Question for Discussion: What
were the major
arguments for and against granting women
equal rights in the 1800s?
Reading: Hymowitz, pp. 93-102, 280-284;
Disabilities of Women (web); Declaration
(web); Bradwell vs. State of Illinois
defines Woman's Sphere (web); Bullard
Enslavement of Women (web)
History of American Women
Women's Legal Status and Rights
in the United States
Histories of American Women's
Struggle for Equality and the Vote
The Struggle for Women's Suffrage
1. Women's Social and Legal status in the
2. Women's Struggle to Win the Vote
3. What does the debate over granting
the vote and equal rights in America tell us about
women's roles in American society?
1. According to the 1873 Supreme
Bradwell vs. The State of Illinois, what is the destiny and mission
2. What are Orestes Brownson's major
arguments against expanding women's roles
3. What are Laura Curtis Bullard's
arguments for expanding women's roles
4. Why is Senator George Vest opposed
to granting women the right to vote?
5. What were the major factors that
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to
dedicate their lives to helping women
expand their roles in American society?
6. According to Sarah Grimke, what
social and legal status of women in the
7. What are the major arguments
Declaration of Sentiments uses to support
its charge that men are imposing an "absolute tyranny"
8. According to the Declaration
what are the basic rights women want?
9. Why did women's rights activists
first gaining women the right to vote?
10. What were the major argument
women suffragists used to support granting women
the right to vote?
11. What are the major arguments
Julia Howe uses to support granting women the right to vote?
12. What are the major arguments
Bissell uses to oppose granting women the
right to vote?
13. What do you think are the major
why the anti-suffragists oppose granting
women the right to vote?
14. What does this argument over
granting women the right to vote tell us about women's
roles in American society?
in general remained hostile to feminism.
Other reform movements could be embraced abstractly; they called
on people to change the world. The women's rights movement
made people angry and frightened because it asked them to
the most personal relationships in people's lives. Feminists asked
men and women to think of themselves in new ways and to relate
differently to each other.
If wives, mothers, daughters changed, husbands, fathers, and sons
would be called upon to change as well. Home and family
would be altered." (Hymowitz, p. 102)
After the Civil War and with the passage
of the 14th Amendment, many women's rights activists believed that
if American society could now grant Blacks' full rights as citizens,
then it could grant women full citizenship as well. In fact, many
activists believed that the 14th amendment granted Blacks and women
full rights as citizens. They believed this after a simple reading
of the 14th amendment, which said: "All person born or naturalized
in the United States...are citizens of the United States and of
the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any
law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens
of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of
life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Women's
rights activists concluded that like Blacks, women were persons
and therefore the amendment granted them full rights and privileges
as American citizens. Afterall, the Declaration of Independence
had said,"all men are created equal," while the 14th amendment
said, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States...are
Believing that women were included
under the 14th amendment, some women tried to vote in the 1872 national
election. Susan B. Anthony, one of the leaders of the women's rights
movement, was arrested and jailed for trying to vote in November,
1872. In its 1875 ruling, "Minor vs. Hapersett," the Supreme
Court rejected Anthony's argument that the 14th amendment included
women and granted them, like Blacks, full rights under the law.
From 1873 to 1875, the Supreme Court issued a series of rulings
that concluded that women were not protected under the 14th amendment,
because under natural and civil law women had a distinct and unique
role that the Court and American society should protect.
Let's look at one of these Court rulings
to better understand the Supreme Court's reasoning. In its 1873
ruling, in "Bradwell vs. the State of Illinois," the Supreme
Court concluded that the 14th amendment did not protect the right
of a women to practice law in Illinois despite state law that only
men can practice law in the state. Bradwell, a women who wanted
to practice law in Illinois, sued the state of Illinois arguing
that it violated her basic rights under the 14th amendment, because
this Illinois state law violated her rights as a citizens of the
United States. The Court does not base its ruling on Constitutional
law but looks to natural and civil law to justify treating women
differently than men under the law and in the larger society .
