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The History 
Of the Woman’s Rights Movement

October 19, 1870 — “Second Decade Celebration,” National Woman Suffrage Association, Apollo Hall, New York City


In assembling to review the past twenty years, it is a fitting question to ask if there has been progress; or has this universal radical reform, which was then declared, been like reformations in religion, but the substitution of a new error for an old one; or, like physical revolutions, but a rebellion? Has this work, intended from its inception to change the structure of the central organization of society, failed and become a monument of buried hopes? Have we come together after twenty years, bowed with a profound grief over the wrecks and debris of the battle unwon, or to rejoice over what has been attained and mark out work for the next decade?

We answer, in many things we have failed, for we believed and hoed blond the possible; but reviewing the past we have only cause for rejoicing — for thanksgiving to God — and for courage in the future. We affirmed a principle, an adjustment of measures to the exigencies of the times, a profound expediency true to the highest principles of rights, and to-day we reiterate the axiom with which we started, that “They who would be free themselves must strike the blow,” believing it as imperative as when the first woman took it up, and applied it to her needs; and it must be kept as steadily before the eye, for not yet can we rest on our oars and ply with the privileges gained.

Women are still frivolous; the slaves of prejudice, passion, folly, fashion, and petty ambitions, and so they will remain till the shackles, both social and political, are broken, and they are held responsible beings — accountable to God alone.. Not till then can it be known what untold wealth lies buried in womanhood —  “how many mute, inglorious Miltons.” Men are still conceited, arrogant, and usurping, dwarfing their own manhood by a false position toward one-half the human race.

In commencing this work we knew we were attacking the strongholds of prejudice, but truth could no longer be suppressed, nor principles hidden. It must be ours to strike the bottom line. We believed it would take a generation to clear away the rubbish, to uproot the theories of ages, to overthrow customs, which at some period of the world’s history had their significance.

We proclaimed that our work was to reform, reconstruct, and harmonize society; not to lay waste to her homes and her sanctuaries. A few only have been found brave enough to do more than touch the fringe work that circles round the vortex which is heaving and surging with social pollutions, which might well make angels stand appalled; but should the occasion come in this country, the pure women of our nation will rise, as the women of England are now doing, resisting a legislation which degrades womanhood to the lowest depths. We proclaimed a peaceful revolution; for we abhorred then as now the horrors of war, hence our demand for a participation in a government, that we might bring a new element into it to restrain and purify it. Says a French lady in a private letter received a few days since, “Oh, is it not time that women come? Is it not because we have no voice in public affairs that Europe is on fire now? Men are true brutes. Pride, injustice, and cruel are their most remarkable qualities. What can free us from their laws so unjust?” This is the sad, passionate utterance of a French woman now in the hour of her country’s peril. What better proof that women love peace more than glory, than in the Empress Eugenie’s course, — She would have no force used to uphold her power. “She would rather be pitied than hated.”

Frances Wright, a noble Scotchwoman, early sought to make herself thoroughly acquainted with the nature of our institutions, and the genius of our government. She determined to try the experiment of organized labor with negroes. Purchasing two thousand acres of land on the Bluffs, now known as Memphis, Tenn., she took a number of families, with fifteen able-bodied men, and, giving them their freedom, organized her work. Prostrated by illness, she was compelled to yield her personal supervision, and thus her attempt to civilize those people failed, and they were finally sent to Hayti.

She then commenced lecturing on the nature and object of the “American Political Institutions.” She gave also a course of Historical and Political Lectures; and another course on the Nature of Knowledge, Free Inquiry, Divisions of Knowledge, Religion, Morals, Opinions, Existing Evils and a Reply to the Traducers of the French Reformers. No other person was at that time prepared so well  to defend them as she was, from her having been in part educated in General Lafayette’s family. In all those lectures she showed the low estimate of woman, and her inferior education.

