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Equal Rights for Women and Men in Elections

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  • Pages: 9
  • Word count: 2091
  • Category: Economics

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As women struggled to gain a voice in politics and challenge the traditional views of their roles in society, the women’s suffrage movement began. This movement stretched from the mid 1800’s until 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, recognizing the right of women to vote. This amendment represented the peak of the women’s suffrage movement, allowing them to become political players, and inspiring future generations of women to fight for equal rights, as well as being a step forward in the continued fight for equality between sexes.

At the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, ideas about women’s and men’s roles in society were stereotypical, and there was no mention of the rights of women in the creation of the new nation. At the time when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” the identity of women were tied to the men in their life – as a child, a woman was a dependent of her father; in marriage, she was a dependent of her husband.

The Revolutionary War bought with it some changes in the societal norms as women took on various roles, some traditional, others less so. While many women stayed at home and took on the work of their absent husbands, managing farms and businesses, others joined the camps of their officer relatives and performed various tasks – they cooked, cleaned, sewed, repaired uniforms, and some even acted as nurses, tending to the ill and injured.

One such woman was Martha Washington who took on the roles of secretary and representative to her husband, George Washington. Other women joined their fathers or husbands on battlefields, bringing the men sustenance during battle. Mary Ludwig Hays followed her husband into the war, and in June of 1778 she found herself at the Battle of Monmouth. According to the memoirs of Joseph Plumb Martin, when Mary’s husband became injured, she took up loading the artillery in his place. Some women, such as Deborah Sampson, went as far as disguising themselves as men and fighting in the war. Sampson was able to go undiscovered for 2 years during which time she acted as a scout, led raids, dug trenches, and endured canon fire.

The important role women played in the war was undeniable and made it clear that they were capable of independent thought, of making rational decisions, political choices, and this led to some small expansion of their rights. While their status in public remained much the same, their roles within the family unit were slightly elevated – they were now tasked with the duty of raising educated, patriotic sons.

Because of this, women’s access to education was expanded, and although this was done solely so that they could better instruct their children, it helped increase the roles women had in education, abolitionism, as well as women’s rights. Unfortunately, this change was only seen in the lives of well-off women – the poor had to work to support their families and could not afford education, and the lives of enslaved women continued very much the same as they were before the war. Post war, several states revised their laws to give widows more control over their inherited estates; other states passed statutes that legalized divorce and gave women the right to joint custody of children. Arguably the most important change was the fact that the wartime experiences emboldened women to challenge societal norms and their roles in both private and public lives.

In the years after the Revolutionary War, various movements were organized to fight for women’s rights, but it wasn’t until the 1848 Seneca Falls convention, which was organized by five women who were very active in the abolitionist movement, that the women’s rights movement truly began. The meeting included many notable lecturers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass. The Declaration of Sentiments, which was drafted and adopted on the first day of the convention, outlined the rights that women should be entitled to as citizens, and was signed by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men, including Frederick Douglass.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The Declaration listed 19 “abuses” which were thrust upon women in order to keep them in their submissive societal roles, as well as 11 “resolutions”.

The Declaration of Sentiments was met with many negative reactions and much outrage and ridicule, especially due to its inclusion of a Resolution calling for women’s suffrage.

“A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. A pretty girl is equal to ten thousand men, and a mother is, next to God, all powerful. The ladies of Philadelphia, therefore, under the influence of the most serious “sober second thoughts,” are resolved to maintain their rights as Wives, Belles, Virgins, and Mothers, and not as Women.”

Another article, in the Oneida Whig, called the convention the ‘the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.’ Despite all of this, the women’s suffrage movement continued to build momentum and conventions continued to be held yearly, until the start of the Civil War.

As with the Revolutionary War, women’s roles during the Civil War expanded outside the societal norms. In the North, the federal government created the United States Sanitary Commission whose main objective was to combat preventable diseases and infections by improving conditions in army camps and hospitals and provide relief to sick and wounded soldiers. Nearly 20,000 white women and free and enslaved African-American women worked as laundresses, cooks and matrons, and around 3,000 middle-class white women worked as nurses. Dorothea Dix served as superintendent of women nurses for the Union, the first woman to serve in such a high capacity in a federally appointed role. Clarissa Harlowe Barton served as a nurse and set up a system to provide medical supplies for troops; she also organized searches for missing troops. She went on to form the American Red Cross in 1881.  Like Deborah Sampson, many women disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the war, out of sense of patriotism, their belief in eradication of slavery, or to earn money.

