Women history forgot (Part 2)

Last month we discussed how the Founding Fathers quashed the opportunity for equal rights under the guise of independence. As John Adams responded to his wife Abigail in 1776, “we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”

This month, we review some of the oppressive laws to suppress women in the 19th century and nascent efforts to overcome them.

Under laws enacted across various states, when a woman married, she became slave and servant to her husband. If she owned property, it became his; her children belonged to him; husbands were free to use domestic abuse and marital rape under protection of law; and if she generated any income, it was to be turned over to her husband. When a husband died, his property was granted to the closest male heir and the wife was left with nothing. If he had no property to protect, it was her responsibility to find a way to support herself and her children.

In legal proceedings in a court of law, a woman could not speak to defend herself, and the judge and jury deciding her fate were not her peers, being strictly men. Under New Jersey law, a single woman could vote if she met certain requirements. However, if she married, her right to vote was forfeit.

It would seem a natural partnership for abolitionists and advocates of “morals” (anti-prostitution), prison reform, temperance, educational reform and women’s rights to combine their voices. When Great Britain ended the practice of slavery in 1833, a Second Great Awakening swept across the ocean and inspired more activists in America.

Although raised by a wealthy South Carolina planter and slave owner, sisters Sarah Moore Grimke and Angelina Grimke were appalled by the immorality of slavery and by the educational and vocational opportunities denied to women but afforded to their brothers. By 1837, they were documenting laws that applied to American women in letters, public speeches and appearances before legislative bodies.

Sarah’s 1837 letter, aptly titled “The Legal Disabilities of Women,” presented the idea that the greatest obstacles to women’s ability to be useful and contribute to society were the “laws which have been enacted to destroy her independence, crush her individuality; laws which … she has had no voice in establishing and which rob her of … her essential rights.”

The 1830s also saw many efforts by Black activists to promote both abolition and sex equality. Orator Maria Stewart of Boston was the first American, Black or white, to speak in public about politics and women’s rights in front of a mixed-sex audience in 1832. It was Stewart who put forth publicly, “Who shall go forward and take off the reproach that is cast upon people of color? Shall it be a woman?” Her speech advocated for the education of Blacks and women to elevate their positions and opportunities in society.

Only later came the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, organized by Lucretia Mott. This Quaker minister was known for her calm, dignified speeches for abolition, but those speeches soon incorporated women’s rights, emphasizing that all individuals should enjoy the same rights and privileges.

Seneca Falls, which inspired the next generation of women’s rights activists, resulted in the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence. However, the Sentiments said “all men and women are created equal” and were adopted by women and men, among them renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Suffrage for women (the right to vote) was controversial and the only Sentiment not adopted unanimously. An inspiring speech by Douglass is credited with saving it.

Sadly, some of the most vocal of that second generation of activists — white women — lost sight of Mott’s and Douglass’ message that race and sex inequality and injustice were inextricably linked. More on that next month.

The League of Women Voters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting informed and active public participation in government. For more information, go to https://lwvwv.org/