Earnest Lives and Fearless Words: The Literature and Ideals of the Women’s Rights Movement

By Sarah Baldwin (E. Wharton & Co.)
Copyright © 2001 Sarah Baldwin and WorldBookDealers.com
Used with permission

      Mary Wollstonecraft

The modern women's rights movement arose in a time of revolution and culminated in the winning of suffrage in a world shaken by war. From 1792, when Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women appeared in London, to 1920, when ratification by the Kentucky legislation assured enactment of the 19th Amendment, women strove to achieve political, legal, social, economic, and educational equality. They sought to overthrow the customs and prejudices of centuries, not through war but through persuasion. It was, in some ways, the great revolution of the 19th century. Their texts were as varied as the women and men themselves, crossing genres and national boundaries. Out of the many tracts, treatises, novels, plays, journals, and essays written on the subject of women's rights which proved the most influential?

A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) is the first great landmark title of the modern women's movement. Mary Wollstonecraft educated herself despite an alcoholic, wastrel father and she saw education as key to women's dilemma. Vindication's first words established her theme: "I have turned over various books written on the subject of education, and patiently observed the conduct of parents and the management of schools; but what has been the result? -a profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes..." The book appeared in January of 1792, received two printings in the United States that fall, was published in Dublin the following year and reprinted in both London and American through 1796.

The education of women was the theme of Emma Willard's 1819 "An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York; Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education." Emma Willard wanted not only for women to be educated, but their education to be a matter of public policy. Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Adams approved the proposal, but Willard had to establish her Troy Female Seminary without monies from New York State. ("An Address," we should point out, is a rarity of the first order.)

The American suffrage movement directly arose out of the abolitionist campaign. In 1837, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké travelled throughout Massachusetts speaking to small audiences of men and women ("promiscuous" gatherings in the terms of their contemporaries) of their experiences with slavery. Chided by the clergy and others for publicly exposing themselves and speaking on issues better left to men, Sarah fired off a series of letters pointing out that in the eyes of God women were as fully moral beings as men, and as obligated as men to address moral ills. Her 1838 Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman influenced Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone who would lead the early women's rights movement in the United States. As much as the words of Grimké and others, the determination of the men leading the abolitionist movement to control and limit women's activities eventually spurred rebellion among the women.

Margaret Fuller, for one, refused to allow abolitionists off the hook. How could the men justify suppressing women while declaring the essential right of all human beings to freedom? Fuller, unlike Mary Wollstonecraft, had a loving father who encouraged his brilliant daughter. Yet he could not disguise his disappointment that such brilliance had been wasted on a woman who could do so much less than a man. As a young woman, she became a friend and colleague of Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Clarke and other Transcendalists. As editor of the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, she published an essay on the position of woman. Horace Greeley urged her to expand the piece; and in 1842 her Woman in the Nineteenth Century, in printed green wrappers, was published by Greeley & McElrath as part of their "Useful Books for the People" series. Fuller urged women to see themselves as whole, complete beings independent of their relationship to men-a concept, of course, which is the foundation of 20th century feminism.

It immediately inspired contemporaries. Though not present at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Margaret Fuller's spirited arguments for the equality of women were in the minds of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as they formulated "The Declaration of Sentiments." Stanton shocked her colleagues, including Mott, by declaring that women needed more than some laws revised; they needed to make the laws; they needed the vote.

Harriet Taylor Mill at once appreciated that American women were moving the question of women's rights from the theoretical into the political arena. When the Americans held their first women's rights conferences, she seized the opportunity to write on the nascent movement and its implications. In July, 1851 the Westminster Review printed "The Enfranchisement of Women" in which she reported that for the first time women were demanding legal and political equality with men. In essence, "[t]he real question is, whether it is right and expedient that one-half of the human race should pass through life in a state of forced subordination to the other half." Mill's essay appeared without her name; many assumed her husband John Stuart Mill had written it. American women eagerly read the piece and adopted its language into the resolutions at their next women's rights conventions. It was the first direct interchange between the budding women's rights movements in England and the United States. The American women reprinted the essay as one of a series of tracts supporting women's rights. Only in 1868 did "The Enfranchisement of Women" receive its first separate publication, after Harriet's death, when John Stuart Mill published his The Subjection of Women. Like his wife, Mill argued for the equality of women in all spheres and pointed out that the lack of suffrage had an invisible but pernicious effect upon them. The treatise became a key text. As late as 1911, the National American Woman Suffrage Association printed a new edition of The Subjection of Women with a foreword by Carrie Chapman Catt.

