Women's Struggle for the Right to Vote in America

An ideology of “separate spheres” for men and women developed and strengthened during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

“According to this ideology, men and women were endowed by God and nature with opposite, complementary traits, which dictated that men occupy the public realms of economic and political activity, and women occupy the private realm of the home and family” (Holcomb 61).”… [T]he cult of domesticity identified womanhood with the private or domestic sphere of the home and manhood with the public sphere of economic competition and politics” (Winter 2). Women were naturally inclined to compassion, piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity and therefore considered to be made for home life (Welter 162).

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Even though women focused on caring for their families at home, and reserved politics for their male counterparts, over time, they began participating more often in social and church-related events and were inspired to support causes such as “prohibition of alcohol, helping the poor and …abolition of slavery…” Women’s participation in the antislavery movement eventually exposed them to their own lack of political rights during the 19th century (Bjornlund 10). Annual conventions and meetings played a significant role in spurring the women’s suffrage (right to vote) movement. In 1840 representatives from the American Anti-Slavery movement attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London. Women delegates were prohibited from participating and denied a voice at the convention. However, this event brought together Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who decided to meet later to discuss women’s rights issues. Eight years later, when they finally met, they decided to take a concrete step by organizing the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

This was a convention “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women…” (Bjornlund 14). Stanton and others planned a list of twelve resolutions designed similar to the Declaration of Independence. “The meeting at Seneca Falls brought a storm of protest…

women who attended the convention were accused of undermining the family and ignoring their responsibilities” (Bjornlund 16-18). Many men did not support women’s rights because of the cultural preconception that a woman’s realm of work was only the household. Women did not understand that they should have rights because the environment in which they lived provided very few means for obtaining higher education, and household duties were considered to be more important than college education. Some women did not support their own suffrage because they were afraid of being tainted or losing their virtue, a concept that was taught to them from childhood. Politicians refused to get involved in women’s suffrage because they did not want to lose voter support.

Supporting women suffrage was considered radical, which would negatively affect what the voters were accustomed to. Since the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, it took nearly three quarters of a century for women to gain their right to vote, because they had to fight against a deeply embedded cultural norm that women should be limited to their role of domestic care. Men’s demeaning attitude towards women’s rights perpetuated established notions that a woman’s rightful place was only in the home. In 1837, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, two sisters who moved from South Carolina to the north, participated in a campaign against slavery, were reprimanded by clergy about their “unladylike and unchristian” behavior. “When [a woman] assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer,” the ministers wrote in a circular, “she yields the power which God has given her for her protection and her character becomes unnatural” (Bjornlund 10).

Women were treated with disrespect and not allowed to participate at political gatherings by men such as the one at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention that was held in London in 1840. Due to the fear that Women’s rights would overshadow the antislavery movement, the American Anti-Slavery movement had split into two – the radical abolitionist group American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) and the conservative American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (AFASS) in the spring of 1840. The conservative AFASS sent only male representatives and the liberal AASS sent both female and male members of the association to the conference. At the Convention in London, however, the women delegates were not even allowed to sit, let alone participate in anyway. They were relegated to the gallery as spectators (Holcomb 57-58).

Well educated and powerful men such as John Adams and Henry Stanton, both abolitionists and husbands of staunch women’s suffrage supporters – Abigail Adams and Elizabeth Cady Stanton respectively, expected women to remain in the private sphere of their homes and did not believe in voting rights for women. “Women were thought to be incapable of understanding politics, mathematics, science, or other higher subjects. ‘Why exclude women [from the vote]?’ asked statesmen John Adams rhetorically in a letter to a colleague” (Bjornlund 6). “Because their delicacy renders them unfit for practice and experience in the great business of life, and the hardy enterprises of war, as well as the arduous cares of state. Besides their attention is so much engaged with the necessary nurture of their children, that nature has made them fittest for domestic cares” (Adams 32).

Like John Adams, Henry Stanton also had a strong negative attitude towards Women’s rights despite being an abolitionist. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women were planning the Seneca Falls convention, they prepared their argument based on the Declaration of Independence and she drew up a list of”resolutions that would establish women as equals with men… Her twelve resolutions included demands for the rights to gain an education, to own property, to control one’s earnings, to share in the custody of children after divorce, and to be heard in court. There was one more demand: the right to vote. Giving women the right to vote was a shocking idea. Her husband, Henry Stanton, vowed to leave town if she presented this as a part of the resolutions at the convention (a threat he carried out)” (Bjornlund 15).

Such condescending attitudes were clearly influenced by the beliefs that men and women belonged and operated in separate spheres. The woman’s rightful place was caring for children and the family, and upholding the virtuosity and privacy of the home. Men worked in the public sphere where they were “… rational, competitive, aggressive, and independent…”(Holcomb 62). According to men’s attitudes, women’s suffrage was outlandish and would not be allowed: “We are not afraid to maul a black man over the head if he dares to vote, but we can’t treat women, even black women, that way. No, we’ll allow no woman suffrage. It may be right, but we won’t have it” (Morgan 84).

