Rebecca J. Mead
Woman suffragists in the United States engaged in a sustained, difficult, and multigenerational struggle: seventy-two years elapsed between the Seneca Falls convention (1848) and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). During these years, activists gained confidence, developed skills, mobilized resources, learned to maneuver through the political process, and built a social movement. This essay describes key turning points and addresses internal tensions as well as external obstacles in the U.S. woman suffrage movement. It identifies important strategic, tactical, and rhetorical approaches that supported women’s claims for the vote and influenced public opinion, and shows how the movement was deeply connected to contemporaneous social, economic, and political contexts.
Sheila L. Skemp
Historians once assumed that, because women in the era of the American Revolution could not vote and showed very little interest in attaining the franchise, they were essentially apolitical beings. Scholars now recognize that women were actively engaged in the debates that accompanied the movement toward independence, and that after the war many sought a more expansive political role for themselves. Moreover, men welcomed women’s support for the war effort. If they saw women as especially fit for domestic duties, many continued to seek women’s political guidance and help even after the war ended.
Granted, those women who wanted a more active and unmediated relationship to the body politic faced severe legal and ideological obstacles. The common law system of coverture gave married women no control over their bodies or to property, and thus accorded them no formal venue to express their political opinions. Religious convention had it that women, the “weaker sex,” were the authors of original sin. The ideology associated with “republicanism” argued that the attributes of independence, self-reliance, physical strength, and bravery were exclusively masculine virtues. Many observers characterized women as essentially selfish and frivolous creatures who hungered after luxuries and could not contain their carnal appetites. Nevertheless, some women carved out political roles for themselves.
In the lead up to the war, many women played active, even essential roles in various non-consumption movements, promising to refrain from purchasing English goods, and attacking those merchants who refused to boycott prohibited goods. Some took to the streets, participating in riots that periodically disturbed the tranquility of colonial cities. A few published plays and poems proclaiming their patriotic views. Those women, who would become loyalists, were also active, never reluctant, to express their disapproval of the protest movement.
During the war, many women demonstrated their loyalty to the patriot cause by shouldering the burdens of absent husbands. They managed farms and businesses. First in Philadelphia, and then in other cities, women went from door to door collecting money for the Continental Army. Some accompanied husbands to the battlefront, where they tended to the material needs of soldiers. A very few disguised themselves as men and joined the army, exposing as a lie the notion that only men had the capacity to sacrifice their lives for the good of the country. Loyalist women continued to express their political views, even though doing so brought them little more than physical suffering and emotional pain. African American women took advantage of wartime chaos to run away from their masters and forge new, independent lives for themselves.
After the war, women marched in parades, lobbied and petitioned legislators, attended sessions of Congress, and participated in political rallies—lending their support to particular candidates or factions. Elite women published novels, poems, and plays. Some hosted salons where men and women gathered to discuss political issues. In New Jersey, single property-owning women voted.
By the end of the century, however, proponents of women’s political rights lost ground, in part because new “scientific” notions of gender difference prepared the way for the concept of “separate spheres.” Politics became more organized, leaving little room for women to express their views “out of doors,” even as judges and legislators defined women as naturally dependent. Still, white, middle class women in particular took advantage of better educational opportunities, finding ways to influence the public sphere without demanding formal political rights. They read, wrote, and organized benevolent societies, laying the groundwork for the antebellum reform movements of the mid-19th century.
Catherine A. Brekus
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.
Melissa A. McEuen
The Second World War changed the United States for women, and women in turn transformed their nation. Over three hundred fifty thousand women volunteered for military service, while twenty times as many stepped into civilian jobs, including positions previously closed to them. More than seven million women who had not been wage earners before the war joined eleven million women already in the American work force. Between 1941 and 1945, an untold number moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities, but many more remained in place, organizing home front initiatives to conserve resources, to build morale, to raise funds, and to fill jobs left by men who entered military service.