The question of woman's sphere, of course, was not confined to treatises and essays. Inevitably it began to leach into the literature. Though Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1869) neither preached nor scolded, it did reflect the writer's belief that women had talents and abilities they should pursue to become full, mature adults. The popularity of the books suggests a public beginning to acknowledge that women were more than beings to be trained as wives and mothers. (A shift in public attitude that may be attributed directly to the Civil War during which American women shouldered an impressive array of private and public responsibilities.) The immediate success of Part I of the novel took aback both the writer and her publisher; they had agreed that Part II would be issued only if warranted by sales of the first. The small printing of Part I, the lapse between the publication of Part I and Part II and the enthusiastic and thorough readings of the books themselves make Little Women one of the most difficult women's titles to find in collector's condition. A decade later Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House (1878) shocked theatre audiences with its portrayal of a woman who, though a wife and a mother, is little more than a human pet. Nora herself pointed out that as such she is scarcely fit to raise children much less be a worthy companion for her husband and leaves her family to begin the process of becoming a real person. 1892 also saw publication of Frances E.W. Harper's Iola Leroy, one of the first novels published by an African American woman. An ardent and effective supporter of abolitionism and woman suffrage, Harper expressed her ideas about woman and marriage as well as racism in her groundbreaking novel.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman explored the taboo subject of post-partum depression when she fictionalized her own melancholy after the birth of her daughter in "The Yellow Wall-Paper." The New-England Magazine published the story in 1892 and seven years later the Boston publisher Small, Maynard, printed it in book form in 1899. Noted artist Elisha Brown Bird designed the printed yellow paper, with an Art Nouveau style repetitive device, decorating the boards. Small, Maynard quickly put out a second printing and followed up with a second edition in 1901 that duplicated the first. It also published Gilman's seminal Women and Economics (1898) that English and American women's rights advocates recognized as a tour-de-force argument for equality for woman economically as well as politically. To think independently, women must be independent, i.e., self-supporting. With the achievement of woman suffrage in England and the United States, Gilman's writing markedly declined in influence. Her work was rescued from obscurity in the 1970s when the resurgent women's movement rediscovered her. Another woman writer similarly rediscovered was Kate Chopin whose 1899 novel The Awakening linked emotional, intellectual and sexual issues. Her contemporary critics were appalled by Chopin's suggestion that a woman's sexual appetites were integral to her character and emotions. She never wrote again, but The Awakening is now a classic feminist text.

Over-arching all these is The History of Woman Suffrage (1871-1922), six mammoth volumes documenting the American women's rights movement. Susan B. Anthony early on appreciated that if the struggles and achievements of the women's rights movement were to be recorded women had to record it themselves. She persuaded colleagues Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage to be her fellow editors and undertook raising the funds necessary to underwrite the venture. The first three volumes appeared in 1871 and 1872. It became apparent that if treated solely as a commercial venture, History would fail. Anthony took over the copyrights and with Ida Husted Harper as her assistant continued to accumulate material on the suffrage movement. She reprinted the first three volumes under her own imprint and in 1902 published Volume IV of History. Twenty years later, Harper completed History through the winning of suffrage, with the publication of Volumes V and VI. (While English suffrage leaders published various personal accounts of the suffragette campaign in Great Britain, there is no English equivalent.)

Anthony promoted History by tirelessly seeking contributions to support its publication and by sending copies to libraries throughout the country. After her death in 1906, her sister Mary wrote History was "the result of years of labor by my sister Susan B. Anthony, and was sincerely believed by her to be the richest and best legacy she could leave to the coming generations." Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage gave homage to the women who preceded them by dedicating their great work "To the Memory of Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright...Margaret Fuller, Sarah and Angelina Grimké...whose earnest lives and fearless words in demanding political rights for women have been, in the preparation of these pages, a constant inspiration..."

These titles represent only the most significant texts upon which to build a woman's rights collection. Many of the women involved in the movement wrote autobiographies and personal accounts of their work, such as Sylvia Pankhurst's The Suffragette Movement (1931) or Anna Howard Shaw's The Story of a Pioneer (1915). Others wrote plays, poems and novels intended to promote the votes for women campaign, such as Elizabeth Robins' Votes for Women (1907, expanded into the novel, The Convert the following year) or Alice Duer Miller's collection of verse Are Women People? A Collection of Rhymes for Suffrage Times (1915). Then there are numerous titles which take a position on women's rights, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's A Pink and White Tyranny (1871) which depicted a wife taking advantage of a generous husband. Caroline Dall, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Farnham, Frances Cobbe, Millicent Fawcett, Frances Willard among many others wrote important texts which prodded changes in public attitudes. While bibliographies have been compiled for the English and the American suffrage movement (and antisuffrage movement), no comprehensive bibliography of feminist literature exists. A women's collection is of necessity a voyage of discovery and self-education. But I think that is what Mary Wollstonecraft and Margaret Fuller and Harriet Taylor Mill envisioned for us.


This article is Copyright © 2001 Sarah Baldwin and WorldBookDealers.com. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the author's express written permission.

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