Women’s Suffrage, Rights, and Roles

Women's suffragists parade in New York City in 1917
Women's suffragists parade in New York City in 1917

Against the background of the Enlightenment and American, French, and Industrial Revolutions, Western women’s lives changed dramatically, although not until the 20th century would most gain the right to vote. By 1900 Western societies had become accustomed to women’s participation in public affairs, even if governments, and many individual men and women, still questioned its appropriateness.

The profound changes reshaping European and North American women’s lives were not examples of unfettered progress toward equality but, rather, a series of challenges to, and compromises with, ancient traditions of female inferiority and dependency.

Although there had long been women of distinction and even importance—queens, priestesses, scholars, and saints—the first influential proponent for all women was Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft. A former governess who supported the French Revolution and collaborated with Thomas Paine, she published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Women, said Wollstonecraft, were equal to men in their ability to reason. Therefore, women must be treated as reasonable and equal members of the human race.

Female Education

At a time when the “female” brain was perceived as feebler and less focused, Wollstonecraft proposed free public school systems to equally educate boys and girls together in intellectual, physical, and vocational pursuits. The reality of the times was otherwise.

In the 18th century and later, many women educated themselves by sneaking books from male family members or secretly listening in on brothers’ lessons. Some were lucky to be encouraged by fathers or brothers, or had access to rigorous schools led by female teachers, like Emma Willard of New York, who had themselves achieved a decent education.

Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller of Massachusetts was educated in Greek and Latin by her lawyer father and later learned German and Italian. In 1839, she organized a series of meetings, mainly for women, to discuss intellectual and political issues.

Hers was an Americanized version of the European salon that flourished, especially in France, in the late 18th century. Unlike those salons, organized by well-educated women but dominated by men, Fuller’s gatherings were a form of female adult education.

Proponents of female education were not necessarily feminists. Catharine Beecher championed improved teacher training for women and helped develop home economics as a science, not because she approved of female equality, but because she believed that women needed to do their traditional work more efficiently. In Britain Isabella Beeton likewise advised women on cooking and home management.

Ohio’s new Oberlin College opened its doors to a few women in 1833. But women only colleges seemed to offer a more acceptable solution. Founded in Massachusetts in 1837 by Mary Lyon, a chemist, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was the first.

In Britain, Frances Mary Buss founded a college preparatory school for girls in 1850, and in 1871 Britain’s Shirreff sisters, Maria and Emily, themselves self-taught, created the National Union for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. Some all-male institutions added adjunct female colleges as did Harvard University in 1879, establishing Radcliffe College.

Coeducation for children older than 10 was extremely controversial, for both pedagogic and moral reasons, but grew as public education expanded. This did not mean that female students were warmly welcomed by their male classmates and professors, or afforded equal accommodations.

Despite some concessions to female students, neither Oxford nor Cambridge Universities offered women full academic privileges until well into the 20th century. Likewise, Paris’s Sorbonne let women audit courses long before granting them degrees.

Economic Rights and Work Options

In the preindustrial economy, distinctions between men’s and women’s work were far less clear than they became in the 19th century. Women’s work (except in the upper classes) had always included cleaning, food preparation, and child care, but men and women, boys and girls, often labored side-by-side on their farms, or made products like brooms and shoes at home for sale to local distributors.

As the growing market revolution displaced local commerce, and manufacturing migrated from home work to factories, female labor was redefined. Woman’s sphere would be the home exclusively; women would no longer produce for their family but consume goods made by the new economy. Too delicate and refined for the public fray, the true woman, as “angel of the house,” would make home a refuge for her husband and children.

This vision, often called the cult of domesticity, excluded millions of poor and enslaved women in Europe and North America. Unmarried women, deserted women, women whose husbands struggled to support their family all found most kinds of paying work closed to them. There were some new opportunities: In New England, growing textile factories, desperate for labor, encouraged farm parents to send their young daughters to work.

Carefully supervised and poorly paid, “mill girls” were expected to leave their jobs for marriage. Most did; many also enjoyed new self-sufficiency. Paid work for respectable lower-class women was primarily domestic service. “Angels of the house” exploited large staffs of female servants.

Middle-class women or poor but educated women could become governesses or schoolteachers, but almost had to quit when they married. Some women chose spinsterhood over married dependency. Many pushed the boundaries of female opportunity by taking up work related to women’s lives and needs.

Born in England, Elizabeth Blackwell taught school in Cincinnati before overcoming fierce opposition to become an physician. Blackwell argued that women and children were better served by female doctors who could alleviate their pains without compromising their modesty.

Her contemporary, Briton Florence Nightingale, professionalized nursing during and after the Crimean War, giving new respectability to women’s traditional caregiver role. Dorothea Dix, who made her name in prison and mental-health reform, and nurse Clara Barton played similar roles in America’s Civil War.

More controversially, others entered, or tried to enter, male domains. An estimated 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. In 1872 the U.S. Supreme Court denied Myra Bradwell a license to practice law in Illinois, saying “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life.”

