Blog, Politics, Women's History

Campaign Poverty, Women’s Equality and the Right to Vote

Susan B. Anthony Photo supplied. Source: History of Women Suffrage, Vol. 1
Susan B. Anthony
Photo supplied. Source: History of Women Suffrage, Vol. 1




Bernadette Cahill will be presenting a paper at the Women’s History Network Conference. Below is the background to her paper. WHN Admin.

Bernadette Cahill © 2016
 For 144 years before American women won the vote, their lives were severely constricted. The only political tool they had to win change was the petition and even that was questioned.  They were also hamstrung by lack of money, for women had “no right to the disposition of their own earnings.”  Further, a contrived philosophy consigned them to the “private sphere,” while men and women supporting women’s restricted role blocked reforms.
Nevertheless, women petitioned for change. In 1836 Ernestine Rose, with only five signatures, presented the first-ever petition for married women’s property rights in New York.  It took twelve years for wives to win the right to own inherited property – biased male legislators hampering it by ignoring penniless women without power.
In 1852 Susan B. Anthony canvassed New York promoting Temperance clubs. In 1853 she discovered the clubs were gone because women had no money. She immediately launched a petition for female suffrage, for women’s right to control their earnings and to guardianship of their children. In ten weeks in early 1854 Anthony and a group of volunteers gathered 6,000 signatures for marriage law reform and another 4,000 for female suffrage. Legislators cavalierly dismissed both.
From Christmas Day 1854 till May, 1855 Anthony toured a frozen New York State gathering signatures for women’s equality. She sold literature and charged 25 cents for meetings to cover her costs. She made $2,367, expended $2,291 and repaid wealthy abolitionist Wendell Phillips of Boston a $50 advance.  Women’s rights, it was clear, was a demanding, long-term project in which many women did not participate because they had no money, freedom, initiative, interest or the guts required.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton knew all this when in July of 1859 she announced plans “to send up to our next Legislature, an overwhelming petition, for the Civil and Political Rights of Woman.” She declared that women had “decided thoroughly to canvass our state before the close of the present year. We shall hold conventions in every county, distribute tracts and circulate petitions …”
This optimistic announcement appeared because in 1858 an anonymous donor had left $5,000 for women’s rights work,  while in May, 1859 Charles Hovey of Boston had bequeathed $50,000 for reforms including women’s rights.
While “the want of funds has heretofore crippled all our efforts … we are now able to send out agents and to commence anew our work which shall never end until … the equality of woman shall be fully recognized,” Stanton proclaimed, demanding female suffrage and an end to the legal ownership of their wives’ wages by “40,000 drunkards … men who are licentious – gamblers – the long line of those who do nothing.”
Over several months women canvassed fifty counties  and 150 towns.  It cost nearly $2,000.  Petitions were “numerously signed and duly presented to the Legislature” for female suffrage and law reform.
When fund-raising was not needed, campaigning was less onerous. With financial backing, women more easily stirred public opinion and even with only petitions they finally won for wives the right to their own earnings and joint guardianship of their children. The Act passed on March 20, 1860.
This campaign was one of three where women had money to work with.  But the two bequests soon dried up and the 1860 law was substantially repealed when women stopped campaigning during the Civil War. Campaign poverty once again became the norm, constantly hobbling women’s work.
But women worked on, facing two distinct challenges. Legal reform threatening hearth and home was difficult to win. But female suffrage – threatening the centre of power – was a larger challenge. Poverty would hamper both, but within ten years would stifle in Kansas the first-ever state campaign for female suffrage.
Fifty-plus years after that failed venture women would finally triumph, winning the vote in 1920 – still using petitions, but also by devising their own extraordinary and ground-breaking efforts to achieve victory – in spite of everything against them, including lack of money.
Further Reading
Kathleen Barry, Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988).
Carol A. Kolmerten, The American Life of Ernestine L. Rose, (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999).
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Jocelyn Gage (eds.), History of Woman Suffrage, (Rochester, New York and London: Charles Mann, 1887), I.
Judith Wellman, The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
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