This is part 2 in a three-part series examining the history of feminist movements in the United States and their impact on American society. In the first part, we examined conditions that led to the various women’s movements. This story continues to evolve in the 19th century where part one left off. Up until the 19th century the institution of marriage largely defined feminine lives. It was their identity, providing women their place in society. Marriage and motherhood signified a woman’s maturity and respectability, though marriage itself was more like a business deal than a romantic commitment. In the World of Society back then, women were treated as family possessions, to be married off for respectability or even fortune.
Aside from those who married, let’s not forget the Spinsters, also known offensively as “Old Maids”. These were unmarried women past the child-bearing age or who were just downright unlucky at love. In today’s 21st century, a single woman can still be stereotyped like a “Spinster”, wherein society unkindly judges a woman for supposed “Lesbian” tendencies, often because she is nothing but mature, alone and doesn’t seem to interact with men. How hurtful this can be and often untrue! Many women simply choose to be alone, enjoying their freedom. As far as we have come from the 17th century, society still assumes the existential position of wifehood and motherhood that if you are alone you don’t like the opposite sex. However, if a woman chooses to be lesbian, that’s her choice too. Regardless, this viewpoint still harkens back to the early roles that women played in society. If you weren’t married, something was “wrong” with you.
Many of the young women from the 19th century known as Spinsters were most likely under the thumb of their dear old parents, who needed someone to take care of them and do their bidding in their old age. As a dutiful daughter, she would renounce her fantasies, and illusions in regards to love, and marriage, accepting the guilt trip that her parents had saddled her with always.
If an unmarried woman 25 years or older still held fantasies that she would be able to enter into the idyllic state of marriage, she would be ridiculed and scorned like an Old Maid. The mere idea of any man marrying an “old” spinster back then was utterly ridiculous. Only if, she were a person of wealth would she be worth having past the age of 25. Therefore, a woman who did not marry was considered a failure and looked upon by society with pity. Although her primary goal was to be a wife and mother, the only decent forms of employment which she could engage in as an unmarried woman were that of a teacher, a governess, or a companion, although she was uneducated in the sophisticated ways of the young ladies of society.
Women throughout the centuries have been perceived as inferior to men. This has frustrated and enraged them in regards to the lack of control they have had over their own destinies.
As a result of women vocalizing their displeasure over the way they were being treated and their overwhelming lack of rights, the first Women’s Rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York. This took place on July 19-20, 1848, with the sole purpose of addressing Women’s rights and issues. It was organized by Quaker leader and abolitionist Lucretia Mott and abolitionist lecturer Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There were at least 260 women that attended the meeting demanding political, social and economic justice for women, which was quite revolutionary for the 19th century. A Declaration of Rights and Sentiments fashioned after the Declaration of Independence was prepared by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It mentioned all the injustices that women had suffered for years.
Some of the highlights from that declaration included:
That women as well as men are created equal and that women have the right to own property in their own name.
The right, to work at any trade or profession of their choosing.
The right to an education and the right to vote.
The Seneca Falls Convention marked the inauguration of the Women’s Rights Movement in America. Women were no longer going to be suppressed or remain silent, be treated as a commodity, or as a slave. The buck was stopping there. Enough was enough.
Prior to 1848 and other “Married Women’s Property Acts” that were passed, when a woman married, she would lose the right to control property that was hers prior to the marriage. She wasn’t able to acquire property during the marriage either. Married woman during that time were not able to make any contracts, transfer assets or even sell property, bring suit, maintain or control her own wages or collect any rents. Although Mississippi adopted the first married women’s property act in 1839, the state of New York passed a much better known law in 1848.
With the passing of the 1893 Married Women’s Property Act, this slow course of action was finally brought to fruition. As a result, married women now fully had legalized control over possessions of every kind. Possessions that they had owned at marriage or which they received after marriage, either by inheritance or which they had earned.
After the Civil War, industry began to grow as new cities were being built. This in turn provided better paying jobs to men. For women, jobs like telephone operators, stenographers, clerks, teachers and nurses were all becoming available.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which was the largest women’s association of the 19th century, was founded in 1874. It addressed the issues of men’s alcoholism and its detrimental effect upon the family. Their primary concern focused on the saloons because that was where men spent most of their time, where they spent their wages on alcohol, gambled away their livelihood and where prostitution flourished. It was a man’s world. In the saloon, the man would always find a warm welcome, It was their hide away from the whinny complaints of their wives and where they could avoid endless domestic issues. These dedicated WCTU women would aggravate the saloons, urging the saloon keepers to lock their doors. The more they were pushed aside, the more they would fight back. They were relentless in their efforts, which eventually resulted in 3000 saloons being closed.
The National Woman’s Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as President, was formed in 1869. The American Women’s Suffrage Association, with Henry Ward Beecher as President, was also established the same year. Their goal was to ensure women’s suffrage. In 1890, the two groups merged into the “National American Women’s Suffrage Association” with Susan B. Anthony as President. She was assisted by Carrie Chapman Catt. In 1920, the National League of Women Voters was established. This replaced the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association. The Women’s Rights Movement continued to gain momentum as the “newly liberated woman “began emerging around the 1890’s. They proudly wore full-cut men’s trousers, argued over women’s rights openly in public places, and competed in strenuous sporting events. So what do you think about that? These women were real jocks involved in all sports and could handle smoking too.
A leading woman’s revolution took place in 1916, as women were liberated from simply acting as reproduction machines. At the time, many women were going through with unwanted pregnancies, and many others had died as a result of self-abortion. Margaret Sanger, a maternity nurse in lower Manhattan, New York, aware of the trauma, decided to open the first birth-control clinic. Margaret Sanger also formed the National Birth Control League in 1917, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation in 1942. At the end of the war, a ruling from the Federal Court allowed condoms to be legally advertised and sold for the prevention of disease, although there were still a few state laws that were against condoms as a birth control device. In part three of this three-part series, I’ll conclude with the recent history and impact of the feminist movement in America, and how birth control and organized effort helped advance women with the equality that they always deserved.