Planting the Seeds of Incipient Democracy: Five Women who changed American politics before 1900

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By Deliciously Geek
Women’s Historian
Special Guest Blogger

We are all no doubt familiar with the names of women who fought for equal rights and equal suffrage: Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton are just a few who come to mind. But what about those who came before them? While the late 19th century was a hotbed of political activity for and by women as they embraced the role of “municipal housewife”, the foundation was laid even as women were stepping off the Mayflower in search of religious and political freedom.

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey

First among these early political pioneers was Anne Hutchinson. Wife and mother of twelve, Anne arrived in Boston in 1634 with the impression that she and her family would be free to express themselves without censure by the government for their Puritan beliefs. She found, quickly, that she was wrong; rather than finding equality within her religion, she found that she was required first to answer to her husband and church and then to God. In response, Anne began to hold semiweekly meetings to share her beliefs- which were in some conflict with the Puritan church’s doctrine – and eventually amassed a small following of those who agreed with her “religious politics.” Her influence was so great that during the 1637 elections, her party very narrowly lost to the Winthrop party; the ultimate result was excommunication from the Puritan church and exile from the Massachusetts Bay colony. Anne’s only crime was being a woman in philosophical conflict with the local governing body.

Not long after the events in Boston, Margaret Brent arrived in Maryland to claim a land grant from Lord Baltimore. She immediately established herself as a prominent entrepreneur and attorney-in-fact, acting on behalf of her brother and occasionally for Lord Baltimore, and as a proprietress in her own right she was accorded a position in the Maryland Palatinate Assembly. Eventually Margaret was named the executrix of Governor Leonard Calvert’s estate, which included his seat in the Assembly as well. In 1648, Brent opted to finally exercise her right to both seats, which included both a “voice and vote” each. She was denied the votes because of her sex; the Assembly conceded her right to at least the voice and seat.

Notables such as Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were activists in the name of their sex during the Revolutionary period, after which there was a tacit moratorium on women’s rights. Suffrage, such as it existed in America’s infancy, was in fact granted to women in certain territories until those rights were revoked in 1807 following scandals associated with local elections. However, women were not politically silent during those years. Between 1807 and 1838, women with an interest in their federal and local governments began to organize partisan rallies and parades, petitioned state legislatures, canvassing on the part of candidates, and editing and writing for partisan publications.

Engraving of Elizabeth Oakes Smith.

Which is what Elizabeth Oakes Smith found herself doing in 1850. Elizabeth’s husband, Seba Smith, was editor of the Eastern Argus and later the Portland Daily Courier, to both of which Elizabeth had been known to contribute. However, it was her New York Tribune series “Woman and Her Needs” (1850-1851) which brought attention once again to the issue of national suffrage for women. While several states and territories had restored some suffrage rights to women by 1850 – set into motion by granting school suffrage rights to widows with children in Kentucky – there was still a lot of ground to cover, as evidenced by the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth’s series was a call to arms for women to rise up and consider their plight: “The world needs the action of Woman throughout its destinies.”

And women were heeding that call. Anna Dickinson, that “Quaker lass”, was so firm in her beliefs about abolition and women’s suffrage that she addressed Congress directly in 1864 – something which had never been done before by a woman. Her arguments were so persuasive and eloquent that she became a direct influence on the results of the 1863 Congressional elections.

As critical as women were during the ante- and post-bellum periods in terms of political activism, it wasn’t until after the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments- which, respectively, abolished slavery, defined citizenship, and defended the right to vote for “citizens of the United States” regardless of race, colour, or “previous condition of servitude” – that women discovered that they had truly were second-class citizens. Because the 14th Amendment defined citizenship as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States”, the hue and cry went up to exercise the rights which were clearly protected by the 15th Amendment – rights which were summarily dismissed by the male-populated governments because it was never intended for women to vote, regardless of their citizenship, race, colour, and gender.

Photograph of Myra Bradwell taken circa 1870 by C.D. Mosher

No one was better equipped to challenge these unspoken prohibitions than Myra Colby Bradwell. The first woman to be admitted to the bar in Illinois, Myra began her legal education as her husband’s apprentice and then later as founder and editor of the Chicago Legal News. She penned the Illinois Married Women’s Property Act (1861) and Earnings Act (1869), which gave married women individual rights to their personal property and funds earned through work. In 1869, Myra applied to the Illinois State Bar for her license to practice law in her own name; she was summarily denied on the grounds that as a married woman, she was legally prohibited from entering into legal contracts on her own. She brought her case before the Illinois State Supreme Court, where she was denied admittance to the legal profession because of her sex; and again in 1873, claiming that her 14th Amendment rights were being ignored, she went before the United States Supreme Court to appeal her case; she was summarily denied her license again. Rather than work against a legal system which was obviously not supporting her rights, Myra focused on her newspaper and becoming an activist for women’s rights, honing her abilities as a student and writer of law. In 1890, the Illinois State Supreme Court acted on its own accord (and in accordance with a law the court itself passed in 1872 which prohibited discrimination from employment based on gender) and reversed its initial decision of 1870, granting Myra the right to practice law in Illinois.

As we all know, women were granted the vote in 1920 – thirty years after Myra Bradwell was given her license to practice law, and nearly 300 years after Anne Hutchinson first challenged the patriarchal stronghold of the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. The journey from first heterodoxical thought to 93 women currently serving in Congress, 9 incumbent female governors, and countless female local and state officials has been tumultuous, fiery, and occasionally violent; but at the end of the day, it has been rewarding and enriching not only for women, but for American society as a whole.

All images are public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Author: womenriseupnow

An awareness and mobilization site designed to fight back against recent attacks against womens' rights.

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