In 1870, for the twentieth anniversary woman's rights convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in the official "Call," that "the movement in England, as in America, may be dated from the first National Convention, held at Worcester, Mass., October, 1850." This, not the gathering at Seneca Falls in 1848, was the meeting the first generation of woman's rights proponents regarded as beginning it all. Stanton then nominated Paulina Wright Davis to be the convention's president. ". . . as Mrs. Davis had called the first National Convention twenty years ago, and presided over its deliberations, it was peculiarly fitting that she should preside over this also." The motion was approved unanimously, and Davis opened the convention by reading a "History" of the National Woman's Suffrage Movement. After she finished, Stanton again took the podium. She said she "thought Mrs. Davis, in her modesty, had not done justice to herself; her work commenced before any of the woman's rights conventions were held:

As early as 1844 she commenced the study of anatomy and physiology, and gave public lectures on these subjects. She sent to Paris and imported the first femme modele that was ever brought into the country. She has told me many amusing anecdotes of the effect of unveiling this manikin in the presence of a class of ladies. Some would leave the house, others faint in their seats, others draw down their veils, and a few only had the moral hardihood and scientific curiosity to appreciate it and examine the fearful and wonderful manner in which they were made. In course of time, however, these natural 'weaknesses and disabilities' were overcome, and many of Mrs. Davis' classes are to-day professors as well as pupils in our medical colleges, hospitals and dissecting rooms, the result of her early efforts in urging the medical education of women. Many who are now comfortably supporting themselves in that profession gratefully acknowledge her influence in directing the whole future of their lives.

Mrs. Davis took an active part too in the early movements for 'Moral Reform,' and was a contributor to 'McDowall's Journal' and 'Woman's Advocate,' which were published for many years. She established too the first woman's rights paper ever published in the country, 'The Una,' in January, 1852. In looking over the pages of this paper it is surprising to see how perfectly the leaders of this movement understood all the bearings of this question, and with what boldness they followed the truth in all directions, in the consideration of woman's social as well as political wrongs. I state these facts in regard to Mrs. Davis, that our report, which is to be published, may do full justice to all.

Historians have only recently begun to follow Stanton's lead. Few have paid any attention to Paulina Wright Davis or to the period of her greatest influence, the 1850s. Indeed the 1850s has been a kind of black hole in women's studies. Monograph after article after dissertation traced the early woman's organizations of the 1830s up through the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and the ringing "Declaration of Sentiments." Then, suddenly, readers of the secondary literature found themselves in the Civil War and then in the middle of the split of the woman's rights movement over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments which guaranteed the civil rights and suffrage of black males. How had the movement formed? What had it achieved? Who participated? This essay is an effort to shed light on those questions by looking at the 1850s.

It is one of two treatments of woman's "sphere" and roles in the decade. The other examines the career of Cora L. V. Hatch, "the eloquent medium of the spiritualists," as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly dubbed her in 1857. The two approaches could hardly be more different but they complement each other nonetheless. This one places the rise of the woman's rights movement in the context of antebellum reform. The other uses the career of perhaps the first female celebrity in America, Jenny Lind alone excepted, to examine how religion, medicine, "sentimental culture," technology and other aspects of the wider culture interacted. In the years just prior to the Civil War, Hatch was a household name. Spiritualism was the most rapidly growing religious movement. Historians, with a few exceptions, have tended to downplay spiritualism's salience as a sign of the times and have simply ignored Hatch. The Hatch pages suggest that, to the contrary, much can be learned by looking at the foibles of the time.

The approach taken here may seem more orthodox. It is not.


At the Twentieth Anniversary Convention, Davis said:

Were I to go back of these [first] conventions, to see what had roused women thus to do and dare, I should be obliged to go into a long history of the despotism of repression, which German jurists call 'soul murder'; an unwritten code, universal and cruel as the laws of Draco, and so subtle that, entering everywhere, they weigh most heavily where least seen."

Davis's view is worth pondering. However unknown today, she was with Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founding mothers of the woman's moment. Her views, in consequence, are to be reckoned with. And she insisted that the key to understanding why she and the other pioneers were "roused" to "do and dare" was their frustration with that "unwritten code." How does one see that which weighs "most heavily where least seen." How does one spell out an "unwritten code"?

One place to start is with an essay by "Minnie Myrtle," one of the new breed of female newspaper columnists who were achieving fame in the 1850s. Her model was Sarah Willis who wrote under the pen name of Fanny Fern.

STRANGE THINGS I HAVE SEEN AND HEARD

"Power is corrupting," says the Politician. "Power is corrupting," says the foe to hierarchies. "Good men, the best men, should not be entrusted with absolute power." "Power is corrupting," says the enemy of slavery, "men should not be permitted the absolute control of human beings; however good the master may be, he will be tempted to indulge in tyranny, if there is nothing external to restrain him."
These are sentiments which I have often heard expressed by one who still exclaims, " I will be master in my own house; those who live with me shall obey me." And the obedience which is required of a wife is as servile as that which is rendered by any bond slave.
To his daughter he says, "Whilst you are in my house you will do as I say, if you are a hundred years old;" not because she would not obey willingly and happily, but because there is such pleasure in exacting obedience. All would gladly do right of their own accord; but that would not be sufficient; they must be compelled; they must feel in every nerve, and bone and muscle, that they are subject to the will of another. To order, thwart and torture, is a peculiar pleasure, and I am fully convinced, is not enjoyed by Princes, and Popes, and slave-owners alone.
I have seen the staunchest advocates of "Woman's rights" and "human freedom," exercise the most brutal tyranny over wives and daughters. I have seen a quiet Christian woman beaten, by a man who was ever railing against oppression. I have seen the marks of an inch cable on the shoulders of a grown up daughter, placed there by a man who was ever uttering anathemas against those, who, for any reason applied the lash to those over whom the law gave them power!
I have seen a little girl drop lifeless under the infliction of the rod, which was used not merely as an instrument of punishment, but to prove that he who wielded it had a right to do what he pleased with his own.
If those who rule with such authority lived where human beings are property, they would exult in its peculiar privileges, and triumph in the wrongs they could commit with impunity.
"Power is indeed corrupting." I have seen a young girl dragged from room to room by her hair, beaten and trodden upon, for only slight offence, by one whom she called mother, because tyranny was sweet--to inspire fear more pleasant than to inspire love.
I have seen in many families, wives and daughters and sisters, afraid with a fear not less slavish than that which inspires the most abject among those who are bought and sold, and all because those who held it delighted in swaying the iron sceptre and ruling with an iron rod. And those who are ruled are expected meekly to endure; their lips must be even wreathed in smiles and breathless gladness for those who have crushed all gladness from their hearts. "Power is corrupting," but it is not Kings and Politicians alone whom it corrupts. -- Minnie Myrtle [Nancy Cummings Johnson (1815-1852)], "Strange Things I Have Seen and Heard" and other pieces from The Myrtle Wreath or Stray Leaves Recalled (N.Y.: Charles Scribner, 1854).

Long before Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents of the pleasures of aggression, Nancy Cummings Johnson laid out the basic thesis -- "tyranny was sweet--to inspire fear more pleasant than to inspire love." One can see the same point in a comic poem of 1860, "Puss in the Corner." A young man recounts his beloved's hold over him. She does nothing overt, just sits in the corner and occasionally glances over and smiles. But he is nonetheless bound. She's Puss in the corner and he's the mouse. But there is a solution, marriage. Then, he exults, we'll see who is the cat and who the mouse.

Comic pieces sometimes provide fascinating historical windows. One such is "A Dream of the Period." Author G. P. Webster remains a literary unknown. But the illustrations are by Thomas Nast. In the poem, the dreamer finds that men and women have traded places. Did Othello kill his wife? No. It was Desdemona who took him from his mother and then smothered him in a jealous rage. What is most interesting about the poem and the illustrations is that they form a catalogue of the ways power corrupts the relationships between men and women. In the dream it is the woman who stays out late, smokes cigars, goes to the opera, and has no time for her husband's complaints about having to devote his whole life to the baby. It is the woman who ogles demur men and frightens them. It is the woman too who "protects" the man from hard labor, who rejoices in his sweet voice, and who seeks his mother's permission for his hand. Here are some of the elements of Davis's "unwritten code" that bore down most heavily where least seen.


