'Women's Struggle for Equ

File Name: 0009.FEM

  Msg#: 632                                          Date: 05-26-98  18:41
  From: Grant Karpik                                 Read: Yes    Replied: No 
    To: All                                          Mark:                     
  Subj: 'Women's Struggle for Equ
@MSGID: 1:153/831.2 56b43458
@PID: timEd 1.10.y2k
Published by H-Women@msu.edu (May, 1998)

Jean V. Matthews.  _Women's Struggle for Equality:  The First
Phase, 1828-1876_.  American Ways Series.  Chicago:  Ivan R.
Dee, 1997.  x + 212 pp.  Note on sources, appendix, and index.
$24.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-56663-145-9.

Reviewed for H-Women by Jennifer Davis McDaid
, The Library of Virginia

In 1913, Virginia lawyer Conway Whittle Sams dismissed the woman 
suffrage movement as "a craze."  Laws benefitting women, he 
declared with disdain in _Shall Women Vote? A Book for Men_, 
deserved to be cataloged "in a Museum of Legal Curiosities...in the 
section devoted to Legislative Attempts to Subordinate Men to Women 
and Children."  Despite such opposition (from both sexes), women 
would win the vote seven years later.  The battle for equality, 
however, had begun over seventy years earlier.  In July 1848, the 
first convention agitating for women's rights, held in Seneca 
Falls, New York, produced a Declaration of Sentiments asserting 
that "all men and women are created equal." Of those who signed it, 
only Charlotte Woodward, a glove-maker, lived to cast a vote in 
1920, at age ninety-one.

In _Women's Struggle for Equality: The First Phase, 1828-1876_, 
Jean V.  Matthews has crafted a concise and highly readable 
synthesis of recent suffrage scholarship.  The fight for equality, 
she reminds her readers, was much more than the fight for the vote.  
"The women's movement," she maintains, "was one of the most 
important social and political forces of the nineteenth century" 
(p. vii).  Especially in its first phase, the movement was 
revolutionary and emancipatory, claiming for women equality of 
rights, opportunities, and respect with men.  More than paving the 
way to the ballot box, these early suffragists were attempting to 
rethink and redefine what womanhood meant---a threatening 
proposition to men and women alike.

A small minority of unusual women fought for suffrage.  For most of 
the population, "the woman question" had already been answered by 
the system of separate spheres crafted in the early nineteenth 
century from the Revolutionary-era notion of republican motherhood.  
Men, physically and mentally strong, were destined for the world of 
"war, work, and politics"; women, naturally weaker but morally 
purer, were meant for the home, "marriage, motherhood, domestic 
joys and charities."  "In short," writes Matthews, "men's sphere 
was the public world, women's the private" (p. 5).  This separate 
but dependent domestic sphere reflected the world and the 
experience of most nineteenth-century women.  The majority were 
married, and once they married, few worked outside of the home, 
directing their energies instead to the bearing and raising of 
children.  The doctrine of separate spheres, Matthews argues, was 
"a kind of sexual constitutionalism," a separation of powers 
designed to lessen competition between the sexes while affirming 
gender identity of both (p. 7).  Women, nevertheless, were always 
dependent on men and subject to their authority.

Despite these boundaries, nineteenth-century women were making 
practical gains.  Although no colleges admitted women, female 
literacy increased.  Historians estimate that by 1850, half of 
American women were literate.  The amount and availability of 
reading material grew; women came together in study clubs and 
reading groups; and educational pioneers like Emma Willard and 
Catharine Beecher opened higher education opportunities for women.  
Willard's female academy opened in Troy, New York in 1821, and by 
1872 had educated twelve thousand girls, including Elizabeth Cady.  
Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary trained women to be teachers 
starting in 1823.  Soon female academies opened throughout the 
United States, although none intended to challenge the longstanding 
"separate, and subordinate, sphere of women."  Instead, they aimed 
to make girls better daughters, wives, and mothers.  One graduate 
of Hartford Seminary, while insisting to a friend that "mental 
acquirements" were compatible with "the domestic usefulness of a 
woman," hesitated to share her skills with the world at large.  "I 
think however great the acquirements which a woman has made," she 
reflected in a fashion typical of her contemporaries, "they should 
never be blazoned to the world---should be kept in the shade and 
never be exhibited or displayed" (p. 19).

As the nineteenth century progressed, women increasingly ventured 
out into the world, forging antebellum revivalism, female 
associations, and reform movements.  Historian Nancy Hewitt found 
three separate networks in her study of Rochester, New York:  a 
charity relief network, an evangelical revival network aiming to 
rid society of intemperance and vice, and a small but vocal group 
of radical reformers aiming to break down boundaries between the 
spheres.  For most reformers, the question of women's involvement 
in politics divided moderate reform and radicalism.  Although no 
organized national society was formed in 1848, the men and women 
who gathered at Seneca Falls demanded the vote, among other 
reforms.  This spark ignited the women's movement, steered until 
the Civil War by a small core of leaders linked by friendship and 

Matthews tells her story with both style and substance, delving 
into the lives of familiar leaders like Susan B. Anthony and less 
visible workers like Emily Collins, "a lifelong soldier in the 
cause of women's rights" (p. 63).  Chapter 3 adeptly unravels the 
operations and competing aims of the movement.  Women worked for 
the reform of oppressive laws and institutions; they also wanted 
"to transform men's ideas about women, and women's ideas about 
themselves" (p. 64).  All of this came to a halt with the outbreak 
of the Civil War.  Sandwiched between Matthews's chronology of the 
movement's development before and after the war is a chapter 
examining the question posed bluntly by the _New York Herald_ in 
September 1852: "Who are these women? what do they want? what are 
the motives that impel them to this course of action?" (p. 84).