To this heroic woman, who left ease, elegance, a high social circle of rich culture, and with true self-abnegation gave her life, in the country of her adoption, to the teaching of her highest idea of truth, it is fitting that we pay a tribute of just, though late, respect. Her writings are of the purest and noblest character, and whatever there is of error in them is easily thrown aside. The spider sucks poison from the same flower from which the bee gathers honey; let us therefore ask if the evil be not in ourselves before we condemn others. Pharisaism, then as now, was ready to stone the prophet of freedom. She bore the calumny, reproach and persecution to which she was subjected for the truth, as calmly as Socrates. Looking down from the serene heights of her philosophy she pitied and endured the scoffs and jeers of the multitude, and fearlessly continued to utter her rebukes against oppression, ignorance and bigotry. Women joined in the hue and cry against her, little thinking that men were building the gallows and making them the executioners. Women have crucified in all ages the redeemers of their own sex, and men mock them with the fact. It is time now that we trample beneath our feet this ignoble public sentiment which men have made for us; and if others are to be crucified before we can be redeemed, let men do the cruel, cowardly work; but let us learn to hedge womanhood round with generous, protecting love and care. Then men will learn, as they should, that this system of traducing women is no longer to be used as a means for their subjugation. Let us learn to demand that all men who come into our presence be as pure as they claim that woman should be. Let the test be applied which Christ gave, that if any is without sin in word, or deed, or thought, he shall “cast the first stone.” . . .

When the war ended and National reconstruction commenced, women, feeling an equal interest in having the work rightly done, presented their petitions for the right of suffrage, but were coolly told by those who were most eager to enfranchise the negro, “stand aside and wait, it is the black man’s hour.” The sacrifice of their sons on the altar of freedom was not counted to them as anything. Their years of toil and weary watching in camp and hospital were not to be put in the scale with the black man’s, who fought for his own freedom. Such wrong and injustice is bearing its fruits, in the confusion of the councils of the Republican party. Like the French of 1848, they refused to deal justly with the mothers of the nation, and are now reaping a bitter reward. They dared to suppress the petitions of thousands of women, and now disintegration has begun; the handwriting is seen on the wall. Thus injustice has done its work, and thousands of women have been roused by it to protest who had never before given any thought to public affairs.

The National Convention, held in the Church of the Puritans, after the war, was one of intense interest, and marked an era in this movement. The demand for suffrage became paramount—the only one with many. Mrs. Stanton, in 1867, went before the Judiciary Committee of the New York Legislature, asking universal suffrage to be recognized by the Constitutional Convention which was to be held. About this time a bill was before a Committee of the Legislature, the purport of which was to legalize prostitution Reading this bill in the presence of the Committee, her quick mind comprehended all its horrors at a glance, and she tried the test of asking each man if he would be willing that that law should be applied to his daughter, his sister, or any one dear to him. Self-ism answered “No.” “Then, gentlemen,” said she, “legislate for the poorer daughters of the State as you would for your own.” All that winter she battled against that hideous system, which would legalize the foulest of sins, and to her efforts, mainly, the delay of passing that law is due. She made a clear exposition of that cruel, corrupt, one-sided legislation, which subjects woman to the grossest indignities, while men are benefited and allowed safe and unlimited license. To her lectures, also, is due a healthier tone of public sentiment on the marriage question. It is slowly beginning to be felt that in that relation there is a vast amount of legalized prostitution.

In 1867 an extensive lecturing tour through Kansas was made by Mrs. Stanton, Miss Anthony, Rev. Olympia Brown, Henry Blackwell, and Lucy Stone. The proposition of striking the words “white male” from the Constitution had been submitted to the people, and the result of the campaign was one third the vote of the State in favor of both propositions. Of Miss Brown, now preaching in New England, we can not forbear saying we have few in our ranks more earnest, honest, or devoted. A clear, incisive intellect, a true heart and firm purpose mark her every day life. She is unobtrusive and gentle, but always ready at the call of duty. On this campaign they were joined by a new worker, George Francis Train, whether for good or ill it will be for history to decide. Certain it is, that a new impulse was given to the cause, and The Revolution established, with Susan B. Anthony as proprietor, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Parker Pillsbury as editors, has done a great work. It has been hated, abused, slandered, misquoted, and garbled; nevertheless, it has been a terror to evil doers, and a help to those who would do well. Others, thinking to do better, have started monthly and weekly papers. . .

In May, 1869, at the annual meeting of the Equal Rights Society, which had been three years in existence, a change of name was proposed. Notice was given to that effect, and at a large meeting, in which nineteen States were represented, the National Woman Suffrage Society was formed, which has done most efficient service, holding conventions in many of our large cities, and awakening thought and action. In Saratoga and Newport a new class was reached. Wearied with the monotony of fashionable dissipation and the driveling idiocy of flirtations, women were glad to hear a few sensible, wholesome truths.