Children's stories, especially that sub-genre we might call cautionary tales, provide a rich body of evidence on how young girls learned the code. In "The Tomboy Who Was Changed into a Real Boy," the heroine played with boys, was fond of noise, and "was very far from clever with her stitches." So, late one night "they" (unidentified) change her into a real boy and her parents send her off to sea as a cabin boy. A worse fate awaited "The Girl Who Inked Herself." Unable to cure herself of playing with her pens and ink, she gradually becomes darker and darker until she was "blacker than a Guinea negro." Her parents also banish her. They sell her for a rag doll! Worst of all is what happened to Pauline who persisted in playing with matches.

Pauline's story is about the dangers of playing with fire, both literally and figuratively. Her mother and nurse both warned her. But, as soon as she found herself alone, she determined to light a match or two. Her pet cats call out to warn her, but Pauline pays them no heed. The fire is too pretty. She runs about and fails to put it out. A spark gets on her apron, and Pauline finds herself ablaze. The illustration strongly suggests a sexual theme to the story. So does the next.


Another way to get at Davis's point about the "unwritten code" is to look at some of the advice literature of the day. Emily Thornwell's The Ladies' Guide to Perfect Gentility (1856) was very popular. It was encyclopedic in intent with suggestions for dress, manners, cosmetics, correspondence, and much else. Thornwell described the proper way for a lady to mount a horse:

In riding, the gentleman's first duty is to provide a gentle horse, properly caparisoned [a caparison is an ornamental covering for a horse's harness]. After seeing that the girths are tight, he leads the lady to the horse. With her back to the horse, she takes hold of the horn of the saddle, and the reins with her right hand, and places her left foot upon the shoulder of the gentleman, who stoops before her, making a stirrup of his clasped hands. Raising himself gently, the lady is placed in the saddle. The gentleman puts her foot in the stirrup, adjusts her dress, mounts his horse and takes his position, usually on the right, but authorities differ, and many prefer the left.

Entering a drawing room was equally complex. It was a serious faux pas, for example, "to fold carefully your shawl, instead of throwing it with graceful negligence upon a table." There were rules and more rules:

Propriety of movement and general demeanor in company.--To look steadily at any one, especially if you are a lady and are speaking to a gentleman; to turn the head frequently on one side and the other during conversation; to balance yourself upon your chair; to bend forward; to strike your hands upon your knees; to hold one of your knees between your hands locked together; to cross your legs; to extend your feet on the andirons; to admire yourself with complacency in a glass; to adjust, in an affected manner, your cravat, hair, dress, or handkerchief; to remain without gloves; to fold carefully your shawl, instead of throwing it with graceful negligence upon a table; to fret about a hat which you have just left off; to laugh immoderately; to place your hand upon the person with whom you are conversing; to take him by the buttons, the collar of his cloak, the cuffs, the waist, and so forth; to seize any person by the waist or arm, or to touch their person; to roll the eyes or to raise them with affectation; to take snuff from the box of your neighbor, or to offer it to strangers, especially to ladies; to play continually with your chain or fan; to beat time with the feet and hands; to whirl round a chair with your hand; to shake with your feet the chair of your neighbor; to rub your face or your hands; wink your eyes; shrug up your shoulders; stamp with your feet, and so forth; --all these bad habits, of which we cannot speak to people, are in the highest degree displeasing.

Thornwell's Guide was prescriptive, not descriptive. We should not imagine that most women, or even any woman, actually behaved as she decreed. But women bought her Guide to learn proper manners and it speaks to the normative view of women. It does so, further, in a highly class-specific way. Thornwell's genteel lady was a woman of means.

Most advice books spoke to a wider audience, ranging across the whole of the emerging middle classes. There is a collection of excerpts, grouped by topic and by title, at the U.S. Women's History Workshop. For the most part, these books dealt with becoming a good wife. This entailed much reining in of the will. Not surprisingly, the key virtue to acquire was obedience.

If Thornwell spoke to the elite, and how-to books for wives targeted the middle classes, farm wives had their advisors as well. If they were lucky, they read Jane Grey Swisshelm. Today she is even less well-known than Paulina Wright Davis but she was one of the most famous women of the 1850s and, like Fanny Fern and Minnie Myrtle, one of the pioneer women in journalism. Swisshelm specialized in skewering "those rich old farmers who make their wives work out in the fields, and leave their babies in fence corners for the snakes to eat" [in "Woman's Work And Man's Supremacy" which was NUMBER X of her popular Letters to Country Girls (New York: J.C. Riker, 1853)]. Swisshelm published the Saturday Visiter (sic), an anti-slavery weekly which became one of the most widely circulated of all the reform papers. The "Letters" column was a favorite feature and Swisshelm collected a number of the best and published them in book form. Her fictional correspondent, Anniss, would ask a question and Swisshelm would respond. NUMBER X dealt with "masculine superiority fever." It was not entirely the "ignorant old boor's" fault:

. . . it cannot be wondered at that he practices what our divines, statesmen, philosophers, and poets teach. He is not able to comprehend the transcendent beauties of a system which places woman half-way between the rational and irrational creation--deprives her of the rights of self-government--the right to use her own faculties, because she is a superior being--an angel, too pure and precious to mix with sublunary things. He applies a common sense rule to the common principle, and argues "if Sallie has no right to hold office in church or state--if she is to submit to me in all things, to keep silence in churches, and learn from me at home, of course I must be wiser than she, and better too. The Constitution puts her down with 'niggers' and ingins, or a little below 'em. She is heaven's 'last best gift to man,' an' mighty useful one [I] can make her! She can make hay as well as I can--then cook the victuals while I'm restin', and raise some sons and darters in the meantime to take care uv me when I get old! Tell ye, there isn't a horse on the place I wouldn't rather lose nor Sallie!" So he puts his wife into "a woman's place," and keeps her there.

One can see what she meant by consulting the March 1850 issue of Godey's Lady's Book which published a translation of an essay by the great German poet and philosopher Goethe. Here is how Godey's chose to illustrate his ideas on the "sphere of woman." For a larger version, click on the image. Swisshelm had no patience with such idyllic descriptions:

It is very well known that thousands, nay, millions of women in this country are condemned to the most menial drudgery, such as men would scorn to engage in, and that for one-fourth wages; that thousands of women toil at avocations which public opinion pretends to assign to men. They plough, harrow, reap, dig, make hay, rake, bind grain, thrash, chop wood, milk, churn, do anything that is hard work, physical labor, and who says any thing against it? But let one presume to use her mental powers--let her aspire to turn editor, public speaker, doctor, lawyer--take up any profession or avocation which is deemed honorable and requires talent, and O! bring the Cologne, get a cambric kerchief and a feather fan, unloose his corsets and take off his cravat! What a fainting fit Mr. Propriety has taken! Just to think that 'one of the deah creathures' [sic], the heavenly angels, should forsake the spheres--woman's sphere--to mix with the wicked strife of this wicked world!

As Paulina Wright Davis said in 1870:

Early among women journalists Mrs. Jane G. Swisshelm stands out conspicuously. Some time in 1842 or '43 she commenced the Pittsburgh Saturday Visitor, which she edited for several years with marked ability. It was the paper most often quoted, and made war upon by all opposers of progress.

Commentators like Swisshelm, Nancy Cummings Johnson, and Sarah Willis played a crucial role not only in documenting the ways in which women's souls were murdered, but also in demonstrating in their own lives that women could and should fight back. It is one thing to suffer. As Leon Trotsky remarked in his History of the Russian Revolution, most of human history is the story of suffering. It alone will not produce change. That requires a belief that the suffering is unnecessary. And that is what Swisshelm and her colleagues helped create.


