THE WOMAN’S RIGHTS MOVEMENT IN AMERICA
Though there have always been women rebels in history, the conditions have never before existed that would
Industrial Revolution feminist rebellion was bound to re main only a personal one.
The coming feminist revolution of the age of technolog) was foreshadowed by the thought and writing of individU’ al women, members of the intellectual elites of their day in England, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, ii America Margaret Fuller, in France the Bluestockings, hard time getting their ideas accepted even in their own advanced circles, let alone by the masses of men and women of their day, who had barely absorbed the first shock of the Industrial Revolution.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, with industrialization in full swing, a full-fledged feminist movement was underway. Always strong in the U. S.— itself founded shordy before the Industrial Revolution, and thus having comparatively little history or tradition—feminism was spun-ed on by the Abolitionist struggle and the smoldering ideals of the American Revolution itself. (The Declaration passed at the first national Woman’s Rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 was modeled on the Declaration of Independence.)
The early American Woman’s Rights Movement was radical. In the nineteenth century, for women to attack the Family, the Church (see Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible), and the State (law) was for them to attack the very cornerstones of the Victorian society in which they lived—equivalent to attacking sex distinctions themselves in our own time. The theoretical foundations of the early W. R.M. grew out of the most radical ideas of the day, notably those of abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and such communalists as R. D, Owen and Fanny Wright. Few people today are aware that
ers by the—’hasn’t changed—male chauvinist labor movement.) Other pioneer female labor organizers such as Augusta Lewis and Kate Mullaney were in the feminist movement.
This radical movement was built by women who had literally no civil status under the law; who were pronounced civilly dead upon marriage, or who remained legal minors if they did not marry; who could not sign a will or even have custody of their own children upon divorce; who were not taught even to read, let alone admitted to college (the most privileged of them were equipped with a knowledge of embroidery, china painting, French, and harpsichord); who had no political voice whatever. Thus, even after the Civil War, more than half this country’s population was still legally enslaved, literally not owning even the bustles on their backs.
The first stirrings of this oppressed class, the first simple demands for justice, were met by a disproportionate violence, a resistance difficult to understand today when the lines of sexual class have been blurted over. For, as often happens, the revolutionary potential of the first awakening was recognized more clearly by those in power than it was by the crusaders themselves. From its very beginning the feminist movement posed a serious threat to the established order, its very existence and long duration testifying to fundamental inequalities in a system that pretended to democracy. Working first together, later
t _ Even worse than the conservative feminists were the
th_ ?0UDtry a^>art’ ^ *n Civil Warticreasing number of women who, with their new-found
г’ипсв tJLat JL t0 a^,an^OEL ^eilbit of freedom, jumped enthusiastically into all the rad-
т"л~л issues, the early his|jcalisms of the day, the various social reform movements
^ .11___ »a1_ a
cause to work on "more important tory of feminist revolution might have been less dismal.
gled ganized women could unite was the desirability of the vote! —but predictably, they did not agree upon why it was desirable. The conservatives formed the American Wom-j an Suffrage Association, or joined the sprouting women’s! clubs, such as the pious Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The radicals separated into the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, concerned with the vote only as a symbol of the political power they needed to achieve larger ends.
By 1890, further legal reforms had been won, women had entered the labor force in the service capacity that they still hold today, and they had begun to be educated in larger numbers. In lieu of true political power they had been granted a token, segregated place in the public sphere as clubwomen. But though indeed this was a greater political power than before, it was only a newfangled version of female “power” of the usual sort: behind the throne—a traditional influence on power which took modern form in lobbying and embarrassment tactics. When, in 1890, with their leaders old and discouraged, the radical feminist National merged with the conservative American to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), all seemed lost. Conservative feminism, with its concentration on broad, unitive, single-issues like suffrage, with its attempt to work within and placate the white male power structure—trying to convince men who knew better, with their own fancy rhetoric yet—had won. Feminism, sold out, languished.
bf the Progressive Era, even when at odds with feminist
These “reformers,” the women “radicals” of their day, were at best influenced by feminism. They were neither true feminists nor true radicals because they did not yet see the woman’s cause as a legitimate radical issue in itself. By seeing the W. R.M. as only tangent to another, more important politics, they were in a sense viewing themselves as defective men: women’s issues seemed to them “special,” “sectarian,” while issues that concerned men were “human,” “universal.” Developing politically in movements dominated by men, they became preoccupied with reforming their position within those movements rather than getting out and creating their own. The Woman’s Trade Union League is a good example: women politicos in this group failed at the most basic undertakings because they were unable to sever their ties with the strongly male chauvinist AFL, under Samuel. Gompers, which sold them out time and again. Or, in another example, like so many VISTA volunteers bent on slumming it with an ungrateful poor, they rushed into the young settlement movement, many of them giving their lives without
reward—only to become the rather grim, embittered, bui she had joined the militant Woman’s Social and Political devoted spinster social workers of the stereotype. Or the Union—the English Suffragettes of whom the Pankhursts Woman’s Peace Party founded to no avail by Jane Addams are perhaps the best known—in opposing the Constitu – on the eve of American intervention in World War % tionalists (conservative feminists). Believing that militant which later split into, ironically, either jingoist groups tactics were needed to achieve the radical goals espoused working for the war effort, or radical pacifists as ineffective by her mother, she recommended attacking the problem as they were extreme. of the vote with the discarded strategy of the Stanton-
This frenzied feminine organizational activity of the Anthony faction: pressure to amend the federal Consti – Progressive Era is often confused with the W. R.M. prop – tution. Soon the American militants split off from the er. But the image of the frustrated, bossy battle-ax conservative NAWSA to form the Congressional Union derives less from the radical feminists than from the non – (later the Woman’s Party), beginning the daring guerrilla feminist politicos, committee women for the various im – tactics and uncompromisingly tough line for which the portant causes of their day. In addition to the now-defunct whole suffrage movement is often incorrectly credited.