In December, 1869, an able report was received from Mrs. Kate N. Doggett, one of the six delegates to the Labor Convention, in Berlin. In the spring of 1869 a fresh impulse was given to the work in the establishment of the Woman’s Bureau, by Mrs. Elizabeth B. Phelps. Its discontinuance was due to the same cause which has thwarted so many plans of women. There were not a sufficient number possessed of wealth who had the will to render this a permanent institution. Mrs. Phelps possesses in an eminent degree all the requisites for such a post—a queenly hospitality, elegant manners, fine conversational ability, with a generous catholic spirit. Delicacy forbids saying all that the heart prompts of friends…. In November, 1869, a delegate convention was held in Cleveland, Ohio, and a society organized, called the American Woman’s Suffrage Society. Its work is yet to be done. The crowning act of 1869, and the one which gave an omen for the year that was approaching, was the enfranchising of the women of Wyoming and Utah. For these acts of justice we are most grateful. A correspondent says:

The cause of woman in Wyoming goes bravely on. At the last sitting of the District Court in Albany County, both the Grand and Petit Juries were equally composed of either sex; and Chief-Justice Howe, presiding, took advantage of this occasion to compliment, in the highest terms, the intelligence, discrimination, honesty, and propriety of the conduct with which the women acquitted themselves last session, saying they had gone far to vindicate the policy, justify the experiment, and realize the expectations of those who had clothed themselves with the right. The bar, the bench, and the intelligent men of the country had long felt that something was needed to improve and justify our jury system; something to lift it above prejudice and passion, and imbue it with a higher regard for law, justice, oath, and conscience. His Honor then expressed the opinion that the introduction of the new element furnished good reason to expect that to women we should ultimately be indebted for those reforms which the unaided exertions of men had been incompetent to effect.

This is certainly a most flattering presentment of the results of enfranchising the sex in Wyoming, and what is better, it seems substantially a just one. The question will therefore naturally suggest itself, if women, in their new political capacity, are thus able to “tone” the rude elements of Western civilization, what inconsistency is there in granting them like privileges in communities whose superior refinement is so much less likely to expose them to insult or mortification? In Utah it is of less account, because the women there are under a hierarchy, and as yet vote only as directed.

In January, 1870, a convention was called in Washington by the officers of the National Society. This meeting, large in attendance and deeply earnest, marked an historical era, the influence of which can not be estimated. A hearing before the joint committee of the House and Senate of the District was asked, in order to present the question of woman suffrage, and granted. Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the argument in favor of enfranchising women of the District of Columbia. It was clear, incisive, and cogent; divested of all sentiment, and condensed into a twenty-minutes’ speech. It was very impressive. Susan B. Anthony, Madam Anneke, and others made a few pertinent remarks. At the close of the hearing, Hon. Charles Sumner said: “In my twenty years’ experience in the Senate of the United States, I have never witnessed so fine a hearing as this one, so large an attendance, and such respectful attention.” Thus begins the national history of this great reform — a fitting opening for 1870.

The work, not only in this country, but in Europe, was greatly accelerated by the publication of John Stuart Mill’s inestimable book, “The Subjection of Woman,” which has been extensively circulated in a cheap form in this country, and has been translated and reprinted in France, Prussia, and Russia. The first National Woman Suffrage Convention was held in London, July, 1869, at which Members of Parliament, professors of science — noble men and noble women, still more ennobled by this great work—took active part, and now women have the right of suffrage there in the municipal elections. The bill was introduced by Mr. Jacob Bright, and, says Prof. Fawcett: “In one night it passed beyond ridicule, so ably and calmly was it presented, and in less than one year it is a fixed fact.” How stands the comparison, Aristocratic England and Democratic America? The Crown Princesses of Prussia and Italy are strong advocates of this movement, while women, who pay taxes in Austria and Russia, vote and have a voice in making laws. Will America hold on to her barbarism in this, as she did to chattel slavery, till all the nations of the earth cry out against her wrong to womanhood? . . .