Scholars such as Kathryn Kish Sklar have convincingly shown the roots of the woman's rights movement lie in the abolition crusade. This connection is summarized in "The Anti-Slavery Movement." Women did much of the fund-raising, organized the petitions protesting slavery in the District of Columbia, and provided a substantial portion of the readership of anti-slavery papers like Swisshelm's Visiter, Frederick Douglass' North Star, and William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator. Arguments over the proper role of women split the abolition movement in 1840 with the Garrison wing supporting full female participation. Throughout the 1840s talk of woman's rights was in the air. One can see this in a short story with that title in Godey's Lady's Book for April 1850. Haddie's aunt, hearing her talk of her "rights," takes her in hand and, in a day of good deeds, shows her woman's real rights -- to visit the sick, to comfort those in distress, to reconcile those who quarrel, to teach small children.

Godey's author trod a well-worn path. At least since Alexis deTocqueville voiced the notion in Democracy in America Americans, especially males, claimed that American women were the freest in the world. A representative version of the claim is by John Neal, publisher of Brother Jonathan, a magazine which claimed to provide the "cheapest reading" on earth.

The unalienable rights of woman are enjoyed by a very inconsiderable portion of the human race. Even among the polished and enlightened nations of Europe, she is greatly restricted in her just privileges. In no other country on the face of the globe, are her rights so well guarded by law, and so much respected by the unanimous voice of the people, as this. The customs of our country give to woman a freedom of communication with the opposite sex, by which she is enabled not only to become acquainted with their mental and moral qualifications in the main, but to study well their characters and dispositions in all their various ramifications. This is a desideratum of the utmost importance, a great privilege, especially before entering into the most interesting contract of human society [i.e., marriage]. It is important to woman in all the varied grades of association and relation, with which she may be connected with the other sex, in the minor as well as in the major points, that she know those well, with whom business or inclination, brings her in contact. Here she enjoys a community of rights and interests with man--she is his equal--she can do as she pleases, and every body knows that nothing can be more gratifying to the feelings of a woman, than to be able to do what she has a mind to! Here she is universally beloved and esteemed, and treated with the kindness due to her character and feelings as a woman, and the respect due to the interesting and exalted position she sustains, as the female representative of a powerful and independent nation. Here she is a free woman!

To this the abolition movement provided a sharp rebuttal. As Ernestine Rose, one of the leading woman's rights advocates of the 1850s, put it in a speech during the 1850 Worcester Convention, a wife who attempted to leave an abusive husband was in exactly the same legal position as a fugitive slave. Like the slave, she had no rights over her children. Like the slave, she had no rights. In the law, the great Blackstone had written, the husband and wife were one, "and that one the husband." As a slave could not testify against a white person, a wife could not testify against her husband. Neither could serve on juries, or vote, or hold public office.

Further, the movement against slavery provided a model. From it early activists could borrow rhetoric and strategy. In this regard, Sojourner Truth made a suggestion historians, despite their interest in her, have not picked up. This is because they have only a garbled text of what she said at the 1850 Convention. This was her first woman's rights speech. [For a fuller discussion, click here.] Scholars have taken as correct the version published in the New York Tribune. Here in its entirety is what its reporter claimed she said:

Sojourner Truth, a colored woman, once a slave, spoke, and gratified the audience highly. She showed that beneath her dark skin, and uncomely exterior there was a true, womanly heart. She uttered some truths that told well. She said Woman set the world wrong by eating the forbidden fruit, and now she was going to set it right. She said Goodness never had any beginning; it was from everlasting and could never die. But Evil had a beginning, and must have an end. She expressed great reverence for God, and faith he will bring about his own purposes and plans.

The line about the first woman setting the world wrong and others now setting it right has entered into the historical literature. But, did Truth actually say that? The reporter for the Boston Daily Mail provided a much lengthier and more detailed account. Unlike Greeley's Tribune, the Daily Mail had no sympathy for either abolition or woman's rights. That is not, in and of itself, a sufficient reason to reject its report:

Sojourner Truth (a colored woman) next spoke. She advocated woman's rights. She had looked on men and was sorry for them. The slaves all came on them, and now the women came on them. This sorrow was great last night when Wendell Phillips spoke, and had to defend himself against saying what he did not know was wrong -- and was not convinced when he saw he was clearly wrong. One curious thing was to be thought about, viz: when man's rule began, and what gave him authority to rule. There was nothing in Adam's fall to tolerate his rule, and certainly nothing in his general conduct that said he was fit to rule himself -- let alone others. If people would only think, they would see that man was only one half of himself, and the other half very well used up. It was said that, in the treatment of woman in this country was a proof of its civilization; but the heathen would have to come yet and teach them civilization. It was time for the heathen to commence, for things could not be worse. It was not fair to let woman suffer because she ate the apple, and to say that she was the weaker vessel, and turned the world upside down accordingly. If she had really done so, what should hinder her to turn it back again? Nothing but the intolerance of man! Knock down that, and all would come right; that was a plain truth, and it was wonderful that truth which could be so easily told was not invariably and plainly told. Sojourner said she had no education; and she was not ambitious of having it, as she saw that those who boasted of it had all of it in their feet and none of it in their heads. Respecting the present agitation she said it was wonderful how things came round. Slaves used to do all the rubbing [scrubbing?] in New England, and they complained of the hard work; they were emancipated and the hard work fell on the wives and daughters of New England, and they had begun to complain. The men, seeing that they had got into a fix, were, too, beginning to squirm and complain; and improvement in the condition of their wives and daughters would have to come before their complaints would have cause to be at an end; and all this arose out of the abolition of slavery. Sojourner made one of the best speeches that were spoken at the Convention, and was several times loudly applauded.

A strong point in favor of the report's accuracy is the reference to Wendell Phillips. The previous evening he had remarked that some of the strongest opponents of woman's rights were women and that one should place responsibility for woman's restricted rights on the ignorance of the past rather than upon men. This led a number of speakers, led by Abby Kelley Foster, to object. Ask a slave in his master's presence, and he will tell you how satisfied he is with his condition. The same held for women who criticized the idea of woman's rights. As for men not being responsible, well, who was? Lucretia Mott had earlier remarked that she did not believe in abstract evil. Where there was oppression, there was an oppressor.

According to the Daily Mail account, Truth did not say that woman introduced evil into the world. She had said "it was not fair to let women suffer because she ate the apple." "If she had really" introduced evil, "what should hinder her to turn it back again?" The "intolerance of man," she answered. "Knock down that, and all would come right." It was, she continued, a "plain truth." Another plain truth, according to Truth, was the origins of the woman's movement in the anti-slavery movement.

She meant this in a far different way than contemporary scholars do. She had reference to the abolition of slavery in the North. She had been a slave in New York. It was the ending of slavery there that set the wives and daughters of white men to complaining. Suppose we take her ideas seriously. In the wake of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments some women, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, objected vociferously that black males now had rights white women lacked. Had a quieter set of objections helped fuel talk of woman's rights in the 1830s and 1840s? At the very least, the progress of emancipation, first in the North and then in the West Indies certainly gave proof that institutions could be overthrown and oppression ended.


Despite the talk of woman's rights and several regional conventions, including one in Ohio in the spring of 1850 at which men were not permitted to speak, it was not at all clear by the summer of that year whether there was sufficient support for a woman's rights movement. It was explicitly to settle this that Paulina Wright Davis, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, and several others decided to issue a call to a "national convention." Davis told the story in her "History." No one knew if anyone would come. William Lloyd Garrison told the packed auditorium on the second afternoon that he had ridden out to Worcester on the train consoling himself with the thought that, at least, he would see some old friends. He never expected the thousands who showed up. Neither did Davis, but she was not at a loss. She undertook the editing and publishing of the official Proceedings from which she deleted any evidence of discord or rancor. She also did her best to keep divisive topics, such as dress reform, off the agenda. It was the Proceedings which inspired the anonymous essay in the British Westminster Review, long credited to John Stuart Mill but attributed by him to his wife, Harriet Taylor, which Stanton claimed in the "Call" to the 1870 Anniversary Convention "awakened attention in both hemispheres." This was because of the reputation of the supposed author and the essay's ringing endorsement of the convention's resolutions, something Davis had taken considerable pains to control. Taylor wrote:

Most of our readers will probably learn from these pages [New-York Tribune, For Europe, October 29, 1850], for the first time, that there has arisen in the United States, and in the most enlightened and civilized portion of them, an organized agitation on a new question--new, not to thinkers, nor to any one by whom the principles of free and popular government are felt as well as acknowledged, but new, and even unheard of, as a subject for public meetings and practical political action. This question is, the enfranchisement of women; their admission, in law and in fact, to equality in all rights, political, civil and social, with the male citizens of the community.

