Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview

CLARINA HOWARD NICHOLS
(1810-1885), a modest voice for woman's rights

ADRIENNE E. CHRISTIANSEN

Clarina Howard Nichols was a prolific nineteenth-century writer and public speaker who devoted her adult life to improving the lives of women and their children. She was actively involved in the temperance and abolition movements, but it was through her efforts to win legal and economic gains for married women during the earliest years of the woman's rights movement that she distinguished herself. Her career as an activist spanned nearly forty years ( 1847-1885), and her thinking influenced legislators in many states as well as other woman's rights activists, such as SUSAN B. ANTHONY ( Gambone, Spring 1973:16).

Howard Nichols had rare opportunities afforded her when she took over the work of her second husband, George Nichols, as the editor and publisher of the Windham [Vt.] County Democrat. She wrote a series of editorials that has been cited as ultimately persuading Vermont politicians to enact legislation liberalizing divorce laws and giving married women property rights, including the right to own, inherit, and bequeath property, and to insure their husbands' lives. More­ over, she was the first woman to address the Vermont Legislature and the only woman asked to speak at the Kansas Constitutional Convention.

Her work at the Kansas Constitutional Convention has been hailed as her most significant and enduring contribution to the cause of women. She singlehandedly ensured that several woman's rights provisions were incorporated into the state constitution, including property rights, equal guardianship of children, and the right to vote in school district elections. These provisions gave Kansas the distinction of entering the union in 1861 as the state with the most progressive woman's rights laws at the time ( Madsen, 1975:11).

Clarina Howard Nichols is important in the history of woman's rights, not only because she succeeded in improving the lives of countless women through her legislative and constitutional achievements, but also because her speeches and writing are the handiwork of a highly skilled rhetor. Nonetheless, Joseph Gambone, the editor of her published papers, dubbed her the "forgotten feminist of Kansas." The paucity of scholarly attention is best accounted for by her decision in 1854, at the height of her career, to move from her home state of Vermont to Kansas as part of the New England Emigrant Aid Company in order to settle the territory and bring it into the Union as a free state. With her move came the increased demands of farming and a grueling pioneer existence. When her husband George Nichols died, she became sole support of their three children. These circumstances prevented her from continuing to speak at woman's rights and temperance conventions or participating in national organizations, thus di­ minishing her "presence" historically.

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