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In this lesson, we explore the early women’s rights movement and their rejection of traditional gender roles in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States and Great Britain.

Early Feminism

Each generation has its minority that is vocally fighting for change. For example, today it seems that everywhere you turn there is another news story about the struggle for gay and lesbian rights, whether it’s about tax equality, military service, or the right to marry. 150 years ago, it was an even larger portion of the population’s turn: women.

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Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, women fought for equal rights under the law and most importantly the right to vote.

19th-Century Expectations

In both North America and Europe in the 19th century, women and men were expected to fill separate spheres of society. Men were expected to live a public life, whether it was working in a factory or socializing with like-minded men in public places, like clubs, meetings, or bars. On the other hand, women were usually expected to live their lives largely homebound, taking care of the cooking, cleaning, and child rearing.

Free time for women was not supposed to be spent socializing but doing other things related to the maintenance of the family, from sewing socks to laundry.Largely due to these traditional expectations for women prior to the 19th century, very few women had the same opportunities for education as men. Indeed, educating women was often seen as subversive, a possible perversion of the correct social order.

Women were also entirely shut out of political activity. Women were not allowed to vote, and in Great Britain, women were so bound to their husbands that under 19th-century British common law, they were barely considered people at all.While it is true female monarchs had existed in previous centuries, these were largely due to accidents of birth and the death of male heirs. Though exceptions to the rule did exist, women in general were entirely shut out of the public sphere of 19th-century society unless they were accompanying their husbands or fathers.

Calls for Change

Beginning in the 19th century, women’s acceptance of these traditional roles began to dissipate. Eschewing the contemporary adage that women protesting, attending political speeches, or otherwise rabble-rousing was considered gauche and unladylike, women began taking on serious roles in the abolition and temperance movements in both the United States and in Europe. Indeed, the temperance movement was largely driven by lower and middle class women who were upset with the amount of time and money men often spent in bars on alcohol.

Many of these same women became vocal participants of the women’s rights movement. Though strains of feminist thought had existed within the temperance and abolition movements, the first formal meeting organized toward addressing gender inequality was the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. At Seneca Falls, over 300 women and men met over three days to discuss the current state of women according to U.S. law and strategies to mobilize women across the country and foster serious change.

There the attendees drafted the Declaration of Sentiments. This document, which adopted some terminology and turns of phrase of the U.S. Constitution, laid out the injustices of the current role of women in society, including their inability to own property, their subjugation to men, and their lack of political access, among others.The declaration was highly controversial even among women’s rights advocates – many felt the harsh criticisms of male-dominated society and its ardent calls for reform of the existing order were too radical and might discourage other women from getting behind the movement. Despite these fears, Seneca Falls and the Declaration of Sentiments was a watershed moment for the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Two years later, many of these same women organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Massachusetts. This brought together many of the leading figures of the 19th-century women’s rights movements, including Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and the architect of the Declaration of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.Across the Atlantic Ocean, similar women’s rights movements were springing up decrying the existing social order in England and Europe. In England, for instance, groups of leading women’s rights advocates, such as the Langham Place Group, met regularly to discuss women’s issues and strategies for drumming up support for women’s rights. In Great Britain, women were even more disadvantaged; there was absolutely no access to education beyond basic grade school, and women were not even allowed to inherit property or money from their dead husbands!

Pre-War Accomplishments

These groups of women organized protests, rallies, and other meetings both in Great Britain and in the United States, aiming to bring the cause of women’s rights into the public consciousness. These women were joined in their calls for reform by liberal-minded men and philosophers, such as John Stuart Mill.

This vocal agitation for change led to a wholesale reexamination of the relationships between men and women and the role of women in society.Gradually, these ideas and organizations gained steam. In 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded with the express goal of gaining women the right to vote. Founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and another prominent women’s rights advocate, Susan B. Anthony, the association also encouraged women to begin working outside the home.

In large part due to the great efforts of these women and organizations in bringing women’s rights to the attention of politicians, change to existing laws began to be passed. In 1870, the United Kingdom passed the Married Women’s Property Act, which allowed women to inherit property and own money. A second act of the same name was passed in 1882, granting married women the right to own property apart from their husbands.In 1869, the U.S. territory of Wyoming became the first state or territory to grant women the right to vote, and one year later, Ellen Richards became the first woman to attend a science or technical school after being accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1916, Jeannette Rankin from Montana became the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress.Despite these achievements, the big objective of many women’s rights organizations – the right to vote – remained elusive. Despite other incremental advances, many politicians were fearful of allowing women the right to vote. Politically, the prospect of doubling the electorate literally overnight would radically change the political map of the United States and Great Britain. These same men also forwarded several arguments against women’s suffrage based on prevailing 19th- and early 20th-century cultural stereotypes of women: often that they were naturally too weak-minded to be able to make decisions regarding state and war – what they termed ‘matters of force.

‘These men also contrarily claimed that women already had a significant impact on politics through their husbands and therefore had no need to be able to directly vote. Faced with substantial opposition to their aims, several women’s organizations grew increasingly hostile in their protests and demonstrations. In 1914, for example, Mary Richardson took an ax to a Diego Velazquez painting in the National Gallery in London out of protest to the police force-feeding one of her fellow suffragettes who was on a hunger strike in prison.The increasingly acrimonious atmosphere between the authorities and women’s rights advocates led to an increased political pressure to grant women the right to vote.

In fact, women may have gotten the vote sooner had World War I not began in 1914. During the war, the issue was politically stalled, though women on both sides of the Atlantic continued to organize and bide their time.Soon after World War I ended, women’s suffrage became the largest political issue facing Western society. In 1918, soon after the war’s end, the United Kingdom granted all women over the age of 30 the right to vote, though it took an extra ten years for the voting age of women to come down to 21, the same age as men. In the United States, women received universal suffrage in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified by two-thirds of the states.

Lesson Summary

The efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others in the 19th and early 20th century is considered by historians as the ‘first wave’ of the women’s liberation movement. Indeed, although women now had the right to vote and many of the same legal privileges as men, the fact remained that expectations that women – especially once they were married – would maintain the home and their place in the domestic sphere had not changed. These attitudes would take another women’s liberation push later in the 20th century before they significantly changed.Regardless, the efforts and achievements of 19th-century women are astonishing.

From virtually nothing, political-minded women organized large demonstrations, protests, and national organizations aimed at securing greater freedoms in public life and greater political involvement for all women. In the face of substantial and powerful opposition, they overcame the odds to secure a better future for their fellow women and their daughters alike.

Lesson Outcomes

By the end of this lesson you should be able to:

  • Describe the roles women traditionally played in 19th century society
  • Recall the importance of the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls
  • Name some leaders of the Women’s Rights Movement
  • Recite some of the reasons behind denying women the right to vote
  • State the amendment to the US constitution that gave women the right to vote
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