. . . it is a movement not merely for women, but by them. Its first public manifestation appears to have been a Convention of Women, held in the State of Ohio, in the Spring of 1850. Of this meeting we have seen no report. On the 23rd and 24th of October last, a succession of public meetings was held at Worcester, in Massachusetts, under the name of a "Women's [sic] Rights Convention," of which the President was a woman [Paulina Wright Davis], and nearly all the chief speakers women; numerously reinforced, however, by men among whom were some of the most distinguished leaders in the kindred cause of negro emancipation. A general, and four special committees were nominated, for the purpose of carrying on the undertaking until the next annual meeting. . . .

. . . In regard to the quality of the speaking, the proceedings bear an advantageous comparison with those of any popular movement with which we are acquainted, either in this country or in America. Very rarely, in the oratory of public meetings, is the part of verbiage and declamation so small, that of calm good sense and reason so considerable. The result of the Convention was, in every respect, encouraging to those by whom it was summoned; and it is probably destined to inaugurate one of the most important of the movements towards political and social reform, which are the best characteristics of the present age.

Clearly, the convention deserves serious scrutiny. Because Davis took such pains to control the Proceedings, one must supplement them with a careful reading of the available newspaper accounts. Nineteenth-century newspapers were unabasedly partisan. Here is how the New York Herald, a staunch opponent of reform, began its coverage:

THE NEW YORK HERALD, Friday, October 25, 1850
WOMAN'S RIGHTS CONVENTION. AWFUL COMBINATION of SOCIALISM, ABOLITIONISM, AND INFIDELITY.
The Pantalettes Striking for the Pantaloons. Bible and Constitution Repudiated.

Worcester, Mass., Oct. 23, 1850. That motley mingling of abolitionists, socialists, and infidels, of all sexes and colors, called the Woman's Rights Convention, assembled in this city, to-day, and an account of their proceedings we have the honor herewith to communicate to the New York Herald.
The convention assembled for the purposes indicated in the following startling pronunciamento: [here followed the text of the Call to the Convention.]

THE MEETING
"Black spirits and white,
Blue spirits and gray,
Mingle, mingle, mingle, mingle,
You that mingle may."

In general, the Herald's coverage was hostile but reasonably informative for the first of the two days. Then its reporter apparently left and the paper simply stole its account of the second day from the rival Tribune. Greeley's paper was much more sympathetic. Its reporter was a male delegate later appointed to one of the committees the convention established. His account was also reasonably informative but omitted anything that might harm the image of the Convention, such as Abby Kelley Foster's speech on the afternoon of the first day. Of the Boston papers, the Daily Mail covered the sessions, up to but not including the last, very fully. Despite the animus of its correspondent, this is the best single source for what actually transpired. Other papers' accounts, including that of the Liberator, add little.

In addition to demonstrating that there was a national constituency for woman's rights, the Worcester gathering created several permanent committees, the beginning of an organized movement. That alone would make it very important. It also began the annual series of conventions which, throughout the 1850s, largely directed and defined the movement.

Worcester is significant on another score. It was the first opportunity for women to talk through, in the words of the "Call," "the general question of Woman's Rights and Relations. . .:

What is startling is how fully they proceeded to do so: Were women different from men in terms of their moral and/or intellectual development? Were they entitled to equal pay for comparable work? On what terms should they seek the cooperation and/or assistance of men? Would equal political rights undermine the family? Would women bring a different set of moral concerns to the public arena? Lucretia Mott anticipated Susan Sontag by over a century with a withering description of the "double standard of aging," to use Sontag's phrase. Others, notably Ernestine Rose, detailed what a later generation would call the "beauty trap." Women, she proclaimed, are taught to be "puppets in the parlor and drudges in the kitchen." None of the questions this first woman's convention debated have gone away. Nor are there very many contemporaries issues which were not thoroughly discussed there. A good example is the controversy over Abby Kelley Foster's speech on the convention's first afternoon. She had two points she wished to hammer home. In her opening address Paulina Wright Davis's had urged the delegates not to blame men for their situation. Her argument was strategic. Women would need the support of men to gain their objectives. Kelley Foster intended to second Lucretia Mott's rejection of that argument. She also intended to stake out her own position on what we now call "difference" feminism. She was a pure equalitarian. Men were no better than women, and women were no better than men. As was her wont, Kelley Foster made her points in the strongest language.

Paulina Wright Davis kept the speech out of the official record. The Proceedings of the 1850 Convention simply noteed: "Theresolutions were discussed by W.H. Channing, E.L. Rose, A.K. Foster, and C.C. Burleigh. On motion adjourned to meet at 7 o'clock."

The New York Daily Tribune, sympathetic to the convention reported: "Abby Kelly Foster also addressed the Convention in a strong speech, and was followed by C.C. Burleigh. I see Wendell Phillips and W.L. Garrison in the audience, having arrived this afternoon." He gave no direct hint of what was in that "strong speech." His next report gives a hint in his version of a speech by Lucretia Mott:

She made reference to the language of Mrs. [Abby Kelley] Foster, who she feared would be construed to favor the use of violence and bloodshed as one of the means of obtaining these rights. She thought she might not be understood. What she said on the subject was based upon the supposition that certain other things were right. She wished her friend had given her own views of the subject. Mrs. Mott then went on in a few eloquent and powerful remarks, to urge that the weapons of their warfare were not carnal, but spiritual, and might through God, to the pulling down of strongholds. That they must fight with the sword of the spirit, even the works of God; they must appeal to the pure sentiments of the mind, and the justice of their cause. She was opposed to any twaddle on that subject, as was her friend. We want to speak earnestly and truly the words of honest and sober conviction. We want to speak in tones of reproof to those on whom the guilt of these wrongs rests. We want to say as Jesus did "Ye fools and blind," "Ye hypocrites," and to our Sisters, who are still indifferent and contented with their position "O, thou slothful and slow of heart, rise up in the strength of thy Womanhood, and Christ shall give thee light." There is no greater mistake than to suppose that what is called non-resistance is timid and inefficient method of meeting those evils. It is the strongest kind of resistance -- the resistance of moral sentiment, of justice and truth. It will not permit us to injure our fellow beings, to take their lives, but it leaves to us that higher resistance which comes from God.

Clearly, Kelley Foster had said something incendiary. The reporter of the Herald gave its readers this version:

Abby Kelly Foster--I do not talk of woman's rights, but of human rights, the rights of human beings. I do not come to ask [for] them, but to demand them; not to get down on my knees and beg for them, but to claim them. "Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." We have our rights, and the right to revolt, as did our fathers against King George the Third--the right to rise up and cut the tyrants' throats. On this subject I scorn to talk like a woman. We must give them the truth, and not twaddle. We must not be mealy mouthed with our tyrants in broadcloth and tight clothes. In short, in the harangue of Abby, she simply demanded that men and women should be treated as human beings all alike--that the sexes should be forgotten in society--that property and votes and offices, civil, religious and military, even to the right of cutting throats, should belong to woman as well as to man. She urged that the work should be commenced by educating both sexes together, and that all distinction in society between man and woman should be abolished, and that a woman was just as well qualified to be President as a man. [Applause.]

Had she claimed that women had the right to "rise up and cut the tyrants' throats"? Mott's statement that "she feared" her friends words "would be contrued to favor the use of violence and bloodshed as one of the means of obtaining these rights" certainly suggests that she did. Mott's echoing of Kelley Foster's scorn for "twaddle," as reported in the Tribune, points also the the accuracy of the Herald version. So does the rest of the debate on the point. The Herald gave this account:

Mr. Foster (husband of Abby Kelly), returned to the question of woman's right to use the sword. He thought it ought to be left an open question, for there were a million and a half of women in the South, in a condition which makes us shudder to think of, and God only knows how soon the sword may be drawn for their deliverance, and I would not like to see her hands tied in the struggle. For this reason he considered it inexpedient to discuss the question of woman's right to use the sword.

