The Suffragist Movement Made America a Better Country
It forced the U.S. to live up to its founding liberal commitments
I believe the most direct way to celebrate Women’s History Month is with passages from a history written by women about their struggle for freedom and equality. Hence, as The UnPopulist’s resident Groundhog, I have unearthed excerpts from the first volume of History of Woman Suffrage, published in 1881 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. These women were both authors and editors of the book, and they were at the very forefront of the fight to give women the right to vote.
All three were tremendously active and accomplished. Stanton was the primary contributor to the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage; the primary author of the controversial The Woman’s Bible; the first woman to run for the U.S. Congress; and an activist for women’s property rights, the abolition of slavery, the temperance movement and the right of divorce. Anthony was an indefatigable speaker and organizer: She co-founded such movements as the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Equal Rights Association, the latter of which sought political and civil rights for women and African Americans; helped establish the International Council of Women, which is promoting women’s rights to this day; and in 1878, delivered to the U.S Congress, together with Stanton, the proposed U.S. constitutional amendment that was ultimately ratified in 1920 to give women the vote. Gage, an author, editor and publisher who served as a president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, also fought for the abolition of slavery, for Native American rights, for the separation of church and state, and for a revisionist view of the role of women in science.
The arguments the three women launched for equal rights were an absolute barrage against illiberalism on every front. The arguments they were forced to address and the cultural realities of the time in which they did so may occasionally make their apologetics sound a bit, well, apologetic to modern ears. But they were radical for their time, and they still are in many parts of the world.
Moreover, these champions of human rights weren’t remotely demure. Consider the opening line of the History of Woman Suffrage:
The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history. A survey of the condition of the race through those barbarous periods when physical force governed the world, when the motto “might makes right” was the law, enables one to account for the origin of woman’s subjection to man without referring the fact to the general inferiority of the sex, or Nature’s law.
The three women categorically rejected the idea of the “general inferiority of [their] sex.” Men, they observed, were generally stronger than women, but any meaningful “inferiority” of women was due not to “Nature’s law,” but to social and legal conventions that left women in a debilitating state of servitude. For them, the term “slave” was not mere rhetoric:
The condition of married women under the laws of all countries has been essentially that of slaves, until modified in some respects within the last quarter of a century in the United States. The change from the old Common Law of England in regard to the civil rights of women, from 1848 to the advance legislation in most of the Northern States in 1880, marks an era both in the status of woman as a citizen and in our American system of jurisprudence. When the State of New York gave married women certain rights of property, the individual existence of the wife was recognized, and the old idea that “husband and wife are one, and that one the husband,” received its death blow. From that hour the statutes of the several States have been steadily diverging from the old English codes. Most of the Western States copied the advance legislation of New York, and some are now even more liberal.
The broader demand for political rights has not commanded the thought its merits and dignity should have secured. While complaining of many wrongs and oppressions, women themselves did not see that the political disability of sex was the cause of all their special grievances, and that to secure equality anywhere, it must be recognized everywhere. Like all disfranchised classes, they begun by asking to have certain wrongs redressed and not by asserting their own right to make laws for themselves.
But Stanton, Anthony and Gage were aware that no matter how recent the broad movement for woman’s suffrage might have been in their day, the original call had come much earlier, with the leading women of the Revolutionary generation. “Our country started into governmental life,” they wrote, “freighted with the protests of the Revolutionary Mothers against being ruled without their consent.” This protest wasn’t a historical coincidence: It stemmed from the country’s founding ideals. They wrote:
Woman’s political equality with man is the legitimate outgrowth of the fundamental principles of our Government, clearly set forth in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, in the United States Constitution adopted in 1784, in the prolonged debates on the origin of human rights in the anti-slavery conflict in 1840, and in the more recent discussions of the party in power since 1865, on the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the National Constitution; and the majority of our leading statesmen have taken the ground that suffrage is a natural right that may be regulated, but cannot be abolished by State law.
