Blood pressure must have soared these past few weeks all across America as fury reigned in Washington over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The struggle pitted not only Republicans against Democrats, but often men against women. People couldn’t even agree on what the argument was about. Was the basic question whether or not Kavanaugh had committed a sexual assault 36 years ago? Or was it about whether his overwrought, hysterical claim that “leftists” had conspired against him revealed a glaringly unjudicial temperament?
What we are left with now is a Supreme Court that reflects the views of only a minority of Americans. Many of the justices’ decisions will be questioned because by people who believe their views have not been heard and their wishes have not been respected. In part this is because in recent years gerrymandering and voter suppression in the states have kept many people’s votes from being heard. But far more tragically, many people did not vote because they just did not bother. Demonstrating against Congressional actions that seem unfair may make people feel good, but voting is far more effective for changing the country.
Women especially, whose voting rights were earned with so much pain and bitterness, should feel particularly guilty if they don’t vote regularly. It is hard to believe that only 43% of women who were eligible to vote in the 2014 Midterm elections cast a ballot. We can do better than that.
Now that the 2018 Midterms are only a few weeks away, how are women going to respond? There are more female candidates running for office than ever before, but they need the support of women who may never run for office, but who can surely vote and ensure they are represented by people who reflect their views.
When we look back at the history of women’s voting, there is a lot to inspire us. Susan B. Anthony and a group of women went to the polls in Rochester, N.Y. in 1872 and voted, claiming that they had the constitutional right to do so. Local authorities did not agree and arrested the women. The judge at Anthony’s trial did not allow the jurors to discuss the case, but directed them to find Anthony guilty. He fined her $100, which she refused to pay, hoping to move the case to the Supreme Court, but the judge successfully blocked that path by refusing to send her to jail. Nonetheless, the trial generated a lot of publicity and advanced the prospect of women’s suffrage.
We’ve come a long way since those days, but now that we have the vote, it is up to us to use it. Unless women are active participants in elections, they will not be treated as equal to the powerful men who run the country. Now is the time to register and vote!
Those of us who are old enough may remember a little verse by Sarah Cleghorn that we heard in school:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
That verse popped into my mind yesterday as I heard the news about Congressmen (and women) leaving Washington this weekend to go back to their districts for the Fourth of July celebrations. Some of them are no doubt headed for golf courses. And meanwhile we have thousands of immigrant children being held in detention centers, separated from their parents, wondering what will happen to them. While our representatives celebrate the past glories of our country, they have not taken the time or made the effort to fix the immigration system so horrors like this do not occur.
This has been a bad year for America. Congress neglects its duties and focuses instead on satisfying donors and carrying out the demands of an erratic president. This month has shown how far America has wandered from the virtues celebrated in its usual July 4th self-congratulations.
Land of the Free? Well, not entirely. The Supreme Court upheld the right of individuals to use their religious beliefs to deprive some people of their right to buy a cake in a public shop. But now that Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump and his supporters are determined to appoint a new justice who will take away the right of women to practice their own beliefs in choosing the medical treatment that is right for them and their families. A justice who will support laws imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans about when human life begins to prevent all women from following their own consciences. Depriving other people of their right to privacy and their right to access appropriate treatment is not freedom.
Home of the Brave? It is difficult to see much bravery in Congress these days as they meekly accept the orders of an ignorant and bullying president. Paul Ryan, who spoke out bravely during the 2016 election campaign and refused to support a man whose morals showed him to be blatantly unfit for office, has crumbled along with the rest of the Republican majority. Congress stood by and watched the farce of accepting an order that immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries should be barred from the U.S. No one will be more secure because of this limitation, but many families will suffer. They passed a tax bill that reduced taxes for their supporters and probably themselves, but will leave ordinary working people behind. They accepted the imposition of a record-breaking national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. And they failed to ensure that all Americans get a decent level of healthcare
No, this is not a Fourth of July to celebrate. Instead of mouthing worn-out phrases about America’s past glories, this is a year to start reversing, as much as we can, the slide backward into the bad old days we worked so hard to overcome. Instead we can
- Get in touch with our representatives and urge them to fix our immigration policies and live up to our ideals.
- Choose candidates in the upcoming midterm election who will battle to ensure that the gains that have been made over the past century in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights are not thrown away.
- Urge our leaders to work with our allies and democracies around the world to maintain peace and stability in the world. We do not need to cater to autocrats and sully our reputation as an example to the world.
- And the only way to do all of this is to REGISTER AND VOTE!
June has arrived and with it the promise of more weddings as today’s couples decide to commit themselves to the semi-permanence of marriage. Not as many Americans are getting married as they did fifty years ago. In 1950, only 22% of
Americans had never been married now the percentage has just past the halfway mark—50.3%. The reason for this change has often been discussed by social scientists and the media. Women now are better educated than ever before and more of them can earn a living without a husband, but this doesn’t seem to be the reason for the decline. College educated people are more likely than high school graduates, or high school dropouts, to get married. Marriages aren’t only about economics.