The Tribune only reported: "Mr. S.S. Foster made a speech of some length, which we have not time nor space to give."


How important were the speeches? To appreciate their significance we need to grasp how important oratory was in nineteenth-century American (and British) culture. Lucia Knoles' work makes it clear that Americans regarded it as both an art form and as the highest form of public expression. It was what made Daniel Webster "godlike." It was Frederick Douglass' eloquence and power on the platform, quite apart from the content of his speeches, that made him so celebrated. His speaking was itself the strongest argument he could make for racial equality. The same holds for Lucy Stone and woman's rights. She made her first big speech on the subject at the close of the Worcester Convention. By then the only reporter left was the one for Greeley's Tribune. His account ran only for a paragraph but it made Stone a national figure and inspired Susan B. Anthony to join the cause:

Lucy Stone spoke with great simplicity and eloquence on the character of the meeting, the misgivings with which she came to it, the triumphant success which had attended it, and said she could not go away without unburdening her heart. She said Woman must take her rights as far as she can get them; but those she cannot take she must ask for -- demand in the name of a common humanity. She recommended the circulation of petitions to the Legislatures of the several States, asking for the Right of Suffrage, and the Right of Married Women to hold Property, and as much more as one felt it proper to ask for. She continued, speaking of the inferior and slavish position of Woman, and urged the objects of the movement as worthy of the labors of all true-hearted men and women in every land. We want, she said, to be something more than the appendages of Society; we want that Woman should be the coequal and help-meet of Man in all the interests, and perils and enjoyments of human life. We want that she should attain to the development of her nature and womanhood; we want that when she dies, it may not be written on her grave-stone that she was the "relict" of somebody. [Great applause.] She closed with an earnest appeal for Woman.

The famous line was the one about not having "relict" -- widow -- engraved on a woman's gravestone.


If the woman's rights movement emerged from abolitionism, the connection became a topic of controversy in the wake of the Worcester Convention. Jane Grey Swisshelm, one of the signers of the "Call" and an outspoken defender of the convention, criticized the decision to join woman's rights with those of people of color. She wrote in the Nov. 2, 1850 edition of the Saturday Visiter:

At the time of writing we have only seen the first day's proceedings. These are all we could have wished except the introduction of the color question. The convention was not called to discuss the rights of color; and we think it was altogether irrelevent and unwise to introduce the question. . . .In a woman's right's convention the question of color had no right to a hearing. One thing at a time! Always do one thing at a time, and you will get along much faster than by attempting to do a dozen. The question of the rights of colored men is already before the people. Let it work out its own salvation in its own strength. Many a man is in favor of emancipating every Southern slave, and granting the rights of citizenship to every free negro, who is by no means agreed that his wife or mother should stand on a political equality with himself. Many a man believes his wife and mother to be inferior to his boot-black, and many a woman ranks herself in the same scale. Then there are many of both sexes who are, or would be, anxious for the elevation of woman as such, who nevertheless hate "the niggers" most sovereignly. Why mingle the two questions? For our part we would say no resolution should have been passed at that convention that would not have been as acceptable to the citizens of Georgia as to those of Massachusetts.

A horrified Parker Pillsbury, a stalwart of reform, wrote in protest, a letter reprinted in Frederick Douglass' North Star:

. . .by way of explanation, (or if you please, apology,) permit me to say that colored persons are held in such estimation in this country, that you must specify them whenever or wherever you mean to include them. Lyceums, circuses, menageries, ballrooms, billiard-rooms, conventions, everything, "the Public are respectfully invited to attend." But who ever dreamed that "the public" meant anything colored? From church and theatre; from stage-coach, steam-ship and creeping canal-boat; from the infant school, law school and theological seminary; from museum, athenžum and public garden, the colored race are either excluded altogether, or are admitted only by sufferance, or some very special arrangement, and under disadvantages to which no white person would or should submit for a moment.

Free Masons must be white--both face and apron. Odd Fellows, too, must be constitutionally light of skin; and even the Sons of Temperance, and Daughters likewise, must be bleached to the popular complexional standard, or they are beyond the reach of salvation.

The Methodist Discipline provides for "separate Colored Conferences." The Episcopal church shuts out some of its own most worthy ministers from clerical recognition, on account of their color. Nearly all denominations of religionists have either a written or unwritten law to the same effect. In Boston, even, there are Evangelical churches whose pews are positively forbidden by corporate mandate from being sold to any but "respectable white persons."

Our incorporated cemeteries are often, if not always, deeded in the same manner. Even our humblest village grave yards generally have either a "negro corner," or refuse colored corpses altogether; and did our power extend to heaven or hell, we should have complexional salvation and colored damnation, unless we could first blot the unfortunate, unfashionable race altogether and forever out of existence. We have striven to separate the Ethiopian from all claim to human recognition and human sympathy. Nobody but abolitionists ever mean colored people, no matter how often they speak of "the public," or of their "fellow citizens" or "fellow-sinners."

Swisshelm's retort was characteristically tart:

You, Mr. Pillsbury, and the rest of your male coadjutors, enjoying all the rights for which women contend, have not been able to conquer the American prejudice against color, and now you expect that woman, crippled, helpless, bound, shall do what you have failed to perform with the free use of all your powers and faculties!

We are told that those who would be free themselves must strike the blow; but the action of this Convention adds as improvement, and now those who would be free must strike for themselves and everybody else in bonds. This is as if you said to one of a number of drowning people, "You shall not swim and save your own life, unless you carry with you all the others."

In 1850 Swisshelm had few supporters within the emerging woman's movement. They were, in the parlance of the day, "Ultras." They stood proudly on principle. But Swisshelm had a point, however distastefully and sarcastically she phrased it. The question of emancipation was before the public. Many willing to support it would not support woman's rights even as some in favor of woman's rights opposed emancipation. The reforms would come one at a time. Many women, by the late 1860s, came over to her side of the argument. By the end of the nineteenth century, women suffrage advocates not only distanced themselves from the cause of civil rights, they often embraced white supremacy. Frances Willard, to cite a conspicuous case in point, made speeches on behalf of women's suffrage and temperance across the South in which she endorsed the disenfrancisement of African Americans and refused to criticize lynching. All of that lay in the future. In the 1850s the field belonged to Parker Pillsbury, not Jane Swisshelm.


To be a reformer of any sort meant to support the cause of temperance. To be an "Ultra" meant to support the Maine Law, the prohibition of alcohol. Most historians pay temperance little heed and the Maine Law even less. Historians of the woman's movement are no exceptions. Yet, just as one cannot understand the crusade for gender equality without looking at abolitionism, one cannot understand it without appreciating its deep, early, and abiding connection with temperance. The easiest way to see this is to look at the disruption of the 1853 World Temperance Convention held in New York City and the organization and sessions of the subsequent Whole World's Temperance Convention held in the same city. Particularly important are the roles played by several Worcester, Massachusetts "Ultras," particularly Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Abby Kelley Foster, and Lucy Stone.

Higginson helped organize the original World Temperance Convention which met on May 12. A male delegate moved that "ladies" be admitted as delegates, a motion that carried unanimously. The gathering then moved to the election of a Business Committee. Higginson moved that Susan B. Anthony be among its membership. This, amid a good deal of uproar, was defeated. Higginson was not about to accept this outcome. Neither was Abby Kelley Foster nor other members of the Massachusetts Convention. After much indignation and a great deal of parliamentary maneurvering, the Credentials Committee reported a resolution which, in effect, revoked the initial vote in favor of seating women delegates. "The Chairman reported that the committee were unanimous in favor of not receiving the 'Women Delegations.' This gave rise to a second debate, more exciting by far than the first, and brought Mr. Higginson again to the floor." When Higginson failed to carry the day, he and the other supporters of woman's rights stormed out.

The remaining delegates, all male, fumed:

Dr. Hewett quoted from Paul and other Scriptural authorities, which he claimed to be against women speaking in the Church, and in favor of asking her husband at home, &c. He would have nothing to do with the women.