A few of the earlier women who came to this work should be named here. Martha C. Wright, sister of Lucretia Mott, of Auburn, has presided in most of the New York State Conventions, and in some of the National, and her pen has always been sharpened in ready defense of the cause and its leaders. A woman of rare good sense and large sympathies, she is always to be trusted in emergencies. Sarah Helen Whitman was the first literary woman of reputation who gave her name to the cause, and her interest has never lessened, though ill health has prevented any work. Alice Cary for years gave her heartiest sympathy to the movement, and socially she and her sister Phoebe have awakened an interest in a large circle not easily penetrated by outside influences. Her story, never completed, the “Born Thrall,” published in The Revolution, gave evidence of thought, experience, and deep feeling. The songs of the sisters have a new sweet sadness, now that Alice is singing hers on the other side of the river of life. Grace Greenwood has done good service with her fluent pen and voice through the press and on the platform. Mary L. Booth, with her rich culture and her unsurpassed practical ability, her skill as a translator of Martin’s great History of France, and numberless other works, has given aid to the cause with her pen, one of the best in the country. As an editor she has done great service by showing that a woman can work as earnestly and persistently at a closely confining business as a man, and can hold for years a place at the head of a profession so difficult and so arduous.

As physicians, many women have won not only fame, but wealth. The names are too many for our limits. A few only who have taken an active interest in the principles which we have been urging can be given. Dr. Mercy B. Jackson, Dr. Ann Preston, and Dr. Clemence Lozier are some of the names which stand out conspicuously.

The government appointments within the last two years have been a matter of great rejoicing. Many responsible offices are held by women in different localities. There are 1,400 postmistresses, some of them of first-class offices. The one in Richmond, Va., is considered a model office, held by Miss Rachel Van Lew.

Ten years ago a young girl sprang, like Minerva from the head of Jupiter, fully armed, into the moral and political arena, and has stirred the heart of the Nation as no other speaker ever did. Anna E. Dickinson has never feared to utter the boldest truths, has never shrunk from, or withheld the most scathing rebukes of sin in high places, has never faltered or failed in principle, and yet is to-day a far more popular lecturer than those who have pandered to a corrupt, vitiated public taste. Does this not prove that the deep heart of the people is better than it has the credit of being.

About the same time Theodore Tilton threw into the scale his brilliant and varied talents, and the Independent, of which he was editor, was found on the side of freedom for all. Judge Samuel E. Sewall, always on the right side in every good work, published, in 1868, a digest of the laws of Massachusetts in relation to woman’s disabilities, which has done good work. Later, Prof. Hickox prepared one of like character for Connecticut, which is enough to rouse the women of that State to white heat.

Within the last two years of the second decade many new speakers have appeared on our platform. Standing first is Mrs. Mary A. Livermore, a woman of rare powers of oratory. Possessing a magnetism which grasps and holds her audience whether they will or no, she is a special pleader, and if her logic is not always perfect it is most effective, for she has the power of unlocking the hearts of her hearers. She has made within the last two years extensive lecturing tours in the North and West, and verging toward the South. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe came in November, 1868, and laid her rich gifts on the altar of freedom, and has often been heard in conventions, and twice or thrice before the Legislature of Massachusetts. Mrs. Isabella Beecher Hooker, from the family of ministers, also came about this time with her ready available talents. Phoebe Couzins and Lilie Peckham, alike generous, enthusiastic, cultured, and above all of high-toned principles, lead a strong band of young workers. Charlotte B. Wilbour, gifted in a high degree, calm in judgment and steady in purpose, is always a tower of strength. Celia Burleigh, graceful, poetic and earnest, is equally at home on the platform or in the drawing-room, and Lillie Devereux Blake is always ready with pen or voice. Myra Bradwell, with her legal knowledge, is another to be grateful for; and with pride the names of Elizabeth O. Willard, Catherine B. Waite, and Elizabeth Boynton are recorded as having given their rare gifts to this work. We gladly pay tribute to James W. Stillman, of Rhode Island, who has given most generously of time, money, and, above all, talents, to this cause, and that, at a time when ridicule and even the sacrifice of position followed. His logical argument on the inherent right of self-government has done a great service.

Looking back over the names of our co-workers, those of Hannah Tracy Cutler, and Frances D. Gage, and Jane Elizabeth M. Jones are widely honored. Another of this class is Josephine S. Griffing, a woman of rare endowments intellectually, with a heart as true and gentle as God ever gave to woman. Modest, almost to a fault, she is the unseen power that moves the machinery in the very heart of the nation; asking no recognition, no applause, she works on with a steady, systematic, careful earnestness which commands the respect of the best and wisest.