The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the League! natioI! af amen*n“t than Ле tedious state-by-state of Women Voters, the American Association of Collegiate method used for over thirty years) a militancy
Л. T.„_„ .v – ^пл I that dramatized the urgency of the woman issue, and
It worked. Militants had to undergo embarrassment, mobbings, beatings, even hunger strikes with forced feeding, but within a decade the vote was won. The spark of radical feminism was just what the languishing suffrage movement needed to push through their single issue. It provided a new and sound approach (the pressure for a
Alumnae, the National Consumer’s League, the PTA, even the DAR, Although these organizations were associated with the most radical movements of their day, that in fact their politics were reactionary, and finally fatuous and silly, was indicated at first solely by their nonfeminist views.
Thus the majority of organized women in the period between 1890-1920—a period usually cited as a high point of feminist activity—had nothing to do with feminism. On the one hand, feminism had been constricted to the single issue of the vote—the W. R.M. was (temporarily) transformed into a suffrage movement—and on the other, women’s energies were diffused into any other radical cause but their own.
But radical feminism was only dormant: The awakening began with the return of Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from England, where
The power women will be able to exercise lies with their no joining a party system of men. The party system of politics і a trick of men to conceal the real issues. Women should worl for the measures they want outside of party politics. It is be cause the old political parties realize that woman’s influencf will be so negligible on the inside that they are so eager t« get women to join them.
But none of this was to any avail. Even the formation q a new Woman’s Party on February 18, 1921, as an al ternative to the major parties that were so rapidly absorb ing woman’s new political strength, could not resuscitate the dying movement.*
The granting of the vote to the suffrage movemen killed the W. R.M. Though the antifeminist forces appeare< to give in, they did so in name only. They never lost. Bj the time the vote was granted, the long channeling ol feminist energies into the limited goal of suffrage—seen initially as only one step to political power—had thoroughly depleted the W. R.M. The monster Ballot had swallowed everything else. Three generations had elapsed from the time of the inception of the W. R.M.; the master – planners all were dead. The women who later joined the feminist movement to work for the single issue of the vote had never had time to develop a broader consciousness: by then they had forgotten what the vote was for. The opposition had had its way.
# * *
Of all that struggle what is even remembered? The fight for suffrage alone—not worth much to women, as
* The Woman’s Party struggled on through a depression and several wars, campaigning for the next big legal boost to women’s freedom, an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Fifty years later those who are still alive are still c tmpaigning. The stereotype of the crotchety old lady with her umbrella, obsessed with a cause already won, is the “comic” product of the ossification of feminism created by The Fifty-Year Ridicule.
later events bore out—was an endless war against the most reactionary forces in America at the time, which, as Eleanor Flexner shows in Century of Struggle, included the biggest capitalist interests of the North, i. e.f oil, manufacturing, railroad, and liquor interests; the racist bloc of southern states (which, in addition to their own bigotry about women, were afraid to grant the woman’s vote because it would enfranchise another half of the Negro race, as well as draw attention to the hypocrisy of “universal” male suffrage), and, finally, the machine of government itself. The work involved to achieve this vote was staggering. Carrie Chapman Catt estimated that:
to get the word “male” out of the constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign. . . During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to. male voters, 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 successive campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.
Thus defeat was so frequent, and victory so rare—and then achieved by such bare margins—that even to read about the struggle for suffrage is exhausting, let alone to have lived through it and fought for it. The lapse of historians in this area is understandable, if not pardonable.
But, as we have seen, suffrage was only one small aspect of what the W. R.M. was all about. A hundred years of brilliant personalities and important events have also been erased from American history. The women orators who fought off mobs, in the days when women were not allowed to speak in public, to attack Family, Church, and State, who traveled on poor railways to cow towns of the West to talk to small groups of socially starved women, were quite a bit more dramatic than the Scarlett O’Haras and Harriet Beecher Stowes and all the Little
George Washington Carver and the peanut. The omissioi of vital characters from standard versions of American! history in favor of such goody-good models cannot tossed off. Just as it would be dangerous to inspire still – oppressed black children with admiration for the Nat Turners of their history, so it is with the W. R.M.: The suspicious blanks in our history books concerning feminism—or else the confusion of the whole W. R.M. with the (conservative) suffrage movement or the reformist wom en’s groups of the Progressive Era—is no accident.
It is part of a backlash we are still undergoing reaction to the first feminist struggle. The few strong mod’ els allowed girls growing up in the fifty-year silence havi been carefully chosen ones, women like Eleanor Roosevelt, of the altruistic feminine tradition, as opposed to the healthily selfish giants of the radical feminist rebellion days grasped immediately the true nature of a feminist movement, recognizing it as a serious threat to their open and unashamed power over woman. They may have been forced to buy off the women’s movement with confusing surface reforms—a correction of the most blatant inequal-
(“you’ve come a long way, baby”), all of which coincidentally benefited men. But the power stayed in their hands.