Rev. Mr. Chambers was particularly severe upon one of the excluded ladies, (Abby Kelly Foster) whose name he declined to give, charging her with outraging the proprieties of her sex, trampling the very Son of God under her blasphemous feet. For his part, he was glad these women were gone; they had thus gotten rid of the scum of the Convention.

Much confusion prevailed at this stage of the proceeding.

E. W. Jackson, of Penn., said he had known some of these women for twenty years. They were in the habit of disturbing the Anti-Slavery meetings in the same way, with their stuff and nonsense about "Women's Rights." They had come to this Hall, expressly, to do what they had attempted to-day. But he would inform the gentleman over the way, (Dr. Townsend.) that they had not come to New York to attend this Convention, but other Conventions with which their names would be found associated. He was very severe upon the expelled ladies, and received warm applause from the majority.

The President of the Convention, (Mr. Barstow of R. I.,) followed in some remarks of equal severity. He referred to "women in breeches" as a disgrace to their sex, &c. He did not know what such women were good for. He believed they were never productive in anything but mischief. (Laughter and cheers.)

But, the convention did not continue. It adjourned without so much as passing a single resolution. Higginson, Stone, Anthony, Kelley Foster, et al. then issued a call for a new convention, a "Whole World's Convention." Here, as with the "Call" to the 1850 Woman's Rights Convention, the issue was simple: Would enough temperance advocates come to the new convention so that they could plausibly claim to speak for the movement as a whole? The answer was "yes." More than three thousand delegates came.

What the Worcester "Ultras" and their colleagues had achieved was a reenactment of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, only this time with an outcome acceptable to them. At that meeting the question of women participating as delegates had also arisen. It was held immediately after the American Anti-Slavery Society had split over the issue. Abby Kelley was a fierce participant in that dispute. In London the woman's rights adherents, led by Lucretia Mott, lost. They watched from the balconies. This time Mott's side won. As a result, the Whole World's Temperance Convention was as much about woman's rights as about temperance. As a consequence its Proceedings enable us to see how the two reforms overlapped and at times fused.

Chairman Thomas Wentworth Higginson proclaimed: "Let it be understood, once for all, what this Convention is; this is not a Woman's Rights Convention-it is simply a Convention in which Woman is not wronged-and that is enough." Many of the speeches, however, gave that claim the lie. As the Rev. Antoinette Brown, who also played a leading role in the Worcester Convention of 1850, pointed out: "It may be that this is after all a distinction without a difference; for we always find the degradation of women connected with the rum-traffic."

Here is Woman invited to speak into the great ear-trumpet of the world, that all may hear. No wonder that the Woman's Rights Convention should be called directly hereafter. It follows immediately on upon the present occasion. But I am reminded that in this Temperance gathering teetotalism is to be discussed in its length and breadth-nothing else and nothing more; not a word about Woman and her rights. This may be well, but there's a good time coming, friends; wait a little longer. The sun may be everywhere seen, though it is not yet up in the meridian. Milk for babes, but strong meat afterwards. Temperance and Woman's Rights, chopped up together, would be a potato and meal amalgamation, quite nauseous to many modern reformers, even by those who like either when served up by itself. Hash is an old-fashioned dish used at large banquets. But any one has a right to speak of Temperance to the world, even though this right has been disputed and virtually voted away. Who does not see this to have been in bad taste-and not a word here about any woman's right to vote, even in favor of a Maine Law, although the world disfranchises one-half of its inhabitants: although they are not recognized as belonging to its inhabitants, and although the other part are licensed to sell and to use what bring them desolation and ruin, with the exception of those who live in the darkness of heathenism, in a few Yankee States and a few imitators of Yankee States; not a word about all this. Say nothing about this, and not a breath either about a woman's owing service or labor to her intemperate husband, and his right to take her earnings. Are we not told that the great nation of the earth are sanctifying such a system of things? Do not let it be known that the father has the whole custody of the children, although a drunkard, and that he may take them away from the mother and apprentice them as a security for his own grog-bill; and that he may, in his last will and testament, give them over to the rum-seller for the whole term of their minority. Not a word about all this. Why, this belongs to Woman's Rights, and what has it to do with the temperance cause?

Lucy Stone called upon the Convention to go beyond merely endorsing, yet again, the Maine Law.

To remedy the evil of domestic suffering arising out of intemperance, I propose that we shall create a public sentiment which shall make it utterly impossible for any man or woman who is a drunkard, ever to sustain any marriage or parental relation. . . .Public sentiment should say that the wife, the husband, or the child, whose nearest interests were affected by the intemperance of either, should be allowed to separate from the one who caused the misery.
. . . I touch upon delicate ground, but my only excuse must be the imperative necessity. I know that, on this question, texts and statutes will be quoted against us, and that usage too will be brought to bear against us, but truth is stronger than either of them. It only needs to be spoken and uttered, and it will ever shine brighter in the world. If my position is true, I do not care who is against it or who is for it; God's own life is in it-that life which never sleeps, but will in one day come like leaven in the lump, will come without parchment, and will not come in characters that can be blotted out. [Loud applause.] I ask you fathers and you mothers, do you wish that your daughter should be bound for life to the bloated carcase of a drunkard, and her children to be the children of a drunkard? But I know when I say that to you, whatever may be text, or law, or custom, I know that stronger than all in your own soul's center is a deep and earnest wish that no such load may ever be laid upon your children.

Here was the voice of the true "Ultra." The temperance crusade in the 1840s had focused upon redeeming the drunkard. That of the 1850s, preoccupied with the politics of the Maine Law, was about rescuing the drunkard's victims. It was also about protecting a Yankee, Protestant North from immigrants, particularly those from Ireland. The first of these concerns, that of protecting the drunkard's wife and children, tied in directly with the woman's movement which, from the very first, agitated to protect wives from abusive husbands. Paulina Wright Davis recalled in 1870 the sensation made by Mrs. C. I. H. Nichols at the second national convention in 1851. "There was a touching, tender pathos in her stories which went home to the heart; and many eyes, all unused to tears, were moistened as she described the agony of the mother robbed of her child by the law." Here is a representative story:

I have a friend who, not long since, procured a divorce from her husband--a libertine and a drunkard--and by the power of law he wrested from her their only child, a son of tender age. Think of this, fathers, mothers! It is a sad thing to sever the marriage relation when it has become a curse--a demoralizing thing; but what is it to sever the relation between mother and child, when that relation is a blessing to both, and to society? What is it to commit the tender boy to the training of a drunken and licentious father? The State appoints guardians for children physically orphaned; and much more should it appoint guardians for children morally orphaned. When it uses its power to imprison and hang the man, it is surely responsible for the moral training of the boy! But to return: I have asked learned judges, why the State decrees that the father should retain the children, thus throwing upon the innocent mother the penalty which should fall upon the guilty party only? Say they, "It is because the father has the property; it would not be just to burden the mother with the support of his children." O justice, how art thou perverted! Here again is the unrighteous alienation of the wife's earnings made the reason for robbing the suffering mother of all that is left to her of a miserable marriage--her children!

Lucy Stone's proposal at the 1853 Whole World's Temperance Convention was the culmination of several years of agitation. Needless to say, states did not pass laws dissolving marriages automatically in cases of intemperance. But the successful legisltative campaigns to enable women to hold property in their own name and to give them equal custody rights owed a great deal to temperance agitation along precisely the lines marked out by C. I. H. Nichols.

Women, as a consequence, had very strong motives -- strategic as well as ideological -- for supporting temperance, including the Maine Law. Unlike the alliance with abolition and civil rights, furthermore, this convergence of interests and ideals would continue right on through the century and beyond.

Everyone knows that Prohibition failed in the 1920s. What is less well appreciated is that it failed in the 1850s too. Maine was not the only state to enact a "Maine Law." So did Vermont, Massachusetts, New York and several others. Throughout the first half of the decade prohibition measures of some sort were adopted across the entire North and West. As a result, when the Worcester cabal and their allies captured a major role for women in the temperance movement, they were joining the most important reform movement of the day as it rushed towards its apex of influence.