The Court argues that natural and civil
law recognize different "spheres and destinies" for men
and women. Men should be women's "protector and defender."
And women because of their "natural and proper timidity and
delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for
many of the occupations of civil life." The Court now argues
that because women's proper role is to occupy the "domestic
sphere" it would threaten the family and the home if women
were to "adopt a distinct and independent career from that
of her husband." Because women's role is to occupy her own
sphere, women's sphere, she must be satisfied with being a wife
and mother, protecting her children, family, and home. Women should
not be allowed to occupy men's sphere, which is the world of work,
politics, and the larger public world. But the Court does not end
its argument here.
The Court now argues that when a women
marries she gives up her legal rights and has no independent existence
from her husband. This is the legal notion of civil death, which
says that upon marriage a "women's very being and legal existence
is suspended." Upon marriage, a women is under the control
and domination of her husband. She cannot own property, sign contracts,
control her wages, or protect her rights separate from her husband.
Because a woman gives up her legal existence and separate identity
upon marriage, a woman cannot practice law.
But the Court now runs into a little
problem. Under the law, single women can own property, sign contracts,
control her wages, and protect her rights, so what keeps single
women from practicing law in Illinois? The Court now concludes that
it is a women's "destiny and mission to be a wife and mother"
and therefore single women can't practice law. The Court argues
that it will only rule "on the general constitution of things,
and cannot be based upon exceptional cases."
In its larger conclusion in Bradwell
vs. State of Illinois, the Court argues that because men and women
have separate spheres and roles in the larger society women as individuals
are not protected by the 14th amendment. The Court draws on the
authority of natural law, established traditions, and God to justify
its decision. This Court ruling demonstrates all the legal and cultural
barriers women faced in the 1800s in their struggle to be accepted
as American citizens with full rights and privileges under the law.
In some ways, in these Court rulings between 1873 and 1875, the
Supreme Court is denying that women are persons under the law. Instead
of being persons, they are women, with a separate and distinct legal
and political existence under the law.
Throughout the 1800s, women's rights
advocates were confronted with the larger arguments that men and
women had two different spheres, and that women's nature was different
from man's nature. Let's now look at how these women responded to
these cultural hurdles to equal rights for women.
In her essay, "Legal Disabilites
of Women," anti-slavery and women's rights activist, Sarah
Grimke compares the legal and civil status of Black Slaves and women.
She argues that women, like slaves, are under the complete control
and domination of their husbands. Grimke notes that, like slaves
who are under the complete control of their masters, married women
have no legal existence and no way to challenge their husband's
domination. Grimke argues that "the very being of a woman,
like that of a slave, is absorbed in her master." Just as a
master can legally beat his slave, a husband can legally beat his
wife. The law here assumes that women, like slaves, are children,
who need to be punished because they are not intelligent and responsible
enough to control themselves. Just as a master can control his slave's
labor, a husband can control his wife's labor. A husband can demand
and take his wife's wages and claim and spend the property she brought
into the marriage without her consent. Grimke concludes that just
as slavery wrongly denies Blacks their God-given rights, so too
does marriage and society wrongly deny women their God-given rights.
In 1848, women's rights advocates gathered
in Seneca Falls, New York, to draft and approve the "Seneca
Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Rights," which demanded
that American society recognize and grant women her equal rights
as Americans. The Seneca Falls Declaration was modeled after the
American Declaration of Independence. It begins by arguing that
"all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed
by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these
are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The larger
argument here is that if America is a society based upon individual
rights and freedoms then it cannot continue to deny those basic
rights to women.
The Seneca Falls Declaration wants
women to be treated like individuals, not like second-class citizens
who must occupy a separate and inferior role in American society.
It rejects the idea of separate spheres and roles for men and women.
Both men and women, it agues, should be treated as individuals with
basic rights and freedoms.