The U.S. government, together with the nation’s private sector, instructed women on many fronts and carefully scrutinized their responses to the wartime emergency. The foremost message to women—that their activities and sacrifices would be needed only “for the duration” of the war—was both a promise and an order, suggesting that the war and the opportunities it created would end simultaneously. Social mores were tested by the demands of war, allowing women to benefit from the shifts and make alterations of their own. Yet dominant gender norms provided ways to maintain social order amidst fast-paced change, and when some women challenged these norms, they faced harsh criticism. Race, class, sexuality, age, religion, education, and region of birth, among other factors, combined to limit opportunities for some women while expanding them for others.
However temporary and unprecedented the wartime crisis, American women would find that their individual and collective experiences from 1941 to 1945 prevented them from stepping back into a prewar social and economic structure. By stretching and reshaping gender norms and roles, World War II and the women who lived it laid solid foundations for the various civil rights movements that would sweep the United States and grip the American imagination in the second half of the 20th century.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the names that come to mind for most Americans if asked about the civil rights or Black Power movements. Others may point to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom backed pathbreaking civil rights legislation. However, recent scholarship suggests that neither black male leaders nor white male presidents were always the most important figures in the modern struggle for black freedom. Presidents took their cues not simply from male luminaries in civil rights organizations. Rather, their legislative initiatives were largely in response to grassroots protests in which women, especially black women, were key participants. African American women played major roles in local and national organizing efforts and frequently were the majority in local chapters of groups as dissimilar as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party. Even familiar names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King have become little more than sanitized national icons, while their decades-long efforts to secure racial, economic, and gender justice remain relatively unknown. Aside from activists and scholars, even fewer of us know much, if anything, about the female allies of the black freedom struggle, including white southerners as well as other women of color. A closer look at the women who made enormous contributions to both the modern civil rights and Black Power movements sheds new light on these struggles, including the historic national victories we think we fully understand, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In short, examining women’s participation in the “long civil rights movement,” which historians increasingly date to the New Deal and World War II, calls for a redefinition of more conventional notions of leadership, protest, and politics.
Terri L. Snyder
Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.
Faye E. Dudden
The U.S. women’s rights movement first emerged in the 1830s, when the ideological impact of the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening combined with a rising middle class and increasing education to enable small numbers of women, encouraged by a few sympathetic men, to formulate a critique of women’s oppression in early 19th-century America. Most were white, and their access to an expanding print culture and middle class status enabled them to hire domestic servants; they had the time and resources to assess and begin to reject the roles prescribed by cultural domesticity and legal coverture, or the traditional authority of husbands. A critical mass of these rebellious women first emerged among those who had already enlisted in the radical struggle to end slavery. When abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke faced efforts to silence them because they were women, they saw parallels between their own situation and that of the slaves. The Grimkes began to argue that all women and men were created by God as “equal moral beings” and entitled to the same rights. The ideology of the women’s movement soon broadened to encompass secular arguments, claiming women’s part in a political order ostensibly based on individual rights and consent of the governed. At Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and at subsequent women’s rights conventions, the participants articulated a wide range of grievances that extended beyond politics into social and family life. Almost all the leading activists in the early women’s movement, including Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were trained in “the school of antislavery,” where they learned to withstand public or familial disapproval and acquired practical skills like petitioning and public speaking. The women’s rights activists’ efforts were complicated by questions about which goals to pursue first and by overlap with other reform efforts, including temperance and moral reform as well as abolition and black rights. Women and men related to the movement in a range of ways—activists were surrounded by a penumbra of non-activist contributors and an interested public, and much grassroots activity probably went unrecorded. After the Civil War destroyed slavery, Reconstruction-era politicians had to define citizenship and rights, especially the right to vote. Realizing this opened a rare window of political opportunity, the women’s movement leaders focused on suffrage, but their desperate efforts uncovered ugly racism in their ranks, and they betrayed former black allies. Disagreeing over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the vote to black men only, the women’s movement fell into two rival suffrage organizations: Stanton and Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association, which did not support the 15th Amendment, faced off against the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Stymied in their political moves, the suffragists then found their judicial strategy, the “New Departure,” checkmated by a conservative Supreme Court. By 1877, the moment of radical opportunity had passed, and though the women’s suffrage movement could count a few marginal successes in the West, it had stalled and was increasingly overshadowed by more conservative forms of women’s activism like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.