This came in 1854 and 1855 with the triumph of the Know-Nothings in several northern states. The Know-Nothings were strong advocates of temperance, a necessary means of controlling the Irish menace in their eyes. Worcester's Daily Evening Journal on the eve of that city's mayoraly contest editorialized on the misdeeds of the Irish:

. . . rum shops sprung up at every corner of the street, drunkards staggered in every alley, while prostitution reared its brothels at every thoroughfare leading to us, and held carnival in the very heart of the city itself. Virtue was confronted on the streets by known harlots, young men decoyed to houses of infamy in open day, and beneath the very shadow of the Mayor's office, the courtesan bargained for the price of her embraces, and led her victims to a place of assignation.

As in the state as a whole, the Know-Nothings won complete control of the city's government in December 1854. In Portland, Maine's largest city, Neil Dow regained the mayor's office in the spring of 1855. Here was a key moment. Strong prohibitionists, for the first time, controlled city and state governments in several parts of the North. And, as would be true again in the 1920s, the issue was enforcement. Dow had first become mayor of Portland in 1850. His zeal in enforcing his own law led to his defeat in 1851, 1852, 1853, and 1854. Persistence, and the overwhelming support of the Know-Nothings, gained him the prize in 1855. Once again the law would be enforced vigorously.

The outcome could not have been worse. One of Dow's first actions as mayor was to order a volunteer militia to open fire on a crowd gathered to protest his own violation, albeit technical, of the Maine Law. Several people were wounded, one fatally. He was John Robbins, a seaman in the city for the day to visit his future wife. The Portland Riot, as it became known, was a catastrophe for the Maine Law movement. It vindicated the allegations of opponents that prohibitionists were "Ultras," extremists who could not be entrusted with power. Almost as bad was the self-destruction of the Know-Nothings. Temperance retained its appeal but only by backing away from legal measures and returning to techniques of "moral suasion," campaigns to win the drinker over. This was also the tact taken by the new Republican Party which successfully incorporated Know-Nothing supporters into its ranks.

Even so, the woman's movement had gained substantially. Although no state would grant the vote (Massachusetts' refusal was typical), states across the North revised property laws, passed custody measures, and discussed easing the restrictions on women seeking divorce.


By the middle of the 1850s Harriet Taylor's hopeful prediction that the Worcester Convention would "inaugurate one of the most important of the movements towards political and social reform, which are the best characteristics of the present age" had come true. This was not just a matter of gaining property rights, extremely important as that was. It was also a matter of male conservatives grudgingly giving ground. Women did have legitimate complaints, they admitted, even though they continued to denounce those voicing the complaints as "unfeminine" and extreme. It was a matter too of many northern women identifying, not with the movement, but with key demands such as a mother's right to equal custody and a wife's right to inherit property from her husband. The alliance with temperance made both developments possible.

Temperance made a public discussion of wife and child abuse possible. The man was no longer the husband or father exercising his legitimate authority, so bitingly described by Minnie Myrtle. He was the drunkard. In the scene at left, a temperance card, Neal Dow pours illegal liquor onto the ground as a woman, surrounded by her children, cries out ". . . if that had been done twenty years ago, my husband would not have died a drunkard, and I should not have been left with my children." Hers was the voice of "The women of Maine."

Women and their children required protection. Even the most conservative males had to agree. Some men were not true husbands; they were brutes. No man had a right to impoverish his family to slake his thirst. No man had the right to squander his wife's inheritance or wages in a saloon. So too with even the least "forward thinking" women.

As a result, the debate over woman's rights shifted across the decade. In 1850 opponents could dismiss the cause in its entirety. James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald provides a colorful example:

Now let us see what all this balderdash, clap-trap, moonshine, rant, cant, fanaticism, and blasphemy, means.
. . . .
Mrs. Lucretia Mott, Quakeress, skeptic, abolitionist, and general in chief
Abby Kelly Foster or Meg Merrilies,[3] aid de-camp.
Hubby Kelly Foster, a wretched fanatic
Wm. Lloyd Garrison, a rampant, raving Judas
Charles C. Burleigh, or Grizzly Burley, a Judy
Mrs. Sarah Tyndale, merchant and general philanthropist
Frederick Douglas, fugitive slave
Mrs. Rose, Polish Jewess turned infidel philosopher
Sojourner Truth, a deluded lady of color
Wendell Phillips, abolition demagogue
Wm. H. Channing, ditto
Mrs. Mercy, female doctor of medicine
Miss Brown, professor of theology

Such are some of the leading geniuses of this assemblage. Their platform of principles comprises in behalf of women of color:
The right to vote--the right to hold office--the right to be doctors, lawyers, professors, et cetera--the right to visit oyster houses and all other places--the right to fight when necessary--the right to do as they please.

And they recommend all womankind to put on the breeches--to refuse obedience, and to do just whatever they like. It will refine, improve, and elevate society.

And they declare their disbelief in the Bible, their contempt of St. Paul and the Apostles, a savage and vindictive agency in the doctrines of abolition, amalgamation and disunion; a desire for civil war, promiscuous intercourse of sexes and colors, and the reign of the goddess of reason. There is not a lunatic asylum in the country, wherein, if the inmates were called together in sit in convention, they would not exhibit more sense, reason, decency and delicacy, and less of lunacy, blasphemy, and horrible sentiments, than this hybrid, mongrel, pie-bald, crack-brained, pitiful, disgusting and ridiculous assemblage. And there we drop them, and may God have mercy on their miserable souls. Amen.

Harper's New Monthly was still arguing against women having property rights in 1853:

. . .It is very hard that her [the wife's] association with him [the husband] should make her, in any way, the suffering victim of his cruelty and crimes. . . .There is, however, at the present day, a danger in the opposite quarter, and one that threatens a far sorer evil. There is danger that laws giving the right of separate property, and of course the management of separate property, to the wife, may in time vitally affect that oneness which is so essential to the marriage idea.

Within a year, however, it was willing to stipulate that "women have grave legal and social wrongs," even as it continued to proest "this absurd advocacy of exaggeration":

The laws with deny the individuality of a wife, under the shallow pretense of a legal lie; which award different punishments for the same vice [adultery]; the laws which class women with infants and idiots, and which recognize principles they neither extend nor act on; these are the real and substantial Wrongs of Women, which will not, however, be amended by making them commanders in the navy or judges on the bench.

Four years later, it was hailing the progress of women:

Women are now needed for many sorts of work that they perform better than men. American experiments in the common school system of education have very clearly shown that, in primary instruction, they are much more effective than our sex. And even in certain walks of literature it is undeniable that they surpass us. Strangely enough, the publishers of our largest and best magazines say that their main supply is from the pens of the ladies. Thanks for that! Womanly brains ought to bear a commercial premium in literature. Five dollars for a newspaper column or a magazine page, ten per cent. on the sales of a volume, are significant somethings. . . . .

Displacement, then, seems to be the order of the day in the question pending between the sexes. "Get out of the way" is the new Yankee Doodle for the marching host. Dry-goods clerks may make up their reckoning. Indoor employments suitable to women, but now held by feminine men, must change hands. Inventions begin to help them. Sewing-machines are the first fruits of a friendly harvest for them. If you do not hear of woman's rights in halls of legislation, you shall see them in patent offices. Every where, in every direction, men are silently forwarding the real progress of women. Our schools of design are introducing them by scores to the successful pursuit of art, and at the present time many of the patterns for wall papers and dress goods are furnished by young women. The true Woman's Rights movement is going steadily on without parade or bluster, and its work is in sure process of accomplishment. . . . We need not be uneasy about failure. Modern civilization needs all the genius, energy, skill, that men and women can possibly exercise. No one can jostle another in this enlarging world of the nineteenth century, and society is in league with Providence to fulfill the wise and holy law, that no talent shall any longer be folded in a napkin and buried in the earth.

