The struggle to give American women the right to vote lasted more than a century. For the past several weeks I have been telling the stories of some of the women who fought for this right—not the women who are most often honored, but the ones who kept up the fight in spite of being marginalized for belonging to a different race, a different religion, or a different nationality than most of the suffrage leaders. Victoria Woodhull was one of those. Her problem in being accepted arose because she insisted on being honest about her sex life—she believed in a woman’s right to divorce an abusive or unfaithful husband. She also published information about the sex lives of some highly respected men.
Born in Ohio in 1838, Victoria Woodhull grew up in an unstable and impoverished family. She declared she had been “a child without a childhood” because her father had put his daughters to work as soon as he realized they could tell fortunes and claim healing powers. Victoria escaped from him by running away at 15 to get married, but the husband she chose was as shiftless as her father. He quickly became an alcoholic and a philanderer. Fed up with his neglect and dependence, Victoria divorced him and decided to make life on her own terms with her two children.
Some women in those circumstances might have struggled to maintain respectability by turning to teaching, but respectability was not high on the list of Victoria’s priorities. She had discovered spiritualism and believed in her power to foresee events to come. Her sister Tennessee was also a clairvoyant and both sisters were quite willing to use their talents as well as their sex appeal to earn money. Both were at various times accused of being prostitutes, but they were clever enough to use their sexual availability to their advantage rather than being punished for it. During the late 19th century at a time when a married woman could lose her husband, children, and livelihood by a single slip into adultery, married men were free to consort with prostitutes and enjoy their sexual adventures without losing anything. Tennessee and Victoria claimed the same privilege.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. Victoria was not the only suffragist who believed that spirits speaking from beyond the grave gave them ideas for their campaign for women’s rights Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, attracted many American radicals. Campaigners for both abolition of slavery and for women’s rights tended to gravitate toward the group because it welcomed new ideas and encouraged individualistic thinking. Victoria Woodhull first gained fame, and made a living, by going into trances and predicting what would happen in the future. She believed that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives were attracted to the idea that they could find truth on their own with the help of spirits rather than through conventional religion with its unbending rules.
Whether or not Victoria found the truth in spiritualism, she certainly found worldly success. At least she, her second husband, Captain Blood, and her sister Tennessee Claflin became rich through their association with Cornelius Vanderbilt. Victoria and her sister met Vanderbilt, whose wife had recently died, when they moved to New York City. Tennie (as she was called) charmed the elderly Vanderbilt, who had been famous for being attracted to beautiful women. When Victoria began to offer him advice about investments, he decided to set up the two sisters as brokers in 1870. The unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
The year was 1872, and Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who declared she wanted to be president of the United States. Her presidential campaign raised questions from the time it started. Whether it was legal or not is still an undecided question. Victoria and other members of her Equal Rights party claimed that women were defined as citizens in the U.S. Constitution and they had the right to vote and run for office. She based her claim on the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Women are persons and are therefore entitled to vote, Victoria decided. The argument persuaded some people, especially women; however, women had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not.
Victoria Woodhull’s declaration that she would be a candidate for President of the United States was a bold move that electrified voters in 1870. In May 1872, the name of Victoria’s People’s Party was changed to the Equal Rights Party. The party officially nominated Victoria for president, and she chose Frederick Douglass, the well-known ex-slave and public speaker, as her vice-presidential running mate. (He later said that he had never heard anything about it.) Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Isabella Beecher Hooker, who were firm believers in women’s right to vote, supported Victoria’s candidacy, but neither of them believed she had a chance to be president. Because Victoria’s spirit counselors had told her she was destined for high office, she herself firmly believed she would win. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an issue. It was the first one held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
The election of 1872 was one of the most tumultuous in American history. Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican, was seeking a second term, but the so-called Liberal Republicans split from the main party and nominated Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune. Greeley also got the Democratic nomination. Victoria Woodhull and her campaign got very little attention.
Victoria’s unquestioning faith in her spirits led her astray when it came to politics. In the end it wasn’t the search for voting rights that brought her down, it was the familiar question about sexual purity and scandal. Victoria and her sister had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives and families. Henry Ward Beecher, a distinguished minister and civic leader, was especially vulnerable. His sister Isabella Beecher Hooker was one of Victoria’s strongest supporters, but when rumors about her brother started circulating, she was torn. Unfortunately, Victoria, because of her friendships with brothel managers and prostitutes, knew many of the most scandalous stories in New York.
Victoria Woodhull believed in sexual freedom, as some of the other suffragettes did, but she practiced it more than many others. This made her vulnerable to political opponents who spread stories about her and pilloried her in the press. Thomas Nast in his cartoons made her a special target as “Mrs. Satan”. After that cartoon appeared Victoria’s political life was dead. Her speaking engagements were cancelled, and her supporters fled to other candidates. Embittered by the desertions, Victoria finally printed an article revealing the affairs of Henry Ward Beecher and other leading citizens. This led to her arrest and she spent Election Day in jail rather than going to vote. Some of the women’s suffrage leaders did attempt to vote; Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot, but her vote was not counted, and she was fined $100 for the attempt.
