Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History

Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History

Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History

Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History

Synopsis

Summary: Chronicles the struggle of American women for the right to vote, from 1800 to their victory in 1920. Includes quotations from contemporary witnesses through memoirs, letters, and other documents of the period.

Excerpt

Throughout the 19th century the question, "What do women want?" was asked in the press and from the pulpit. A look back to the Revolutionary era might have suggested an answer. War brought women new responsibilities; with men away, women managed the households, businesses and estates. After the war, men took away these powers but not women's confidence in their abilities or their dreams of equality. Despite their hard work, women's contributions to the conflict and to the new nation itself were not recognized in either legislation or practice. Unlike slaves or Native Americans, women were not even mentioned in the Constitution.

The early 19th century again cast women in a variety of new roles. Once more women assumed new duties but suffered a loss in status. These years saw the highest rate of urbanization in American history as women and men moved to the cities and began producing goods for sale as well as for use at home. In 1787, having earned $150 from the sale of farm products, a farmer in New England wrote: ". . . I never spent more than ten dollars a year which was for salt, nails, and the like. Nothing to eat, drink, or wear was bought, as my farm provided all." Yet from 1825 to 1855 home production of goods dropped sharply. During these years fewer and fewer women made cloth, candles, bread, butter, medicine or soap for family use; instead, they bought them. As women changed from home-based producers to consumers, their status declined. As Harriet Robinson, factory worker and feminist, put it, "the law took no cognizance of woman as a money- spender. She was a ward, an appendage, a relict."

Despite the greater numbers of women in the labor market, the legal, religious and educational restrictions under which they lived kept them in a subservient position. Under common law, a single woman, called femme sole (or feme sole), had the legal rights of a man save the right to sit on a jury and vote. Having no man to "protect" her, it was thought she needed these rights. But once she married, she became femme coverte (or feme covert), "veiled" or "overshadowed" by her married self. Her rights were covered by her husband. As English common law put it, "When a small brooke or little river incorporateth with . . .

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