I really don't want to write this week. Not just because I write on Mondays and this one is angst-producing Election Eve, but also and especially because I recently lost both my older brother and sister. I'm hanging on to my sanity by a thread, but I try to keep my commitments – and this will be an easy, almost thoughtless, column. It will be based on an early portion of my last book, Victory for the Vote: The Fight for Women's Suffrage and the Century that Followed. I intended to write about this October event all last month, but other issues seemed more relevant.
So, please turn with me now to the days of yesteryear, a bit beyond 120 years ago, to the third weekend in October of 1850. You may remember that the first call for women's rights was in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, which was home to young mother Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She had met Lucretia Mott, an observant Quaker, civil rights activist, and the mother of seven, at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Conference in London. They were elected delegates from anti-slavery organizations in Boston and Philadelphia, but male delegates refused to seat them and other women.
The two vowed then to create an organization for women's rights, but life got in the way until eight years later in July 1848 at Seneca Falls. During the remainder of that year and the next, similar meetings were held in Rochester, as well as in Ohio and Indiana, but no national organization emerged until October 23-24, 1850. Held in Worcester, Massachusetts -- a central location for the likely attendees -- this gathering fired a shot heard round the world. And now I'm going to put my mind on hold and simply copy from my book. The quotation marks are words from primary sources, written more than a century ago.
THE FIRST NATIONAL WOMEN'S RIGHTS CONVENTION
In May, at an anti-slavery gathering in Boston, nine women caucused in a "dark, dingy room" about a convention for their own civil rights… Paulina Wright Davis undertook most of the planning. In 1835, as Paulina Kellogg Wright, she and her husband had organized one of the first anti-slavery meetings – and endured a mob assault on their home in Utica, New York. He died…and a second marriage to jeweler Thomas Davis changed her name. She organized the 1850 meeting from her home in Providence, Rhode Island.
Davis had hoped to turn over the leadership of the First National Woman's Rights Convention to famous author Margaret Fuller, but after Fuller drowned in a July shipwreck, Davis decided to assemble a list of prestigious names to sign the meeting's "call." Her invitation letters brought many "curt" refusals, but while these "alarmed conservatives" missed a chance to enshrine their names in history, visionary people gladly signed. More than 50 women and 30 men, including eminent philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, endorsed the call.
"On the bright October days, a solemn, earnest crowd of noble men and women" assembled in Worcester's Brinley Hall. The meeting was called to order by Sarah H. Earl, a locally prominent woman married to the editor of the Worcester Spy. She conducted an election, and the five people chosen as officers were equally divided by gender and represented four states. The meeting had delegations from nine states -- but all were in the North, a fact that presaged the coming of the Civil War.
The star of the meeting turned out to be the young and beautiful Lucy Stone. She was Massachusetts' first female college graduate, having earned her degree at Ohio's Oberlin College – the era's only coeducational college. Her affluent father refused to pay tuition for a girl, so she worked to support herself. Nearly thirty at graduation, she was valedictorian, but even progressive Oberlin did not allow women on the speaking dais, and she turned down the "honor" of having her valedictory speech read by a man. She went on with public speaking, however, and earned a precarious living as a lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society – and endured frequent attacks by jeering mobs armed with rotten eggs and stones.
Among the hundreds who attended the Worcester meeting were African Americans Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and the resolutions adopted included race and gender in their language. One read, "Resolved, That the cause we have met to advocate – the claim for women of all her natural and civil rights – bids us remember the two millions of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women."
"Thus encouraged," Paulina Wright Davis summarized, "we felt new zeal to go on." Once again, these un-credentialed women did an amazing PR job, and this time, it was especially effective in Europe. "Many letters were received from literary women in this country as well as abroad," Davis enthused. She was especially happy about favorable publicity from Swedish Frederika Bremer, one of the world's bestselling authors. Bremer, who would tour and write about America in the 1850s, "quoted from our writings," Davis marveled. "Our words had been like an angel's visit to the prisoners of State in France," where a democratic revolution recently had been suppressed.
The most significant attention came from the October 29, 1850 international edition of the New York Tribune. Among many who read it was English philosopher John Stuart Mill, one of the modern age's greatest thinkers. The next July, the prestigious Westminster Review followed up with an essay in which Mill explicated the ideas of the American women. The article, "On the Enfranchisement of Women," reported on the Worcester meeting and said in part:
"The agitation is not a pleading by male writers and orators for women, it is a political movement…by women. The result is probably destined to inaugurate one of the most important of the movements toward political and social reform. The promoters of this new agitation take their stand on principles, and they do not fear." When he wrote his most famous book, On Liberty (1859), Mill acknowledged that some of its basic ideas came from the people assembled at Worcester.
WHAT THEY RESOLVED
The convention's commitment to gender equality was clear in that Paulina Wright Davis was elected president, while famed Bostonian Wendell Phillips presented the Business Committee's resolutions. Two years earlier, at Seneca Falls, a resolution calling for the right to vote passed only narrowly, but this issue was upfront in 1850. The resolutions said in part:
RESOLVED, That every human being of full age…who is required to obey the law, is entitled to a voice in its enactments; that every such person whose property or labor is taxed for the support of government, is entitled to a direct share in such government; therefore:
RESOLVED, That women are clearly entitled to the right of suffrage and to be considered eligible for office…
RESOLVED, That the laws of property, as affecting married parties, demand a thorough revisal, so that all rights may be equal between them; that the wife may have an equal control over the property gained by their mutual toil…
RESOLVED, That the avenues of education and of various civil and professional employments are thrown open…
RESOLVED, That in every effort for improvement in our civilization, we will bear in our heart of hearts the memory of the trampled womanhood of the plantation, and omit no effort to raise it to a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.
The end of slavery thus continued to be the greater priority for these progressives. Even the most radical of feminists would agree to end their women's rights conventions in 1860, when the Civil War loomed. It therefore pains my heart to hear modern "scholars" saying that black women were excluded from the movement for the vote. It also pains me that so many people hear only the lofty language about equality and have no idea of the realties behind the fight.
In just the resolution on property, for example, you should know that in some states, women did not legally own their own clothes. Her earnings, if she managed to have any, belonged to her husband. Women had no right to sue in most states, and therefore divorcing an abusive husband was impossible. Most cruelly, men controlled the product of a woman's womb. Children axiomatically belonged to the father, and if he died, he could legally will that custody to someone other than the child's mother.
Other examples abound. Although Lucretia Mott had been a resident of Philadelphia all of her life, she could not reserve a rental hall when the women's rights convention was scheduled there in 1876: Mott was married, and under Pennsylvania law, a married woman could not sign any contract. Divorce was a legal impossibility in South Carolina until after World War II. Arbitrary state laws still were enforced as late as 1971, when US Supreme Court struck down an Idaho law that gave automatic preference to men as executors of estates. The Idaho Supreme Court had upheld it, saying that "men are better qualified."
It's been 170 years since 1850, and I'm tired.