The Once and Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: Women’s Political Activism to the Civil War

Week 3

Most discussion of the woman suffrage movement, or even the broader women’s rights movement, tends to take that activism out of context. Perhaps there is some discussion of leaders who previously participated in the abolition movement, but the rich development of political activism tends to be invisible. This week’s work was designed to fill out the story of women’s activism to help the rise and particular politics of the woman suffrage movement make sense.  (See the week’s slides here: PO50519thAMActicismPreCivilWarPPT.)

I have noticed in recent years the our students have learned a particular version of the linkages among race, class, gender, and feminism that is both misleading and based on misunderstandings of race, class, and gender in historical context which, in turn, mangles the story. Specifically, their lack of historical thinking overall leaders them to imagine race, class, and gender being defined and functioning very much as they do in 21st century America, and especially 21st century urban America. This week, therefore laced the exploration of women’s political activity in antebellum America, especially in the abolition movement, with a focus on understanding the day-to-day realities of gender, race, and class across some of the great differences of region, urban-rural differences, and time.

We began with a review of the legal framework of coverture, but this time I asked them to consider how this framework affected different groups of women: wealthy white women, middle-class white women, poor white women, enslaved African Americans, free African Americans, indentured servants.  Their inclination was to say that wealthier white women were different from others in that they could use “their property” or “their wealth” to avoid the impact of coverture, until I reminded them that under the law they didn’t own property regardless of their family’s wealth. The result was a revelation to many of them, understanding how dependent free women were on the good graces of their husbands, and the degree to which the law protected their husbands’ power over them more than it protected them at all. At the other end, despite some of their sensitivity to racism and enslavement, they had to come to understand how enslaved people lived outside of protections of law. We explored varieties of conditions, such as indentured servants, and the poor who were committed to poor farms. And we thought about regional and urban/rural differences.

So, we discussed, how did the lives of women, a day of “women’s roles” look in these early days, and how did they compare across class among free women. Someone mentioned cleaning, so we talked about what it would take to clean clothes, including the processes of getting the water, making the fire to heat the water, and the washing. We thought about what the detergent would be like, and how they got it. We talked about the weight of the wet clothes, especially the woolens. And how they made those clothes – spinning, weaving, sewing, etc.  We discussed the presence of servants, and the differences between who might have or be a servant in those days compared to now. And we all resolved not to think about electricity-driven appliances or heating before the advent of electricity.

We brief looked at changes from the colonial period to the 1830s and 40’s, noting the ways in which “women’s sphere” became increasingly important, and discussed why that would be the case.  Think about the irony of Hannah Adams (1775-1831) who wrote, in her book published in 1832, “We hear no longer of the alarming, and perhaps justly obnoxious din, of the ‘rights of women.’ Whatever [women’s] capacity of receiving instruction may be, there can be no use in extending it beyond the sphere of their duties.” This, at exactly the time when women were beginning to launch themselves into petitioning campaigns on behalf of abolition.

Finally, before we turned to women’s political activity, we probed the meaning and rationale of republican motherhood, whereby women’s role’ as mothers, wives, keepers of the home were transformed into citizenship and nation-building acts. Once again, it is important to understand these stories of women not just as gendered stories, but to put them in broader context. In this case, we mulled over the perceived fragility of a sense of nation, nationality, and unified citizenship in this country, so recently independent, and one in which people saw themselves fundamentally in terms of their varying religions, communities, and states. Leaders worried – for good reason – about whether it would persevere. So taking the role of instilling the sense of nation and country in one’s children was no small thing, limited though it was.  We explored the dimensions of republican mothers through pictures and prints (displayed on the slides).

As we moved into discussing the antislavery movements, there was one more stop for fundamentals to make before proceeding. Students had a number of questions in the weekly blogs about their readings relating to the relationship between African American and white abolitionists, and especially between African American and white women abolitionists.

And so, on to political activity.  Much of this course is about the controversies and struggles over voting, so we reviewed the meanings and structures of elections and parties in the Early Republic, including especially the variety of limitations placed on voting, and the rationale for those limitations. Most of the limitations – some of which still had advocates late in the 19th century, were based on the idea that voters should be free, independent individuals with a clear stake in society who could would take their vote seriously, could consider the issues for themselves, and not be swayed merely by the power over them of people with more resources, or who employed them.

The students and I together explored a set of maps that showed, respectively, the county-by-county distribution of enslaved people and black people in 1830, 1850, and 1860; and the county-by-county distribution of black people in 1910 and 1920. We also look at a map of 2010. The major conclusions that were new to them: Before the Great Migrations of the 20th century, the proportion of African Americans in the population outside the slave states was, by and large, miniscule. Certainly before the Civil War and outside a very few cities, the likelihood that white people would encounter African Americans as people who lived anywhere nearby was small. This means that in organizations that were based in relatively small geographic areas, like a town (or certainly anything smaller), the likelihood that there could be a race-integrated organization even if one wanted one was relatively small in large number of places. The students were also unaware of what a large proportion of the population African Americans were in most of the slave states, and thought about what it mean to have a half or more of a population in some areas enslaved by the minority.

Finally, we turned to women’s activity in the abolition movement, a discussion that will continue next week. They broke into smaller groups to discuss the major required reading for the week, Susan Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship:  Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity (University of North Carolina Press, 2003). I charged each group with agreeing on at least one “big point” (or question) from the reading and at least one “small point” (or question) from the reading that was worth sharing with the whole class. The discussions in all the groups I heard were really good, as were the points they brought back to the whole:  The shift from a more “moral” to “political” conception of their anti-slavery activity. The variety of ways in which this activity pushed them toward and prepared them to organize for their own rights. The degree to which fighting for abolition was regarded as so radical, and engaging in this as a woman was even more radical. The difficulty of integrating these activities into their understanding of how they should act as women, even when they felt passionately about the cause. How women who lived so far from the South and knew so few African Americans, especially formerly enslaved people, could take this cause on and devote so much energy to it. And more.  Many of the students also integrated into their understanding an optional reading some had done, a chapter from Jane E. Dabel, A Respectable Woman: The Public Roles of African American Women in 19th Century New York (New York University Press, 2008).

With this discussion, we are ready to see the rise of a woman’s rights and woman suffrage movement next week.

The full set of blog posts for each week available at