Women’s Rights in the 19th Century

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Women’s Rights

When the nineteenth century began, an American woman was not permit- ted to vote or hold office. By law, she had few rights to her own property or her own earnings. She could not take custody of her children in the event of divorce. There were few colleges or professions open to her. At best, she was a second-class citizen in a republic founded on the principles of liberty and equality. Women could and did point to language in the nation’s founding documents that supported their views: for example, the Constitution treats men and women equally, using the word person, not man, in its description of the qualifications for the nation’s highest political offices.

During the Revolutionary War, Abigail Adams had urged her husband to “remember the ladies”—to give women a voice in the new government. John Adams returned a laughing answer by letter, and did not bring Abigail’s idea up in congressional debate. However, many women—and even some men—agreed with Abigail. They argued that women were educated and literate, as capable of forming opinions as their husbands; since they had to obey the laws of the land, it was only right that they should be allowed to vote. Otherwise, they were in the same position as the colonists before the Revolution: they were unrepresented in their own government. In effect, they were slaves.

During the 1830s, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Quakers from South Caro- lina, began speaking and writing against slavery and for women’s rights. In 1839, Angelina Grimké and her husband Theodore Weld published American Slavery as It Is, a document that was to convert many readers to the cause of abolition. When male ministers sneered publicly at the Grimkés for daring to speak to mixed audiences of men and women, claiming that such work was appropriate only for men, the Grimkés retorted that men and women were created equal; therefore, if it was moral and right for a man to preach against slavery, it was equally moral and right for a woman to do so. The Grimkés also pointed out that since the U.S. government claimed to derive its power from the consent of the governed, women had just as much right as men to vote.

In 1840, American reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott attended a World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London. They were outraged to learn that women were not welcome; convention leaders finally agreed to allow them into the hall, but only if they would sit behind a curtain that screened them from the male participants in the convention. The two women vowed to fight such prejudices. In 1848, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, the first national meeting on women’s rights ever held in the United States. More than 300 people came to the small town of Seneca Falls, New York, to hear the speeches. The convention resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments, which called for legal and social reform. Its language deliberately quoted the Declaration of Independence—with the ironic twist of showing how the men who wrote and approved that document had ignored half the population of the United States:

The Declaration of Sentiments

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. . . .

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having as a direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.

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.

Resolved, that woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.

In 1833, Oberlin College in northeastern Ohio became the first American college to admit women on an equal basis with men. (It became fully integrated when it opened its doors to African-American students in 1835.) Lucy Stone, one of the first women to graduate from Oberlin, became a famous advocate of abolition and women’s rights. Stone kept her maiden name when she married; for some years after, any woman who did the same was called a “Lucy Stoner.” Susan B. Anthony, who became close friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, focused her efforts on fighting for political rights for women. Anthony argued that until women had political rights, they would have no others. When Anthony boldly went to the polls and cast a vote, she was arrested. In a famous speech defending her action, she quoted the phrase “We, the people” from the Preamble to the Constitution, continuing:

It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government—the ballot.

It would take some time for women to earn the right to vote; however, they succeeded in their fight for property rights in 1848 with the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act of New York, which entitled married women in that state to own property. In 1860, the act was amended to state that women owned any wages they earned. Other states passed similar laws.

The fight for women’s rights—the right to vote, to attend college, to keep one’s maiden name, and to speak in public on an equal footing with men—was primarily conducted by middle-class and upper-class women. Working-class women had very different concerns: unsafe working conditions, low wages, and miserable and often unsanitary living conditions, especially in America’s growing cities. If they had had time, these were the causes they would have taken up. However, they were too busy with the struggle for survival. The working class would have to wait until the next century for society as a whole to address its concerns.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Religion and Reform Practice Test
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