Under the influence of these liberal principles of republicanism that pervades all classes of American minds, however vaguely … they might be stated, woman readily perceives the anomalous position she occupies in a republic, where the government and religion alike are based on individual conscience and judgment — where the natural rights of all citizens have been exhaustively discussed, and repeatedly declared equal.
From the inauguration of the government, representative women have expostulated against the inconsistencies between our principles and practices as a nation. Beginning with special grievances, woman’s protests soon took a larger scope. Having petitioned State legislatures to change the statutes that robbed her of children, wages, and property, she demanded that the Constitutions—State and National — be so amended as to give her a voice in the laws, a choice in the rulers, and protection in the exercise of her rights as a citizen of the United States.
While the laws affecting woman’s civil rights have been greatly improved during the past thirty years, the political demand has made but a questionable progress, though it must be counted as the chief influence in modifying the laws. The selfishness of man was readily enlisted in securing woman’s civil rights, while the same element in his character antagonized her demand for political equality.
Fathers who had estates to bequeath to their daughters could see the advantage of securing to woman certain property rights that might limit the legal power of profligate husbands.
Husbands in extensive business operations could see the advantage of allowing the wife the right to hold separate property, settled on her in time of prosperity, that might not be seized for his debts. Hence in the several States able men championed these early measures. But political rights, involving in their last results equality everywhere, roused all the antagonism of a dominant power, against the self-assertion of a class hitherto subservient. Men saw that with political equality for woman, they could no longer keep her in social subordination, and “the majority of the male sex,” says John Stuart Mill, “cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal.” The fear of a social revolution thus complicated the discussion. The Church, too, took alarm, knowing that with the freedom and education acquired in becoming a component part of the Government, woman would not only outgrow the power of the priesthood, and religious superstitions, but would also invade the pulpit, interpret the Bible anew from her own standpoint, and claim an equal voice in all ecclesiastical councils. With fierce warnings and denunciations from the pulpit, and false interpretations of Scripture, women have been intimidated and misled, and their religious feelings have been played upon for their more complete subjugation. While the general principles of the Bible are in favor of the most enlarged freedom and equality of the race, isolated texts have been used to block the wheels of progress in all periods; thus bigots have defended capital punishment, intemperance, slavery, polygamy, and the subjection of woman. The creeds of all nations make obedience to man the cornerstone of her religious character. Fortunately, however, more liberal minds are now giving us higher and purer expositions of the Scriptures.
As the social and religious objections appeared against the demand for political rights, the discussion became many-sided, contradictory, and as varied as the idiosyncrasies of individual character. Some said, “Man is woman’s natural protector, and she can safely trust him to make laws for her.” She might with fairness reply, as he uniformly robbed her of all property rights to 1848, he cannot safely be trusted with her personal rights in 1880, though the fact that he did make some restitution at last might modify her distrust in the future. However, the calendars of our courts still show that fathers deal unjustly with daughters, husbands with wives, brothers with sisters, and sons with their own mothers. Though woman needs the protection of one man against his whole sex in pioneer life, in threading her way through a lonely forest, on the highway, or in the streets of the metropolis on a dark night, she sometimes needs, too, the protection of all men against this one. But even if she could be sure, as she is not, of the ever-present, all-protecting power of one strong arm, that would be weak indeed compared with the subtle, all-pervading influence of just and equal laws for all women. Hence woman’s need of the ballot, that she may hold in her own right hand the weapon of self-protection and self-defense.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage did not live to see the certification of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment, which stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Nor did they live to see the completion of their History of Woman Suffrage, a massive project that eventually spanned six volumes and nearly 6,000 pages, and that finally came to a close in 1922 at the hand of a fourth author: journalist and suffragist Ida Husted Harper.
And, of course, they did not live to see the subsequent effects of woman’s suffrage and their own broader social arguments on American society in the century that has passed since the 19th Amendment’s ratification. Nonetheless, their flat rejection of the idea that women’s past subjugation should determine women’s future prospects remains entirely alive today — a modern attitude and a modern reality for which we owe them an enduring debt of gratitude.
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