aside western lands for former slaves. At her death in 1883, she could rightly be remembered as one of the nation’s most eloquent opponents of discrimination in all forms.

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