Daily Class OutlineDaily Class QuestionsDaily Class Web LinksDaily Class Notes

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; Legal
Disabilities of Women (web)
; Declaration of Sentiments
; Bradwell vs. State of Illinois (web); Brownson
defines Woman's Sphere (web)
; Bullard on the
Enslavement of Women (web)

Daily Class Web Links

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
in America

Daily Class Outline

1. Women's Social and Legal status in the 1800s

2. Women's Struggle to Win the Vote

3. What does the debate over granting women
the vote and equal rights in America tell us about
women's roles in American society?

Daily Class Questions

1. According to the 1873 Supreme Court ruling,
Bradwell vs. The State of Illinois, what is the destiny and mission of women?

2. What are Orestes Brownson's major
arguments against expanding women's roles
in society?

3. What are Laura Curtis Bullard's major
arguments for expanding women's roles
in society?

4. Why is Senator George Vest opposed
to granting women the right to vote?

5. What were the major factors that led
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 is the
social and legal status of women in the
early 1800s?

7. What are the major arguments the
Declaration of Sentiments uses to support
its charge that men are imposing an "absolute tyranny" over women?

8. According to the Declaration of Sentiments,
what are the basic rights women want?

9. Why did women's rights activists focus on
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 Emily
Bissell uses to oppose granting women the
right to vote?

13. What do you think are the major reason
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?

Daily Class Notes

   "Americans 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 change themselves.
       "Feminism threatened 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 citizens."

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 own property

4. Legal and civil rights as married women

5. The right not to be beaten by their husbands

6. The right to a good education

7. The right to work in good, high-paying professional jobs

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 time.



© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 26 Sept. 2002
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/2010/suffrage.htm
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