Harper's reference to education was telling. Women were displacing men as teachers. Further, the public schools offered the same curriculum to girls as to boys as indeed they had to, if women were to become the teachers. [for an example, click here.] Ultra par excellence Thomas Wentworth Higginson pounced. "Ought Women To Learn The Alphabet?" he asked. If they did, it would ultimately lead to full emanicipation:

If an extraordinary male gymnast can clear a height of ten feet with the aid of a springboard, it would be considered slightly absurd to ask a woman to leap eleven feet without one; yet this is precisely what society and the critics have always done. Training and wages and social approbation are very elastic springboards; and the whole course of history has seen these offered bounteously to one sex, and as sedulously withheld from the other. Let woman consent to be a doll, and there was no finery so gorgeous, no baby-house so costly, but she might aspire to share its lavish delights; let her ask simply for an equal chance to learn, to labor, and to live, and it was as if that same doll should open its lips, and propound Euclid's forty-seventh proposition. While we have all deplored the helpless position of indigent women, and lamented that they had no alternative beyond the needle, the wash-tub, the schoolroom, and the street, we have usually resisted their admission into every new occupation, denied them training, and cut their compensation down. Like Charles Lamb, who atoned for coming late to the office in the morning by going away early in the afternoon, we have, first, half educated women, and then, to restore the balance, only half paid them.

Sophia Smith apparently got the inspiration to found the college that bears her name from reading the essay. This was just the beginning of what became a major development in the 1860s and after. Republicans, once in power, established the land grant system of state universities which were open to women. Something very important had occured. Despite ongoing opposition, the notion that women with the interest and the ability should be educated through high school and even college became the conventional wisdom.

Teaching aside, the 1850s saw little of the occupational "displacement" Harper's editorial saluted. Women would shortly displace men as clerks, and as secretaries and as bookkeepers, but not in the 1850s. A handful did become physicians but none became lawyers. In the rapidly growing railroad industry women found no place. Steel was equally closed. Higginson's dismal list of female occupations -- "the needle, the wash-tub, the schoolroom, and the street" -- was all too accurate.

"The street" claimed more and more women. Here is another crusade of the decade too often overlooked. Historians have paid attention to its beginnings, in the 1830s, and to the controvesy over the regulation of prostitution after the Civil War. The period in between, however, has been largely overlooked. Yet early woman's rights activists focused a great deal of attention on the subject. At the 1850 Convention Abby Price gave a major speech in which she propounded the latest scientific data from Paris to show that most women who turned to prostitution did so out of need. They were unable to support themselves, their children, their parents in any other way.

It is thought to be discreditable to a woman even to know of their existence. You may not mention them in public. You may not allude to them in a book without staining its pages. Our sisters, whose poverty is caused by the oppressions of society, who are driven to sin by want of bread, - then regarded with scorn and turned away from with contempt! I appeal to you in their behalf, my friends. Is it not time to throw open to women, equal resources with men, for obtaining honest employment?

Caroline Wells Healey Dall, just beginning her long and productive career as an essayist and lecturer in 1850, wrote to Paulina Wright Davis to congratulate her and the Convention for speaking out:

In every large city, there is a class of women, whose existence is a terror and reproach to the land in which they are born; whose name no modest woman is supposed to know; whose very breath is thought to poison the air of the sanctuary. I pass over the fact, so generally ignored, that there is a class of men corresponding to these women, and far viler in the sight of God, I doubt not. I avoid dwelling on the social death which is the lot of these miserable creatures, and which is often the reward of their first efforts for a better life. I know that many whom I love will blame me bitterly for speaking on this subject at all, but that blame I must bear as God permits, for I feel bound to draw your attention to a few facts. Whatever elevates woman will diminish this class; but proper remuneration for her labor would draw many from it at once, almost all, in fact, who had not reached the lowest deep. Most women, -- if they dare to think about them at all, -- suppose that these miserable creatures are always the victims of their own bad natures, or want of principle; that they find their life a life of pleasure, and that they would not forsake it if they could, unless under the influence of religious conviction. If such thinkers would study their own unpolluted natures more closely, they would understand the position of the despised class far better than they do; and the more intelligent and religious they themselves become, the more distinctly will they perceive, that to undertake the regeneration of such, is imperatively the duty of the women rather than the men of the community.

Everyone pronounced themselves horrified by the increase in the numbers of prostitutes. But "Mr. Propriety," to use Jane Grey Swisshelm's sarcastic phrase, would take a fainting spell if a "proper lady" were to so much as hint she knew of their existence. Proper wives, however, suffered when their husbands infected them with a venereal infection acquired at a brothel. Further, the marriage market itself bore an uncomfortably close resemblance. As Horace Greeley editorialized about the Worcester Convention:

Marriage is indeed 'honorable in all,' when it is marriage; but accepting a husband for the sake of a position, a home and a support, is not marriage. (We must be excused from stating what it is.) Now one radical vice of our present system is that it morally constrains women to take husbands (not to say, fish for them) without the least impulse of genuine affection. Ninety-nine of every hundred young women are destitute of an independent income adequate to their comfortable support; they must work or marry for a living. But in Industry, Woman's sphere is exceedingly circumscribed, and her reward, as compared with the recompense of masculine effort, very inadequate. Except as household drudges, it is very difficult for seven single women out of eight to earn a comfortable, reputable, independent livelihood in this country, and it is generally much worse in others. Hence false marriages and degradations more scandalous if not more intrinsically vicious.

Prostitutes, Dall and Price insisted, were not hopelessly degraded. They were desparate. They were, further, both "sisters" and a direct threat. The logic of reform was clear. If women turned to prostitution (and to loveless marriages) because they could not make an "honest" living, there were two obvious remedies. Women deserved higher wages. They needed more occupational opportunities. The Civil War, by drawing off millions of men, turned a discussion into a fact.

In the cartoon on the left the "fascinating conductress" has taken her husband's place. In that on the right, the "indignant beauty" is berating the clerk who has just asked what she wants: "What do we want, young men? We want to see your sisters behind that counter, and you at the seat of war." Women did, in fact, take over many salesclerk jobs during the war, and continued to hold them afterwards. They did not, however, become streetcar conductors. And, they did not close the wage gap. A child's primer from the 1870s told the tale.


Americans, especially in the North, spent much of the 1850s talking about the proper "sphere" of women. This was itself significant. As Higginson remarked, ". . . nothing in any of these discussions is so valuable as the fact of the discussion itself." Once the subject was open, there would be no stopping. In gaining the alphabet, women had grasped the fulcrum. It only remained, he continued, to see if the earth moved.

It did move, but slowly. In her 1870 "History" Paulina Wright Davis recalled: "We believed it would take a generation to clear away the rubbish, to uproot the theories of ages, to overthrow customs, which at some period of the world's history had their significance." A generation later, she knew it would take far longer.

Women are still frivolous; the slaves of prejudice, passion, folly, fashion and petty ambitions, and so they will remain till the shackles, both social and political, are broken, and they are held responsible beings -- accountable to God alone for their lives. Not till then can it be known what untold wealth lies buried in womanhood . . . .
Men are still conceited, arrogant and usurping, dwarfing their own manhood by a false position toward one-half the human race.

Even so, "having counted the cost, and put our hand to the plow, we would not turn back." However slow the progress appeared, it was real. In 1850 it was an open question whether there was a sufficient body of support for a woman's rights movement. Would supporters gain a hearing for their views. By 1860, even as the country split apart, the answer was clearly yes. Not a fair hearing, to be sure, But enough of one so that a substantial segment of their message would win the backing, however qualified, of a significant portion of northern opinion. This "yes, but" response meant that they adopted portions of the woman's rights resolutions passed by the Worcester Convention, at least as broad principles even as they balked at details. The notion that women were entitled to higher wages is an example. It became a truism but did not lead to genuine change.This was endlessly frustrating to activists, but it was progress nonetheless.

As Davis pointed out, "in commencing this work we knew that we were attacking the strongholds of prejudice. . . ." Further, the strongholds did not lack for defenders. Yet several had their wall breached in the 1850s. Women had begun to find a public voice, in journalism, on the lecture platform, in the annual conventions. They had created an organized movement, had begun to lobby successfully for property and custody rights, had gained access to high school education, and had solidified their hold over the teaching profession. The alliance with temperance had been forged and would continue to gain for woman's rights advocates a respectful hearing in quarters that would otherwise have been closed. So too the allied crusade against prostitution. It too permitted open discussions of subjects previously prohibited.