The 1872 election, which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights, proved to be a miserable failure for the cause. It would be more than forty years before women in the United States finally won the right to vote.
Failing to become president, however, did not stop Victoria Woodhull’s progress toward a better life. You can read about her adventures in Myra MacPherson’s 2014 biography, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age
Ernestine Potowska Rose was an unlikely woman to have an important role in America’s woman’s suffrage movement. She was a foreigner who spoke English with an accent, a Jew, and a fervent atheist. But during the 1850s, contrary to all expectations, she became one of the most prominent members of the movement.
Rose was born in Poland in 1810, the daughter of a wealthy rabbi who educated her as though she had been a boy. She learned Hebrew and studied the Torah, but from a very early age, she rejected religion and became a committed atheist. After her mother’s death, when Ernestine was 16, her father betrothed her to an older man. Shocked and rebellious, the girl went to the Polish court and sued to reject the marriage and have her dowry returned. After winning her case, she left home and never returned to Poland.
Berlin was Rose’s first stop and she lived there for several years, supporting herself by making and selling air freshener. Later she moved to London where she became a follower of the social reformer Robert Owen. Owen campaigned for workers’ rights, rejected child labor, and supported communal living. Ernestine began her career as a public speaker after Robert Owen invited her to give a talk about his ideas. Her talk was so successful that she soon became a regular speaker at Owenite events.
In 1836, Ernestine married a fellow Owenite, William Rose. Her husband was not Jewish, but, like her, a free thinker and an atheist. He had been trained as a silversmith and jeweler. Soon after their marriage, the Roses moved to the United States, which they considered the best country in the world.
In New York, Ernestine and her husband joined a group of freethinkers who met regularly at the newly built Tammany Hall. While William set up a jewelry business, Ernestine began giving talks to the freethinkers group about abolition and women’s rights. One of the objectives that the group supported was to change the New York State laws that excluded everyone who was not Protestant from serving in government posts or being witnesses in lawsuits.
As she became active in public affairs, Rose became increasingly aware of the limitations placed on women. In some meetings she was hissed and booed simply for speaking up as a man would. Soon she became an active supporter of the right of women to play an active role in her community. Although a newcomer to New York, she went door-to-door collecting signatures in support of a bill to allow women to own property in their own name. Despite being able to collect only five names, she submitted her petition to the legislature—the first petition ever submitted for women’s rights.
The causes of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery were closely entwined during the years before the Civil War. In one speech, Rose pointed out that “The slaves of the South are not the only people that are in bondage. All women are excluded from the enjoyment of that liberty which your Declaration of Independence asserts to be the inalienable right of all.”
In 1849, Rose joined Lucretia Mott for an anti-slavery speaking tour through upstate New York. Although many reformers based their opposition to slavery on Christian teaching, Mott was a radical Quaker who believed truth was found within the individual rather than in any church. She declared herself a heretic who had no difficulty accepting atheists who fought for the causes she herself supported. She and Rose remained lifelong friends.
During the 1850s, the women’s right movement grew in strength. The first major conference was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. The Convention, designed to address “Women’s Rights, Duties and Relations”, was organized by women who knew Rose, but her name was not on the invitation. She kept a rather low profile because her atheism did not fit in with the attitudes of most of the organizers. Every one of the speakers except Rose specifically mentioned the Christian and Biblical roots of women’s rights in their talks. Nonetheless, Rose was an invited speaker and her contributions were widely praised. She was also elected to the important Business Committee.
Ernestine Rose became a a good friend and colleague of many of the women most active in the women’s right movement, especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, as well as Lucretia Mott. During the 1850s, Rose worked constantly for the women’s movement. By 1856, she had given speeches in 25 of the 31 states and was always in demand. She did not take money for her speeches, but was supported by her husband William, who remained her most devoted companion. Nonetheless, her atheism and the fact that she was foreign born set her apart from most of the other activists. She was sometimes accused of being too radical, as when she talked of supporting education for women and mentioned that uneducated girls were often forced to turn to prostitution. And she dared to support a speaker who mentioned, in guarded terms, the importance of contraception in furthering women’s rights. Any mention of sex in a woman’s rights meeting at that time raised a furor and accusations of supporting free love.
Despite her valuable contribution to the women’s rights movement, Ernestine Rose must have felt somewhat estranged from many other activists. Her health was always poor, and after the Civil War, she became a less frequent speaker. The War had unleashed a wave of religious fervor in America and the freethinker groups with whom Rose felt at home dwindled away. Anti-Semitism was more openly expressed and Rose sometimes felt called upon to oppose it publicly.