Does anyone remember the idea that people ought to be married before they become sexually active? Very few young people adhere to that idea now. The idea of being a virgin upon marriage has died away. According to an article in Atlantic Magazine, cohabitation has increased 900% during the last fifty years. It is now the norm for most couples to live together for a period of time before they marry. Perhaps that’s the reason why weddings have become increasingly elaborate and expensive in recent years. If a wedding does not signal a change in lifestyle, it has to become an event in itself to mark a legal change of status.
One curious thing is that even back in the days when marriage was almost the only source of economic security as well as sexual and romantic love available, some women rejected the very idea of marriage. It’s easy to forget how one-sided the rights of marriage used to be. The Founding Fathers who wrote the United States Constitution wanted to give freedom and power to citizens, but only to male citizens. Women who married in the early 19th century gave up rights to their property, their earnings, their inheritances, and their children. A husband became the head of the family and he was legally entitled to make all the decisions about where the family should live, how they spent their money, and what should happen to their children. Of course, many women were able to actually make the decisions, but they could do that only as long as they could persuade their husbands to do as they wished. It didn’t take long for women to decide they wanted some legal rights to back up their powers of persuasion. One of the foremost fighters for this freedom was Lucy Stone, although today she is almost forgotten.
Born in 1818 in Massachusetts, Lucy Stone spent most of her life as a crusader for freedom. Her life was a series of firsts. She became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree and she did it at Oberlin, the first college to
admit both women and men. She fought for the abolition of slavery and became a public speaker at a time when women were seldom allowed to speak in public. She also crusaded for the rights of women, especially their freedom to vote.
Because of the inequalities of the rights of husbands and wives, Stone was opposed to marriage, but when she met Henry Blackwell, he persuaded her that the two of them could devise and live as equals. When they were married in 1855, they read a protest against marriage during the ceremony—a protest that was later published in newspapers across the country.
We protest especially against the laws which give the husband:
- The custody of the wife’s person.
- The exclusive control and guardianship of their children.
- The sole ownership of her personal and use of her real estate, unless previously settled upon her or placed in the hands of trustees, as in the case of minors, idiots, and lunatics.
- The absolute right to the product of her industry.
- Also against laws which give to the widower so much larger and more permanent interest in the property of the deceased wife than they give to the widow in that of the deceased husband.
- Finally, against the whole system by which the legal existence of the wife is suspended during marriage, so that, in most States, she neither has a legal part in the choice of her residence, nor can she make a will, nor sue or be sued in her own name, nor inherit property.
The most startling decision of their marriage was for Lucy Stone to keep her own name rather than becoming Mrs. Henry Blackwell. She was praised by a few, but denounced by many for this decision In the years since, her choice has become far more acceptable to many women. Despite the unconventionality of their marriage, the two of them succeeded in building a life together. Their daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, worked with them for many years and wrote the first biography of her mother.
Now that brides and grooms have so many more choices in in how their married life will function, it is a shame that Lucy Stone has been forgotten. Without the work that she and other leaders of the suffrage movement did, women planning their weddings this year might be giving up far more than they are. If you want to learn more about Stone and her work, I recommend a thoughtful new biography, Lucy Stone: A Life by Sally G. McMillen. Perhaps that’s a book you should think of when you are choosing a wedding present for young couples.
Nelson Mandela, who brought democracy to South Africa 1994, thought everyone over the age of 14 should be allowed to vote. Young people had fought against apartheid with him and he believed they should be able to vote in their new country. He didn’t win that argument and the voting age was set at 18 as it is in the majority of democracies around the world.
But are young people in the United States losing that right? A group of students in North Carolina claim that young people are losing their right to vote because of new voter ID laws passed in several Republican-dominated state legislatures.
According to a New York Times report, under the North Carolina law passed last year, the period for early voting was shortened and same-day registration was eliminated. Beginning in 2016, voters will need to show photo identification, and student ID cards, including those issued by state universities, will not be acceptable. In most instances, neither will an out-of-state driver’s license. In Texas, voters must show a photo ID. A state handgun license qualifies, but a state university identification card does not. Other states have suggested even more restrictive laws.
The history of voting in the United States has been a history of letting more and more citizens vote. The men who wrote the constitution thought voters should be successful men who had experience as farmers or businessmen. Voters should be at least 21 years old and own property. Servants and slaves could not vote and neither could women. During the first few years of the new country, only about half of all white men were allowed to vote in some states.
No one is sure why 21 was chosen as the time when a man became an adult. During the middle ages in England, a young man could become a knight at the age of 21, because he had gained his full strength and could wear heavy armor. Gradually that age was accepted as an appropriate time for taking on adult responsibilities, including voting.