Sarah Edmonds, who fought in the Siege of Yorktown among other battles, left the army after contracting malaria due to fear of her gender being found out, and received a desertion charge. She went on to work as a nurse for the remainder of the war, and after the war, with the help of her fellow soldiers, she convinced the government to lift her desertion charge and give her a military pension. Many women acted as spies, for both the Union and the Confederacy. One such woman was Harriet Tubman, famous abolitionist – she served the Union Army as both a nurse and a spy. In 1863, she assisted Colonel James Montgomery in an assault on plantations along the Combahee River, which resulted in the rescue of more than 700 slaves. Despite her varied war efforts, she was only able to obtain a nurse’s pension post war.

After the war, the momentum for the women’s suffrage movement had new energy and momentum. With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, Suffragists argued that women were granted the right to vote, as the Amendment guaranteed the protection of the rights of citizens, and suffragists argued that voting was a right of citizens. Many women attempted to vote, with Susan B. Anthony being one who succeeded.

On November 1, 1872 Anthony went into a registration office along with her sisters and 50 other women she organized, demanding to be allowed to register. Her demand was denied, but, as she was often known to, she quoted the Fourteenth Amendment as proof that this was her legal right as a citizen, and after much debate, was allowed to register. Four days later, she cast her vote in the Presidential election. Sylvester Lewis filed a complaint soon after, challenging both Anthony’s registration and her subsequent vote, calling them illegal. This led to an arrest warrant, and Anthony’s arrest on November 18. Anthony’s lawyers refused to enter a plea, and a preliminary hearing was set for November 29, during which her lawyers attempted to show that she genuinely believed she acted within her legal rights.

When at a December court date Anthony refused bail, it was ordered that she would be held in custody until the grand jury had a chance to meet at the beginning of the following year. While in custody, Anthony wrote letters regarding her arrest to fellow Suffragists as a way to motivate them to the fight, and she planned on taking her case to the Supreme Court. However, when her lawyer, Henry Selden, issued a writ of habeas corpus requesting her release from custody, he was refused, and Selden, unable to handle having a woman he respected be in custody, decided to pay her bail – ruining her chances of getting the case to the Supreme Court. In January of 1873, Anthony was indicted, and her trial was set for May. Not one to idly sit by as things happened to her, she spent the four months until her trial on a lecture tour, educating people on the issue of women’s suffrage. She ended her lectures by openly attempting to influence potential jurors in her upcoming trial. From a letter she wrote to Senator Benjamin F. Butler:

“I have just closed a canvass of this county from which my jurors are to be drawn and I rather guess the U. S. District Attorney who is very bitter will hardly find twelve men so ignorant on the citizen’s rights as to agree on a verdict of Guilty.”

This prompted Judge Hunt to move the trial to Ontario County, set for June. Anthony immediately began another lecture tour, in Ontario County, ending it in the county seat, the night before her trial. The trial lasted two days, and Anthony was denied the right to testify. On the second day, Judge Hunt delivered his opinion, which stated that the Constitution allowed states to prohibit women from voting and that Anthony was guilty of violating a New York law. He also denied Selden’s request that the jury be polled and instead instructed them to deliver a guilty verdict. Anthony was sentenced to pay a $100 fine as well as the costs of the prosecution, to which Anthony replied with “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty” – and she never did.

Virginia Minor, co-founder and the first president of the Woman’s Suffrage Association of Missouri, attempted to register to vote on October 15, 1872, but was refused by registrar Reese Happersett, on the grounds of being a woman. Like Susan B. Anthony, Minor believed that by denying her the right to vote, the registrar went against the rights given to her under the Fourteenth Amendment, therefore violating the US Constitution. With the help of her husband, a lawyer, she brought a case against the registrar, Reese Happersett. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Minor, observing that the Constitution gives voting rights to men only, and that the intent of the Fourteenth Amendment was to provide the rights of citizenship to former male slaves, only. Minor appealed the ruling, and in 1875, Minor v. Happersett went to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court decided that suffrage was not a right of citizenship and that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give women the right to vote.

Although many men and women supported the idea of equality between the sexes, most were not keen to disrupt their lives and join the fight. Many more were fundamentally against the fight for women’s suffrage. Anti-suffragists came together to form the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, and many others. In 1870, a group of eminent women collected 15,000 signatures, urging Congress not to give women the vote. This is not to say that these anti-suffragettes were acting against themselves.

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