In a chapter titled "Diagnosing the Problem," Matthews sketches a 
composite portrait of the female reformer.  Many were from small 
towns in regions already rich with reform ideas and organizations:  
upstate New York, Massachusetts, parts of Pennsylvania, and the 
Ohio Western Reserve.  (Although Matthews argues that the women's 
movement did not penetrate the South, Elizabeth R. Varon has 
recently demonstrated that white Southern women were involved in 
politics throughout the antebellum period, lending their support to 
often-controversial reforms.) Most were members of the middle 
class, and were already involved in antislavery and temperance.  
Nearly all were native born, married, and well educated.  Most of 
the female population, however, did not attach themselves to the 
women's movement; Matthews skillfully outlines the motivations of 
those few who chose to challenge the expected.  Women were often 
motivated to join the fight for equality because they felt 
"unjustly deprived of opportunity for growth" and after they had 
witnessed, but not necessarily suffered, oppression or abuse (p. 
92).  Converts were painfully aware, however accomplished they 
were, of belonging to "an inferior caste" (p. 93).  By 1860, the 
movement was working toward equal rights for women as citizens, as 
well as the right to vote; perhaps more importantly, it was 
building change on the foundation of a new, self-developed, 
economically independent womanhood.

Matthews argues that the Civil War was a turning point in the 
woman's movement.  The question of the vote was dramatically 
changed by emancipation; with the Fourteenth Amendment, the word 
"male" was introduced into the Constitution for the first time, 
making implicit "the linkage between citizenship, voting, and male 
gender" (p. 121).  In addition, the constituency of the movement 
changed and broadened after the war.  In 1869, two woman suffrage 
organizations were formed.  The National Woman Suffrage 
Association, headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, 
opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, called for a separate federal 
amendment to enfranchise women, and worked to address other issues 
concerning women's rights.  The American Woman Suffrage 
Association, led by Lucy Stone, her husband Henry Blackwell, Julia 
Ward Howe, and others, endorsed the Fifteenth Amendment, and, 
unlike the NWSA, concentrated solely on developing support for 
woman suffrage on the state level through constitutional reform.  
Matthews effectively weighs the benefits and disadvantages of the 
split in the women's movement, and examines the prickly but 
undeniable issue of racism among suffragists.

If the issue of race did not derail the suffrage movement, the 
issue of sex nearly did.  The in the early 1870s, the NWSA tangled 
with free-love advocate Victoria Woodhull, whose life has recently 
been examined in detail by Barbara Goldsmith and Mary Gabriel.  
Cady Stanton and Anthony, meanwhile, were involved as advocates in 
several sensational trials with sexual themes, and two prominent 
pro-feminist men--Theodore Tilton and Henry Ward Beecher--were the 
protagonists in a long-running sex scandal of their own creation.  
Organized antisuffragism among women developed in the 1870s, as 
membership in suffrage organizations dropped and membership in new, 
more traditional organizations, like the Women's Christian 
Temperance Union, grew.

In the midst of these doldrums, the United States prepared to 
celebrate its centennial.  Matthews closes her history here.  
Denied space in the Centennial International Exhibition in 
Philadelphia, and with Lucy Stone's exhibit protesting taxation 
without representation tucked away into a dusty corner of the 
Woman's Pavilion, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage decided 
to crash the opening ceremonies.  The president of the Exhibition 
had been blunt in his refusal:  "Tomorrow we propose to celebrate 
what we have done the last hundred years," he said, "not what we 
have failed to do."  For a small group of suffragists, these were 
fighting words.  On July 4, five women interrupted the ceremonies 
at Independence Hall to unfurl a three-foot-long scroll inscribed 
with a declaration of women's rights and handed copies out to the 
crowd.  A reading by Susan B. Anthony followed outside.  Summing up 
the goals of the movement's first phase, the document offered "an 
open-ended view of emancipation."  With no example to guide them, 
these women bravely invented "new ways of being a woman" (p. 185).

Matthews herself, like the women she writes about, has bravely 
ventured into uncharted territory.  A narrative history of the 
early years of the women's movement was sorely needed, and she has 
provided an excellent example of what a well-written synthesis 
should be.  In lively, spare prose, she outlines the story, surveys 
the sources, incorporates varying interpretations, and peppers the 
text with the experiences and the words of the participants.  Her 
meaty "Note on Sources" provides an excellent survey of suffrage 
scholarship, as well as a section on primary sources, underscoring 
the author's assertion that "there is no substitute for reading the 
words of the historical actors themselves" (p. 187).  In _Women's 
Struggle for Equality_, Jean V. Matthews has written a skillful 
introduction to and examination of the early years of a 
revolutionary movement.

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                   Grant {Internet: karpik@sprint.ca}

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