Slowly and painfully the right to vote was extended to men who did not own property, to former slaves and even to women. Each extension was gained after a long, hard battle. For more than a hundred years it looked as though democracy was winning and more and more people were given voting rights. In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, allowing voting to young people across the country.
The history of the twentieth century was a history of broadening people’s rights to vote, but the twenty-first century has reversed the trend. Instead of taking advantage of an infrastructure that makes it easier for people to vote—voting machines that count votes automatically, mail delivery that is safe and secure, ballots that are accessible to people with disabilities—some jurisdictions are intent on decreasing voting rather than expanding it.
How much does this have to do with the increasing inequality in our society? Making voting difficult is one way to stifle
democracy. Lines like the ones that have appeared in recent elections in states such as Florida and Ohio discourage voting, so do unreasonable voter ID laws. Voting is a right, not a privilege to be doled out only to people who can be counted on tovote to support the privileges of those who hold power. Every citizen who cares about the future of America should support the right of all citizens to vote no matter which candidates or parties they are supporting. That’s what democracy is all about.
August 26, 1920 was the day that American women finally got the right to vote. It took a long, hard fight to win this right. Let’s celebrate!
Everybody counts in applying democracy. And there will never be a true democracy until every responsible and law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed, has his or her own inalienable and unpurchasable voice in government. -Carrie Chapman Catt
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. Two years later, when the presidential election actually came around, everything had changed. Victoria believed she would win because of her strong faith in what her spirits told her, but she didn’t take account of what other people were thinking and doing. During the years 1870-72, the Women’s movement became split into warring groups over policy. Leaders like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton resented the fact that the government gave former slaves the right to vote but refused to do the same for women. They opposed the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment which gave “all citizens” the right to vote “regardless of race, creed or previous condition of servitude” but did not include women.
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 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 this would happen. This was the first presidential election in which women’s suffrage was an important issue, because it was the first held after the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association in 1869.
While the three different suffrage groups were arguing among themselves, the traditional political parties also struggled over their candidates. 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. After the turmoil of nominations the campaign itself was one of the most bitterly-fought campaigns in American history.
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 sisters had lurid pasts compared to those of the other women leading the suffrage movement, but these respectable women also had many secrets to hide. The intrigues and infidelities of leading male citizens touched the lives of their wives as well as their mistresses. 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 many of the 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 is what led to her arrest and was the reason she spent Election Day in jail rather than at the polls. 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 given a $100 fine for the attempt. The election which seemed to promise vindication for women’s rights proved to be a miserable failure for them. The struggle continued for another fifty years.
Today, as we look back from the enormous new freedoms in sex and marriage that have been gained over the last hundred years and more, it’s hard to know what to think of Victoria Woodhull. She pioneered many of the ideas we now accept as desirable. Who would go back to the bad old days when women weren’t allowed to vote or manage their own money or divorce their husbands and keep custody of the children? At the same time, we have to admit that Victoria would have been a terrible president. Going into trances and listening to the voices of spirits got her a long way, but they probably wouldn’t have provided a clue about how how to reconcile the North and South after the long destruction of the Civil War. We can admire her spirit in making public some of the sins of hypocrites who were running the country, but we have to admit that her unsavory activities (and her disreputable family) set back the suffrage by decades. Women didn’t finally get the vote in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment 1920.
If you have become as fascinated by this tumultuous period in American history as I have, you may want to read Barbara Goldsmith’s book Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull. It covers the period thoroughly and gives an amazing account of the character and lives of some of the men and women who made America the country that it is today.
Following Victoria Woodhull’s trail offers some tantalizing clues about what 19th century America was like. The more I read the more fascinated I become. Who knew that these women in their long skirts and corsets were asking the same questions we are asking today? Certainly I had never known how much Victoria’s spiritualist beliefs had influenced the women’s rights movement. She was not the only member of the group who believed that spirits speaking to them from beyond the grave, gave them ideas to help in their campaign. Spiritualism, which had started about 1848, the same year of the first Women’s Rights Convention, 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 firmly that spirits spoke directly to her and guided her in her life. Perhaps it was only natural that people who lived unconventional lives and supported unconventional ideas 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 strict and 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. Victoria and 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. Their unconventional business attracted many customers and they made a great deal of money for themselves. Perhaps it was Victoria’s business success that gave her the courage to enter political life.
Victoria Woodhull’s 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 there 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. The argument persuaded some people, but it was especially strong among women, who had never been allowed to vote whether they were citizens or not. Isabella Beecher, sister of Henry Ward Beecher, became a devoted follower of Victoria Woodhull and introduced her to many influential people. With the help of these friends, and especially Cornelius Vanderbilt, Victoria and Tennie started the newspaper Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly devoted mainly to supporting Victoria’s candidacy. The story of what happened during the 1872 campaign will be continued in my next post.