Select Page

The History 
Of the Woman’s Rights Movement

October 21, 1870 – Apollo Hall, New York City


In assembling as we have done 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?

In the beginning, it was natural that minds devoted for years to the work in hand should undertake the array of the required forces and the definite direction of the effort for the future; and now, it is equally proper that we call young, fresh workers, to receive from our hands the sacred cause.

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 today 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; l 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 for their lives. 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 knew that in attacking these strongholds we should bring ridicule and opposition, but having counted the cost, and put our hand to the plow, we should not turn back.

We proclaimed that our work was to reform, reconstruct and harmonize society; not to lay waste to her homes and her sanctuaries.

We did not promise that we would not probe to the core if we found ulcers eating into the very vitals of our social or political organizations. A few only have been found brave enough to do more than touch the fringe work that circles round the vortex which is heaving an 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 [the regulation of prostitution] 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.

Having laid the foundations broad we have steadily demanded equality in all relations, all rights and immunities, all duties as citizens, never asking favors because we are women, but even-handed justice and the ballot; without which we know that rights, if conceded, are held by an insecure tenure …



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