Progress Report 1856
November 25-26, 1856 — Seventh National Woman’s Rights Convention, Broadway Tabernacle, New York City
I am sure that all present will agree with me that this is a day of congratulation. It is our Seventh Annual National Woman’s Rights Convention. Our first effort was made in a small room in Boston, where a few women were gathered, who had learned woman’s rights by woman’s wrongs. There had been only one meeting in Ohio, and one in New York. The laws were yet against us, custom was against us, prejudice was against us, and more than all, women were against us. We were strong only “in the might of our right” — and, now, when this seventh year has brought us together again, we can say as did a laborer in the Republican party, though all is not gained, “we are without a wound in our faith, without a wound in our hope, and stronger than when we began.” We have indeed reason to thank God and take courage. Never before has any reformatory movement gained so much in so short a time. Looking over the past seven years, it seems almost a miracle that so much has been wrought, which is traceable directly to our efforts. When we began, the statute books were covered with laws against women, which an eminent jurist (Judge Walker) said would be a disgrace to the statute books of any heathen nation.
Now almost every Northern State has more or less modified its laws. The Legislature of Maine, after having granted nearly all other property rights to wives, found a bill before it asking that a wife should be entitled to what she earns, but a certain member grew fearful that wives would bring in bills for their daily service, and by an eloquent appeal to pockets, the measure was lost for the time, but that which has secured other rights will secure this. In Massachusetts, by the old laws, a wife owned nothing but the fee simple in her real estate. And even for that, she could not make a will without the written endorsement of her husband, permitting her to do so. Two years ago the law was so changed that she now holds the absolute right to her entire property, earnings included. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, have also very much amended their statutes.
New York, the proud Empire State, has, by the direct effort of this movement, secured to wives every property right except earnings. During two years a bill has been before the Legislature,which provides that if a husband be a drunkard, a profligate, or has abandoned his wife, she may have a right to her own earnings. It has not passed. Two hundred years hence that bill will be quoted as a proof of the barbarism of the times. Now it is a proof of progress.
Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana have also very materially modified their laws. And Wisconsin — God bless these young states! — has granted almost all that has been asked except the right of suffrage. And even this, Senator Sholes, in an able and manly minority report on the subject, said “is only a question of time, and as sure to triumph as God is just.” It proposed, that the convention which meets in two years to amend the constitution of the State should consider the subject.
In Michigan, too, it has been moved that women should have a right to their own babies — which none of you, ladies, have here in New York. The motion caused much discussion in the Legislature, and it would probably have been carried had not a disciple of Brigham Young’s, a Mormon member, defeated the bill. In Nebraska everything is bright for our cause. Mrs. Bloomer is there, and she has circulated petitions, claiming for women the right to vote. A bill to that effect passed the House of Representatives, and was lost in the Senate, only because of the too early closing of the session. That act of justice to woman would be gained in Nebraska first, and scores of women would go there that they might be made citizens, and be no longer subjects.
In addition to these great legal changes, achieved so directly by this reform, we find also that women have entered upon many new, and more remunerative industrial pursuits; thus being enabled to save themselves from the bitterness of dependent positions, or from lives of infamy.
Our demand that Harvard and Yale Colleges should admit women, though not yielded, only waits for a little more time. And while they wait, numerous petty “female colleges” have sprung into being, indicative of the justice of our claim that a college education should be granted to women. Not one of these female colleges (which are all second or third rate, and their whole course of study only about equal to what completes the sophomore year in our best colleges) meets the demand of the age, and so will eventually perish. Oberlin and Antioch Colleges in Ohio admit women on terms nearly equal with men.
Thus briefly I have mentioned some of the cheering results of our labors in this country.
In England the claims of women are making considerable progress. The most influential papers in London have urged the propriety of women physicians. Also a petition was sent to Parliament last year, signed by the Brownings, the Howitts, Harriet Martineau, Mrs. Gaskell, and Mrs. Jameson, asking for just such rights as we claim here. It was presented by Lord Brougham, and was respectfully received by Parliament.
Thus at home and abroad this great question of human equality is taking root, and bearing its own legitimate fruit. Everything has helped us. Everything will help us. The ballot is not yet yielded; but it cannot be far off when, as in the last Presidential contest, women were urged to attend political meetings, and a woman’s name was made one of the rallying cries of the party of progress.
The enthusiasm which everywhere greeted the name of JESSIE was so far a recognition of a woman’s right to participate in politics. Encouraged by the success of these seven years of effort, let us continue with unfailing fidelity to labor for the practical recognition of the great truth, that all human rights inhere in each human being. We welcome to this platform, men and women irrespective of creed, country or color; those who dissent from us as freely as those who agree with us.
Source: The Proceedings of the Seventh National Woman’s Rights Convention Held in New York City, at the Broadway Tabernacle On Tuesday and Wednesday, November 25th and 26th, 1856, New York, NY, 1856, pp. 3-17.