Women lacked the ability to understand that they should have rights because they were poorly educated, and in the environment, in which they lived, education was not given as much importance as home and family based activities. There were very few higher education opportunities for women. “In the first half of the 19th century, the vast majority of colleges were open only to men” and in fact, only as late as 1833, Oberlin College was the first institution to accept women and African Americans . “At this time, several notable women established female academies to provide more advanced education to elite young women. Most of these founders were shaped by ‘separate spheres’ ideology…” (Hamilton 80). Even if there were female academies very few of them had serious academic standards.

Women were therefore poorly educated in the late 18th and early 19th century. Further, it is apparent that those who founded the female academies and developed courses women could take, continued to be influenced by the Cult of Domesticity and believed that woman should learn only about womanly and household activities. “While women at coeducation institutions enjoyed new opportunities, not all doors were open to them. Many coeducational colleges and universities restricted female students to certain courses of study, limited women’s access to facilities, and prohibited their participation in many extracurricular activities” (Hamilton 86). Some women were put into high schools and colleges that placed them on specialized “female tracks”. “The debate over women’s education posed the question of whether a “finished” education detracted from the practice of housewifely arts.

Again it proved to be a case of semantics, for a true woman’s education was never “finished” until she was instructed in the gentle science of homemaking” (Welter 166).Such an educationprovided women with some learning, but they continued to be less than equal to men, because their lack of standard education and training held them back. As the number of colleges opened up admissions for women between 1870 and 1900, women students increased nearly eight times to 85000 (Hamilton 86). With this started the fears that higher educational rigorwould harm women’s health. “Girls lose health…by [an education] regimen that ignores the periodical tides and reproductive apparatus” (Clarke 122).

“Some colleges responded by arguing that the education they were extending to women would enhance, not threaten, women’s traditional roles as wives, mothers, and moral guardians of society” (Hamilton 86-87). However, the fear of the corrupting influence of education persisted. “No matter what later authorities claimed, the nineteenth century knew that girls could be ruined by a book…

Books which attacked or seemed to attack woman’s accepted place in society were regarded as equally dangerous” (Welter 166). It is clear how pervasive the influence of the Cult of Domesticity was, given that it retracted women from comprehendingtheir rights to a standard education and participationin public life. Women did not believe in supporting their own suffrage for fear of losing their virtue, a concept taught from childhood. Supporting suffrage for women meant that women would need to leave the confines of their home and participate in political and public spheres of life. Many women were against this because such a possibility went against their very understanding of who a woman was or should be.

“[D]omesticity was among the virtues most prized…the true dignity and beauty of the female character seem to consist in a right understanding and faithful and cheerful performance of socialand family duties” (Welter 162). Being pious and righteous was absolutely essential for women since sometimes “… a woman did not see the dangers to her treasure [her virtue]. In that case, they must be pointed out to her, usually by a male. In the nineteenth century any form of social change was tantamount to an attack on woman’s virtue, if only it was correctly understood” (Welter 157). So fighting for women’s rights would make women immodest and unwomanly.

Many women anti-suffragists claimed “‘[i]n strife,’ such as politics necessitates, ‘women become hard, harsh, unlovable, repulsive, as far removed from the gentle creature whom we all love…as heaven is removed from earth” (Simon and Danziger 13). So women were afraid to lose their innocence by getting involved in politics. As Barbara Welter highlights the importance of virtue in the 19th century, “America could boast that her daughters were particularly innocent…Lydia Maria Child, giving advice to mothers, aimed at preserving that spirit of innocence” (Welter 158). Supporting women’s suffrage would take away women’spiety and innocence leaving them ineligible for marriage. Another desirable quality for the 19th century woman was to remain completely dependent on her husband. They were taught that their husbands would look out for them and relied on them for even their opinions about issues.

A biographer of Susan B. Anthony claims that the women who tried to collect signatures for petitions, met other women who rudely objected to the idea of women’s rights and would not contradict the ideas of the men in their family. “Like itinerant tin pedlars or book agent they tramped the streets and country roads, knocking at every door, presenting their petitions, arguing with women who half the time slammed the door in their faces with the smug remark that they had husbands thank God, to look after their interests, and they needed no new laws to protect their rights” (Bjornlund 20). Women believed that they were supposed to take care of the home and leave protection and politics to men. Also, women saw their role as virtuous saviors of men who were tarnished by the outside world.