Victoria Woodhull, an activist U.S. journalist and stockbroker, attempted a run for president on a third-party ticket in 1872. Later, married to an Englishman, she backed Britain’s woman suffrage movement.

A traditionally male undertaking in which women excelled was writing for pay. New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne famously blamed the popularity of novels by “scribbling women” for his relative difficulty in reaching a mass audience.

For activists including Clara Zetkin and Louise Otto Peters of Germany, writing was a way to earn money while gaining political support. Both France’s George Sand and England’s George Eliot were authors who adopted male names to protest the female condition and achieve stronger sales of their works.

Marriage and Child-Rearing

Unmarried women were objects of pity and scorn who often lived with their parents, but married women were more dependent on men for their very lives. The ancient tradition of couverture defined married women as legally incompetent minors. It was not abolished in Britain until 1870.

A husband was the undisputed head of the household, controlling absolutely his property, his children, his servants, his wife, and whatever resources she might have brought into the marriage. Extreme cruelty was considered bad form, but moderate beatings were sanctioned by law and religion.

Nevertheless, after 1750 there were indications of new and more equal kinds of relationships between men and women. In Europe and America, so-called companionate marriages that allowed for romantic love began to replace or augment unions arranged by parents.

In the United States, the “republican” mother responsible for future generations of free citizens was accorded some respect. Experiments in “free love” and multiple marriage scandalized but provided alternatives for adventurous women and men.

The lives of women’s rights advocates would have been even more difficult without such husbands as Henry Blackwell, whose wife, Lucy Stone, kept her own name, and English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who actively promoted female equality alongside his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill.

Even with the best of husbands, married life was difficult. Wives endured many pregnancies; infant and maternal deaths were common. Despite servants, the care and feeding of large households severely limited middle-class women’s ability to gain education or take on a job or career. Birth control methods were rudimentary and generally considered sinful.

Lacking property rights, married women were at the mercy of an economic system over which they had no control. To satisfy creditors, a husband could sell his wife’s belongings, down to her clothes and cookware. A husband was not required to consider his wife’s wishes when disciplining, educating, or apprenticing their children.

If a wife ran off, or obtained a rare divorce, she might never again see her children. In 1848 New York’s Married Woman’s Property Act gave wives some control of their own resources. This initiative, however, as often protected the property interests of a father or brother as those of the wife.

Political Rights

The political ferment that brought about the American Revolution and continued in America and Europe until about 1850 inspired new hopes of freedom among women and other oppressed groups. Enthusiasm aroused by such stirring calls for freedom as America’s 1776 Declaration of Independence would harden into an often angry struggle for women’s political recognition later in the 19th century.

Abigail Adams, wife of president John Adams, was not the only woman to ask her nation to “remember the ladies.” Between 1776 and 1807 a few women actually voted in New Jersey, where the state’s new constitution had failed to specify that only males were entitled to the franchise.

From 1809 to 1849 when the word male was inserted, Québec’s female property owners voted in municipal and provincial elections. But in France, both Revolutionary-era rulers and Napoleon I’s regime curbed women’s search for freedom with stricter laws.

The cause that galvanized America’s organized woman suffrage movement was the battle to end slavery. Many middle-class women, horrified by the plight of slave mothers and children, found common cause in abolition and began comparing their own restricted freedoms to slavery’s chains.

Sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who grew up attended by slaves on a South Carolina plantation, came north to aid the abolitionist cause. By 1836 they were writing and speaking against slavery, first only to women but soon to mixed audiences, outraging many Protestant clergymen.

In 1840 Quaker antislavery leader Lucretia Coffin Mott and other American abolitionists, including the newly married Elizabeth Cady Stanton, sailed to London for a World Anti-Slavery Convention. Mott, an official delegate, was forbidden to speak on account of her sex.

In July 1848 Mott and Stanton reconnected to organize a two-day woman’s rights meeting at Seneca Falls. Some 300 attended, including about 40 men, one of whom was Frederick Douglass, abolitionist leader and former slave.

Meanwhile, in many European nations, a reform tide that peaked in 1848 was propelling women’s rights advocates in a similar direction. Pauline Roland and other French women associated with the socialistleaning Saint Simonian and Fourierist movements called for marital reform and universal suffrage laws that included women.

Then came a backlash: in 1851 a new Prussian law not only forbade women to join political parties but prohibited them from attending meetings where politics were discussed. A series of British voting reform acts excluded women. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, Britain’s suffrage movement intensified after 1880. Despite press mockery, the U.S. women’s rights movement grew briskly, especially after Susan B. Anthony, a teacher and temperance crusader, joined forces with Stanton.

After the Civil War, however, the two suffrage leaders precipitated a bitter split in the movement when they protested a constitutional amendment that allowed male former slaves, but no women of any race, to vote. Not until 1890 did the two suffrage organizations reunite. By 1900, four western states (beginning with Wyoming in 1869) allowed women to vote in all or most elections, and piecemeal suffrage was being doled out in Sweden, Britain, and parts of the British Empire.