In the laws governing the interests peculiar to men, and those affecting their interests in common with woman, great advance had been made during the past six centuries, but those regarding the exclusive inter-[P. 140]ests of women, had remained in statu quo, since King Alfred the Great and the knights of his Round Table fell asleep. The anti-negro slavery object of my paper seemed to be lost sight of, both by friends and foes of human progress, in the surprise at the innovation of a woman entering the political arena, to argue publicly on great questions of national policy, and while men were defending their pantaloons, they created and spread the idea, that masculine supremacy lay in the form of their garments, and that a woman dressed like a man would be as potent as he.
An 1851 comic song mocking the Bloomer costume. For an explanation of the dress the Bloomer was intended to replace, click here.
|Strange as it many now  seem, they succeeded in giving such efficacy to the idea, that no less a person than Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was led astray by it, so that she set her cool, wise head to work and invented a costume, which she believed would emancipate woman from thraldom. Her invention was adopted by her friend Mrs. [Amelia] Bloomer, editor and proprietor of the Lily, a small paper then in infancy in Syracuse, N.Y., and from her, the dress took its name--"the bloomer." Both women believed in their dress, and staunchly advocated it as the sovreignest remedy for all the ills that woman's flesh is heir to.|
I made a suit and wore it at home parts of two days, long enough to feel assured that it must be a failure, and so opposed it earnestly, but nothing I could say or do could make it apparent that pantaloons were not the real objective point, at which all discontented woman aimed. I had once been tried on a charge of purloining pantaloons, and been acquitted for lack of evidence; but now, here was proof! The women themselves, leaders of the malcontents, promulgated and pressed [P. 141] their claim to bifurcated garments, and the whole tide of popular discussion was turned into that ridiculous channel.
The Visiter had a large list of subscribers in Salem, Ohio, and in the summer of '49 a letter from a lady came to me saying, that the Visiter had stirred up so much interest in women's rights that a meeting had been held and a committee appointed to get up a woman's rights convention, and she, as chairman of that committee, invited me to preside. I felt on reading this as if I had had a douche bath [I.e., cold shower]; then, as a lawyer might have felt who had carried a case for a corporation through the lower court, and when expecting it up before the supreme bench, had learned that all his clients were coming in to address the court on the merits of the case.
By the pecks of letters I had been receiving, I had learned that there were thousands of women with grievances, and no power to state them or to discriminate between those which could be reached by law and those purely personal; and that the love of privacy with which the whole sex was accredited was a mistake, since most of my correspondents literally agonized to get before the public. Publicity! publicity! was the persistent demand. To meet the demand, small papers, owned and edited by women, sprang up all over the land, and, like Jonah's gourd, perished in a night. Ruskin says to be noble is to be known, and at that period there was a great demand on the part of women for their full allowance of nobility; but not one in a hundred thought of merit as a means of reaching it. No use waiting to learn to put two con-[P. 142]secutive sentences together in any connected form, or for an idea or the power of expressing it. One woman was printing her productions, and why should not all the rest do likewise? They had so long followed some leader like a flock of sheep, that now they would rush through the first gap into newspaperdom.
I declined the presidential honors tendered me, on the ground of inability to fill the place; and earnestly entreated the movers to reconsider and give up the convention, saying:
"It will open a door through which fools and fanatics will pour in, and make the cause ridiculous."
The answer was that it was too late to recede. The convention was held, and justified my worst fears. When I criticised it, the reply was "If you had come and presided, as we wished you to do, the result would have been different. You started the movement and now refuse to lead it, but cannot stop it."
The next summer [presumably, 1850; this is an error. The Akron convention was held in 1852]] a convention was held in Akron, Ohio, and I attended, hoping to modify the madness, but failed utterly, by all protests I could make, to prevent the introduction by the committee on resolutions of this:
Resolved, that the difference in sex is one of education."
A man stood behind the president to prompt her, but she could not catch his meaning, and when confusion came, she rose and made a little speech, in which she stated that she knew nothing of parliamentary rules, and when consenting to preside had resolved, if there were trouble, to say to the convention as she did to her boys at home:
[P. 143] "Quit behaving yourselves!"
This brought down the house, but brought no order, and she sat down, smiling, a perfect picture of self-complaisance.
People thought the press unmerciful in its ridicule of that convention, but I felt in it all there was much forbearance. No words could have done justice to the occasion. It was so much more ridiculous than ridicule, so much more absurd than absurdity. The women on whom the ridicule was heaped were utterly incapable of self-defense, or unconscious of its need. The mass of nobility seekers seemed content to get before the public by any means, and to wear its most stinging sarcasms as they would a new dress cap.
In those days I reserved all my hard words for men, and in my notice of the convention mildly suggested that it would have been better had Mrs. Oliver Johnson been made president, as she had great executive ability and a good knowledge of parliamentary rules. This suggestion was received by the president as an insult never to be forgiven, and in the Visiter defended herself against it. I replied, and in the discussion which followed she argued that the husband and wife would be breadwinner and housekeeper by turns, day or even half day about. He should go to business in the forenoon, then in the afternoon take care of baby and permit her to go to the office, shop or warehouse from which came the family supplies.
I took the ground that the baby [Swisshelm's own daughter was born in 1851] would be apt to object, and that in our family the rule would not work, since I could not put a log on the mill-carriage, and the wa-[P. 144]ter would be running to waste all my day or half-day as bread-winner.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton with two of her children, circa 1850
|About the same time, Mrs. Stanton published a series of articles in Mrs. Bloomer's paper, The Lily, in which she taught it was right for a mother to make baby comfortable, lay him in his crib, come out, lock the door, and leave him to develop his lungs by crying or cooing, as he might decide, while mamma improved her mind and attended to her public and social duties.|
Against such head winds, it was hard for my poor little craft to make progress in asserting the right of women to influence great public questions.
However, those conventions have probably saved the republic. From the readiness with which Pennsylvania legislators responded to the petition of three of [sic] four women, acting without concert, in the matter of property rights, it is probable that in a fit of generosity the men of the United States would have enfranchised its women en masse; and the government now staggering under the ballots of ignorant, irresponsible men, must have gone down under the additional burden of the votes which would have been [P. 145] thrown upon it, by millions of ignorant, irresponsible women. Before that time, the unanswerable argument of Judge Hurlbut had been published, and had made a deep impression on the minds of thinking men. Had this been followed by the earnest, thrilling appeals of Susan B. Anthony, free from all alliance with cant and vanity, we should no doubt have had a voting population to-day, under which no government could exist ten years; but those conventions raised the danger signal, and men took heed to the warning.