Early among women journalists Mrs. Jane G. Swisshelm stands out conspicuously. The Pittsburg Saturday Visitor, which she edited for several years with marked ability, was the paper most often quoted, and made war upon by all opposers of progress. Mrs. C. I. H. Nichols also edited the Windham Co. Democrat, in Brattleboro, Vt., with much ability, and though less radical and aggressive than Mrs. Swisshelm’s paper, it is to the seed sown by her head and hands that all the spirit of progress there is in that county is due.

There is yet one other name that well deserves not one page but many, for his good deeds and unselfish work. A man with a strong, vigorous mind, a quick conception of principles and perfectly fearless in his advocacy of them, holding always his personality so in reserve as sometimes to be overlooked among the many more assuming. Parker Pillsbury was for some time editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, and co-editor of the Revolution. His editorials have been marked by an almost prophetic spirit; and the profoundness of their thought will be more justly appreciated as there is a larger development and a higher demand for unqualified justice. The Hutchinson family were among our earliest workers, giving of time and money liberally without regard to party or sectionalism. Mr. John Hutchinson and family went through Kansas with the lecturing tourists, in 1867, and with their inspiring songs for freedom did much toward increasing the vote for woman suffrage. They still continue their work, penetrating into the most benighted regions, for freedom, temperance, peace, and the reign of righteousness; they are doing their quota in the world’s great work.

Mrs. Mary F. Davis has been from the first a most able and efficient advocate; her winning, gentle manners, her courtesy and respect for the rights of others have been unvarying. If not herself aggressive, she has never faltered in her adherence to the fullest truth; in this she is always sustained by her husband, Andrew Jackson Davis, who has never hesitated or temporized on any great question. Among business women who have gone steadily on in the path of duty, the name of Charlotte Fowler Wells stands out conspicuously. For over thirty years she has been an equal in all business relations with her husband, conducting the extensive correspondence of the house, as well as being head book-keeper. Her serene face gives evidence of a life of quiet, self-respecting independence.

Mrs. Frances V. Hallock and sister, Mrs. Robert Dale Owen, hold a place worthy of honorable mention for their good works and steady adherence to truth, and their clear, quick comprehension of its far-reaching power. Rev. Phebe Hanaford, pastor of a church in New Haven, Conn., has done a great work for woman. She is the mother of a family, and finds time not only to conduct their education, but to preach regularly every Sabbath, to write books of merit, and to superintend her domestic affairs, which are managed with skill, economy and good taste. Always cheerful and kindly, she wins many friends, not only to herself but for the cause. There is another movement that began in this decade now closed upon us, which properly belongs to its history, viz: that of the Working Women. It has been represented from Boston by Miss Jennie Collins, a slight woman, all brain and soul. She tells her stories with such a tender, natural pathos that few eyes are dry during her speeches. She makes no pretense, but gives most unmistakable evidence of a rich nature that has been repressed and tortured. She is the type of a large class that will develop into beautiful, symmetrical characters when the shackles are broken and women are free.

Conventions and organizations have so multiplied multiplied that it would require a volume to give their history. The chief of these are the great Northwestern and Pacific Slope Associations. Added to these are the State Societies in nearly all the Northern and Middle States. A State Society was organized in Richmond, Virginia, in April, 1870, by Matilda Joslyn Gage, a woman of wide historical information. Lectures have been given in several of the Southern States by individuals.

If the notices of women are by far more numerous than those of men, [134] it is not from forgetfulness of their services, for I credit them with all sincerity of motive, and nobleness in the wish for our enfranchisement. I have given, as briefly as possible, the two decades from 1850 to 1870. I have set down nothing in malice, and what is omitted must be charged to want of space and time. When the full history of this work is written, differences which have retarded its progress, and the wide range of action and reaction can be gone into if the historian so wills. I have endeavored to keep this report free from sectionalism and faction, believing that the finale would bring together all parties in one glad day of rejoicing. That there will be political parties in the future, with women, as with men, there can be no question; but that the sexes will have a purifying influence, each upon the other, is already conceded even by the opposers.

In closing this resume permit me to say that this meager outline, condensed from notes made from year to year, in no way satisfies the writer, but has been given by the earnest solicitations of friends, who wished that the steady progress of the cause might be marked in this retrospective hour. There is much that should have been embodied in this sketch of the past, especially the resolutions which have marked varying phases of the work, and which seemed like a divine inspiration in their comprehensive grasp and far-reaching thought, on this the last great question of reform.



Source: Davis, Paulina Wright. A History of the National Woman’s Rights Movement. New York: Journeymen Printers’ Co-operative Association, 1871, 6-8.