After the war, Rose and her husband visited Europe several times. Finally the couple moved permanently to England where Ernestine became friendly with suffragists there. Her American friends, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, urged her to return to the United States, but after William Rose died in 1882, Ernestine refused to leave England again. It seems likely that she felt more at home in Europe than she did in postwar America. When she died in 1892, she received many honors in both England and America, but she was often left out of official histories of the women’s movement and was gradually forgotten.
If you want to know more about Ernestine Rose, an excellent biography by Bonnie S. Anderson called The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter was published in 2016 and is available in many libraries. And in 2018, Judith Shulevitz wrote an account of Rose in the New York Review of Books that is well worth reading.
Sojourner Truth is an American heroine. She fought for the abolition of slavery and for rights for women. Her story is told in American classrooms, her picture is featured on U.S. stamps, and quotes attributed to her are repeated over and over again. But almost everything we know about her is secondhand and many of her pictures and quotes are distorted or even downright false.
Sojourner Truth is the name she chose for herself after having lived half a lifetime as Isabella Baumfree or Isabella Von Wagener. Born in 1797, or thereabouts, in New York State, Isabella was a household slave for about thirty years of her life. Her first language was Dutch, not English, just as it was for many of the inhabitants of upstate New York at that time.
When slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, Isabella was legally freed. However, after being freed, ex-slaves still owed their former masters several years of labor. Isabella decided in 1826 that she had repaid her owner sufficiently and she walked away from his household carrying her infant daughter. She moved in with a nearby anti-slavery family who negotiated a bargain with her former owner to pay off her labor obligations. To the surprise of many, she remained friendly with her former owner and his family for years afterward. Her experiences as a slave in New York were dramatically different from those of the Southern slaves who were part of the widespread plantation society.
Although she had very little education and never learned to read or write, Sojourner Truth had an impressive physical appearance, a mesmerizing eloquence, and an abundance of courage. When she discovered that her young son, Peter, had been sold illegally to a Southern slave owner, she sued for his freedom, thus becoming the first African American woman to sue a white man in court and win.
Shortly after Truth had gained her freedom, she became an ardent Christian, embracing the emotional religion of the Methodists. Throughout her life Truth remained strongly religious, becoming a disciple of several charismatic religious leaders. After she moved to New York City, where she worked as a housekeeper, she became acquainted with the many of the most prominent free blacks in the city’s religious community.
In 1843 Isabella’s life changed. She named herself Sojourner Truth because she felt called to spend her life urging people to embrace Jesus. She joined a religious community in Massachusetts and began her career as a preacher supporting abolition and women’s rights. Her remarkable physical appearance—she was almost six feet tall—combined with her deep, far-reaching voice, made her a memorable presence wherever she appeared.
Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech, usually remembered as her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, was given at a women’s right conference in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Her speech was reported a month later in the Anti-Slavery Bugle by Rev. Marius Robinson who attended the conference. In his report, and other contemporary reports, no one mentioned her ever asking the question “Ain’t I a woman?” It would be another decade before that question appeared in print.
The record of Sojourner Truth’s life has been shaped by the people to whom she entrusted her story. Unfortunately, the gulf between her and the white women who recorded her story was almost unbridgeable, so the written accounts of her life and experiences were often distorted. During the 1850s, Truth dictated her autobiography to Olive Gilbert, who wrote the book that was later published as the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a book that is still widely available today.
Harriet Beecher Stowe also played a part in publicizing the life of Truth. She wrote an article that appeared in the Atlantic magazine in 1863 called “Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl”. Stowe’s version of the story presents Truth speaking in a Southern dialect as in this exchange:
“Well, Sojourner, did you always go by this name?”
“No, ‘deed! My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so I went to the Lord an’ asked Him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner, because I was to travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted another name, ’cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord gave me Truth, because I was to declare the truth to the people.
But of course, Sojourner Truth never spoke in this Southern dialect. She had never visited the South and never even seen a plantation. Although we have no recordings, she no doubt spoke in the clipped upstate New York accent that she had learned as a child.
In May 1863, a version of Sojourner Truth’s most famous speech was published by Truth’s friend, Frances Dana Gage, but unlike Rev. Robinson’s account of the speech, it was given in exaggerated Southern dialect and featured the question “Ar’nt I a Woman?” Despite its inaccuracy, this was the version of the speech that has been republished over and over again. It is still the one most people remember. We have no recordings of the original speech, but an account of the changes and recordings of the two versions can be found at The Sojourner Truth Project.
During the Civil War, Sojourner Truth recruited soldiers for the Union army. After the war she organized a project to resettle former slaves in Kansas, but was unable to get government funding for her efforts. She never gave up trying until her death in 1883.
Much of reliable information we have about Sojourner Truth’s life comes from the biography written by Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth; A Life; A Symbol (1997; rev. 2018). Not only does Painter tell the story of a remarkable woman’s life, she also paints a vivid picture of what life was like for both white and African American people throughout much of the 19th century. Reading Painter’s historical account added a great deal to my understanding of the painful controversies that convulsed the country at that time. I highly recommend the book, especially because many of the struggles of those years continue today.
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.