If women themselves went out of the safety of their homes, there would be no one to save them. “From her home woman performed her great task of bringing men back to God. The Young Ladies’ Class Book was sure that “the domestic fire- side is the great guardian of society against the excesses of human passions” (Welter 162). In the 19th century, many women were unsure and uncomfortable about getting involved in the political and economic aspects of society and did not think women’s rights were important enough to risk sacrificing their piety and virtue. Politicians feared losing votes by getting involved in women’s suffrage because it would upset the cultural norm of women’s domesticity that voters were accustomed to. John Adams, a statesman who played a key role in drafting and the passage of the Declaration of Independence, was also influenced by the domestic sphere ideology and was against women’s right to vote.

In responding to Massachusetts Public Official James Sullivan, John Adams stated “that suffrage should be limited to men who hold property. Women should be excluded from the franchise, …not only because they are physically unfit for dealing with political concerns but also because they are dependent on men and would therefore tend to vote as their husbands directed” (Adams 30). This shows the thinking about women during that time when they were not expected to hold an opinion of their own, were supposed be submissive, pious and confined to the domestic sphere. After the Civil War, abolitionists managed to get Congress to abolish slavery and make all men equal, but women’s rights were still not in the picture. The 15th amendment states: “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (Roark et al.

A-19). This amendment to the Constitution was constructed in a clever way so as to completely bypass the issue of gender (Cooney 23). The bias of the political system is further visible in the Susan B. Anthony criminal trial. “On November 5, 1872, Susan B.

Anthony, along with her three sisters and a dozen other women, went to the polls in Rochester New York, and cast her vote in the presidential election. Two weeks later, they were all arrested. Anthony was singled out, indicted…, and put on trial on June 17, 1873 on the charge of voting illegally because she was a woman. Preparing for her trial, she spoke to potential jurors throughout the country where it was to be held asking, ‘Is It a Crime for a U.S Citizen to Vote?’… At the outset Anthony was ruled incompetent to testify in her own behalf because she was a woman. Then, after the government presented its case, the judge instructed members of the jury to find her guilty and then dismissed them.

To the amazement of the court, he then pulled the already written verdict out of his pocket and read it, pronouncing her guilty and fining her $100 for her crime” (Cooney 36). The political sphere during the 19th century continued to mainly consist of men and politicians such as Woodrow Wilson, who also expected women to limit themselves to family issues. He had a “…contempt for career women, [and] he frequently expressed his disapproval of ‘unsexed, masculinized females.’ His vision of femininity reflected contemporary attitudes of northerners and southerners alike, including many women. His wife [Ellen], for one, sustained him in every way” (Lunardini 656). Wilson would not commit to women’s suffrage almost until the end of 1915 evading the issue cleverly until he confronted the possibility of the facing the fury of women voters from western states.

“Events in Wilson’s personal life in part motivated the gesture…Their [Wilson and Mrs. Galt] courtship soon agitated his cabinet: remarriage so soon after Ellen’s [wife] death and before the election of 1916 might alienate women voters in vital western states.(The Congressional Union, as a catalyst for organizing women voters, was a force to be reckoned with)… Undaunted, and with little prior notice, the president and Mrs.

Galt formally announced their engagement on 6 October 1915. That day Wilson also told reporters: ‘I intend to vote for woman suffrage in New Jersey'” (Lunardini 660). Ironically, even though Wilson did not support women’s suffrage for a very long time, it was due to a fear of loss of votes that he decides to support it. Due to the influences of the cultural norm of domesticity throughout 19th century America, men commonly accepted the notion that a woman’s rightful place was only within the confines of her household and not in the public political arena. “Early in the morning of August 26, 1020, U.

S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation that the woman suffrage amendment had been ratified…The 19th Amendment to the Constitution had become the law of the land. Suffragists and supporters across the country were exultant…” (Cooney 429). From the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the 72 years of prolonged struggle for women’s rights finally paid off. It took very long and many difficult years for women to gain enfranchisement because they had to overcome the entrenched dogma of Domesticity which divided the spheres of home and work.

Men belittled the idea of women even having rights because they accepted without question that women simply could not handle the rigors of business and political life. Women who were unable to attend higher education schools could not comprehend that they should fight for their rights, because education for women was not considered as essential as learning domestic and womanly activities. Also, some women were against their own voting rights wanting to protect and prevent corruption of their virtue and innocence. Furthermore, politicians influenced by the ideology of Domesticity, were biased against women’s rights. They were apprehensive that if they supported women’s right to vote, they would anger conservative traditional voters.

Prevailing over the pervasive and negative culture of Domesticity without proper resources, structure or support, “[w]inning the vote [for women’s suffrage] was a profound triumph and an unbelievable relief to the many women who devoted their lives to that goal” (Cooney 436). In the past 93 years since Congress passed the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote, women still have to continue to fight for equality today. Women only earn about 81% of what men earn for the same job. Women work more in service-oriented jobs such as nursing, social services, teaching, and such occupations. There are very few female CEOs, engineers, astronauts even today (International Labor OrganizationILO.

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