Lawyer: "What makes you think you could easily get a divorce?"
Lady Client: "This: My husband uses me as a complete slave -- he is an open foe of the government -- I can prove I am of African descent. What more is needed to bring me under the President's Proclamation?" -- April, 1863

From the outset woman's rights activists drew parallels between their own situation and that of the slave. Ernestine Rose, for example, pointed out at the first national woman's rights convention in 1850, the year of the Compromise, that husbands had long enjoyed the same legal privileges that the new Fugitive Slave Law gave to masters. If a wife were to leave an abusive husband, he could swear out a warrant, and the whole legal apparatus of the U.S. would aid in her capture and return. Husbands also had a legal right to punish their wives (and children) so that wives had no more legal recourse than did slaves whose owners whipped them.

Strengthening the links between the two causes was the fact that many, if not most, of the early woman's rights supporters were also abolitionists. So it was no surprise that the 1850 Worcester Convention unanimously approved a resolution calling for the same rights for persons of color it sought for white women.

Not everyone thought this a good idea. Specifically, Jane Swisshelm, editor and publisher of the anti-slavery Saturday Visiter [sic] criticized the Convention for this resolution. Since she was also a pioneer in the woman's rights movement, having led the successful campaign in Pennsylvania for a woman's property rights law with Lucretia Mott, her opposition dismayed many. Parker Pillsbury, an ardent abolitionist and believer in woman's rights, was particularly chagrined.

He and Swisshelm engaged in a debate over the resolution in the pages of her newspaper. In an interesting way, this debate foreshadows the one over the adoption of the fourteenth amendment after the Civil War. That introduced the word "male" into the Constitution, thus explicitly barring women from voting in national elections. Some women activists, such as Lucy Stone and Abby Kelley Foster, supported the amendment on the grounds that it was the black man's "turn" and that woman's would come next. Others, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, opposed the amendment. Each side then formed its own woman's rights organization, a split which lasted a full generation. When the two did merge, they simply ignored the issue of the rights of people of color. Suffrage advocates were noticeably silent, for example, when Ida B. Wells led her crusade against lynching in the 1880s and 1890s.

Some initial questions:

On what basis did Swisshelm object to the Worcester Convention's resolution? On what basis did Pillsbury defend it? To what extent did their arguments engage the other's?



Colored Individual: -- Mrs. O'Flaherty, what is your opinion of Miscegenation?"
Mrs. O'F: -- "Missy Cegnation? Is that her name, Mr. Sambo? Fait, I never heard of the critter."
Irish immigrants formed another group in the 1850s seeking its rights. The Irish, however, did not choose to identify their situation with that of blacks. Instead they had that link thrust upon them as the cartoon opposite, from July 1866, and this one from 1857 exemplify. The challenge facing the Irish, as they understood it, was not to ally themselves with other oppressed groups but to establish themselves as a "white" people. Did they, in a sense, follow the logic of Swisshelm's argument?