As I noted in my last blog post, when America’s Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they did not address the question of whether women should be allowed to vote. Although Abigail Adams urged them to consider the rights of women, they laughed that idea off. Instead, they turned their attention to a big question the new country had to face—whether or not its citizens should be allowed to own slaves. That issue continued to grow as the 19th century began. And it had an overwhelming impact on the question of women’s rights.
By 1804, the states were almost equally divided between those which allowed slavery and those that outlawed it. The movement to abolish all slavery in America began in the northern states and by the 1820s a number of people in Pennsylvania and New England were speaking out about the evils of slavery. Although almost all Southerners supported slavery, there were a few who opposed it. Among the anti-slavery Southerners, two women stand out—Angelina and Sarah Grimke. They became the only known Southern women to work actively for the abolitionist movement.
The Grimke sisters were born in Charleston, South Carolina, into a wealthy slave-owning family. Sarah was the older, born in 1792, while Angelina, the youngest of the family’s 14 children, was born in 1805. Although their brothers and sisters accepted the traditional slave-owning views of their family, Sarah and Angelina rebelled. They were both devoutly religious and decided that Christian beliefs were incompatible with owning slaves. Teaching slaves to read was forbidden in South Carolina, but nonetheless the two of them enraged their father by secretly teaching some of their household slaves to read.
Eventually both Sarah and Angelina Grimke decided that living in the South was incompatible with their moral beliefs, so they moved to Philadelphia where they joined the Quakers and became active in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina admired the anti-slavery writings of William Lloyd Garrison, but when she wrote him a letter of support, he published it in his magazine The Liberator. Even though her opinions were compatible with the views of most Quakers, she was disciplined for speaking out without permission.
The idea of women speaking in public, especially when there were men in the audience, remained controversial even in the abolitionist movement. As both Angelina and Sarah Grimke became well known speakers for the anti-slavery movement, they drew more and more criticism. Catherine Beecher, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote that women should remain silent and let men speak for the cause. In response, Angelina wrote a series of letters to Beecher asking for an explanation of exactly what a woman’s role should be. In one of her letters she wrote:
No one has yet found out just where the line of separation between them [men and women] should be drawn, and for this simple reason, that no one knows just how far below man woman is, whether she be a head shorter in her moral responsibilities, or head and shoulders, or the full length of his noble stature, below him, i.e. under his feet.
None of the traditionalists could answer Angelina’s question to her satisfaction, so the Grimke sisters continued to be active public speakers in the anti-slavery movement. Angelina met her future husband, Theodore Dwight Weld, at an anti-slavery convention in 1836. Although Weld supported the activism of both Grimke sisters, he discouraged them from continuing their public speaking. Nonetheless because the invitations continued to arrive, neither sister completely gave up speaking before both men and women.
In 1838, Angelina spoke about the anti-slavery movement before the Massachusetts Legislature, thus becoming the first woman to address such a body. She also defended a woman’s right to petition as both a moral and political right. Because women could not vote, petitioning a governing body was the only means by which they could influence legislative policy and assert their status as citizens. Over time, Angelina’s speeches came to focus more on women’s rights than on abolition.
After Angelina and her husband had children, she stepped back from public speaking and devoted more of her time to correspondence and taking care of the household. Theodore Weld had serious economic problems, so he and his wife decided to open a school to support their growing family. Sarah moved in with them and both sisters taught at the school.
In1870, after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State…”. Angelina and Sarah Grimke took their last public action. Both of them had grown old by this time but nonetheless they made their way to the polls during a blinding snowstorm to cast their votes. Men and boys jeered at them for the attempt, but because they were elderly women, they were not arrested. Neither, of course, were they allowed to vote. Nonetheless at least they had tried.
When the Grimke sisters died, women were still not considered full citizens. That victory would have to wait for younger generations. But in their lifetimes, both Angelina and Sarah Grimke pushed the country a little closer to acknowledging that women should indeed be allowed to be active participants in the country.
The 2020 election is approaching quickly. For the first time ever more than one woman has decided to run for president. It’s been a long time coming, but women are finally taking their places among the leaders of the country. And it all started with the right to vote!
During this election year, women across the country will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. A hundred years may seem like a long time, but what many of us have forgotten is that it took much longer than a hundred years for women to win that right.
When Europeans settled in North America, they carried with them traditional European voting traditions. Women didn’t vote—period. Of course there were a few exceptions. The first recorded vote legally cast by an American woman was in 1756 when Lydia Taft voted at a township meeting in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft, a wealthy widow, was allowed to vote in place of her recently deceased husband in an election designed to settle the question of whether the town should support the French and Indian War.
The reason for allowing Taft to vote was based on the idea of “no taxation without representation” and not on the fact that women should be given a vote. At that time, and for many years afterward, the right to vote was limited to property owners. It was wealth that gave a person the right to vote. Men owned almost all property, therefore they controlled all the votes.
Twenty years after Lydia Taft had voted, Massachusetts and the other British North American colonies declared their independence from England. As representatives from the thirteen colonies met in the Continental Congress, another Massachusetts woman asked about whether women would have a voice in the new country. Abigail Adams did not directly call for votes for women, but she raised the question of women’s rights.
On March 31, 1776, in a letter to her husband, John Adams, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress, Abigail wrote: [I]n the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.
Mail between Massachusetts and Philadelphia moved slowly in 1776 and it was not until April 14 that Abigail received an answer.
John Adams wrote: As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented… We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.
Well, as we all know, the men at the Continental Congress did not yield to the hated “despotism of the petticoat”. They laughed and dismissed Abigail Adams’s quiet suggestion that women be given a voice in government. As far as we know, Abigail never again pressed her husband on the subject of women’s rights. But the idea did not fade away.
After the United States became an independent country, voting rights for men were expanded. State by state starting in the 1820s, property ownership was gradually dropped as a voting requirement. By 1860, almost all white men in the country were allowed to vote. It would take another sixty years for white women to get the same right. But women did not forget and many continued to remind men to “remember the ladies” as Abigail Adams had asked.
Over the next few months, leading up to the Centennial year of 2020, I plan to write about some of the less well-known figures who helped to ensure that right.