The Declaration goes on to list the basic rights
that women are currently being denied in American society:
1. The right to vote
2. The right to serve in government
3. The right to own and control her
4. Legal and civil rights as married
5. The right not to be beaten by their
6. The right to a good education
7. The right to work in good, high-paying
8. To be judged by the same moral standards
as men are
By denying women these rights, American
society is violating its own basic principles of freedom, liberty,
and equality, and is violating God's will because God created women
and gave her these basic rights.
But in 1848, most Americans were unwilling
to accept the arguments made in the Seneca Fall Declaration. The
women who participated in drafting this Declaration were publicly
ridiculed, as was the Declaration itself, in newspapers throughout
the country. However, this ridicule and censure of this Declaration
allowed women throughout the country to read and hear about it.
The public censure of the Seneca Falls Declaration helped spread
its larger message throughout the country.
Let's look at the debate between supporter
and critics of women's rights in the 1870s. In 1873, prominent American
Protestant minister Orestes Brownson challenged women's rights advocates
by arguing that men and women must occupy two separate spheres and
that women's natural inferiority to men made it impossible for women
to be granted the same rights a men. Brownson begins his argument
by observing that God created women to be "a wife and mother."
Women, he argues, have all the instincts and natural abilities to
be wives and mothers, to raise and care for children, to manage
a family and the home, and to protect the morality and religion
of her family. But, Brownson argues, women are not born with their
own heads, that is, women don't have the same ability to reason
and control their lives as men. As a result, "man is the head
of the woman, and that the woman is for the man, not the man for
the woman." He even charges that Original Sin and the Fall
were caused by women trying to control men. In addition to be mindless
and irrational, Brownson argues that women don't have the ability
to control their emotions and passions that men do. As a result,
without male control, women "is out of her element, and a social
anomaly, sometimes a hideous monster." Because women are mindless,
emotional monsters, he concludes, women should be controlled and
protected by men. Women cannot be trusted with equal rights because
they do not have the ability to control their lives and freedoms
that men do.
Writing in 1870, Laura Curtis Bullard
would find Brownson's arguments to be absurd. She would wonder how
women can be trusted to raise children and nurture the family if
they are brainless, emotional monsters. Secondly, if Brownson was
raised by such a woman, how come he wasn't damaged by being under
the influence of such a mindless, emotional creature? But, more
importantly, Bullard would challenge Brownson's argument that God
created men and women to occupy separate and distinct roles. She
argues that women were "created by God an independent being,
with individual duties and individual rights." She counters
Brownson by claiming that men and women were created for each other,
not the woman for the man. Moreover, women, like men, were created
by God as individuals, who were given "the duty of individual
development" to develop their own talents and skills to help
improve their families and larger society. Directly challenging
Brownson, Bullard argues that by failing to allow women to develop
their individual talents, men are denying society all the contributions
women could make to improve society. Moreover, by denying women
the right to develop their skills and self-confidence in their abilities,
she argues, men are hurting the family. Dependent, uneducated, protected,
and isolated women can't possibly raise intelligent, independent,
confident children. Thus, Bullard argues that granting women equal
rights supports God's will, protects and supports the family, improves
women's lives, and helps the larger society.
However, arguments such as Grimke's,
the Seneca Falls Declaration, and Bullard's against two separate
spheres and role for women in American society would not be widely
accepted. In fact, between the 1870s and the 1910s, women's rights
advocates were forced to tone down their challenge to a separate
men's and women's sphere. By the early 1900s, leaders of the women's
suffrage movement decided that they could only win the vote for
women by arguing that granting women the vote would not threaten
her separate sphere or role in society. Instead, women could use
the vote to better protect their children, their family, and the
morality of the larger society. Women won the right to vote in 1920
be downplaying their demands for an end to the two separate spheres.
Despite winning the right to vote, did women set back their struggle
for equal rights by temporarily accepting the division of society
into men's and women's sphere? We will look at this question next