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The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S. got going in the 19th century with the National Woman’s Rights Convention of 1850 in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the role of women in society was a major focal point (Siegel, 1994). Women were becoming more outspoken and many women like Sojourner Truth and Angelina Weld were traveling around and speaking out on the evils of slavery and so on. The Women’s Movement would continue on through the latter half of the 19th century into the 20th century. Women’s suffrage would become a major focal point in the early 20th century and women would finally win the right to vote in 1920. Carrie Chapman was a big leader in the Women’s Rights Movement at that time, campaigning hard for the 19th Amendment to be passed. However, there were other campaigns by women that had other outcomes—such as the campaign by Carrie Nation at around the same time to enact Prohibition, a campaign that gave rise to scofflaws, bootlegging and organized crime (Lawson, 2013).
Women’s Roles and Rights
As Siegel (1994) shows, the big focus at the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement in the 19th century was what their work in the home should consist of. There was no question really of women working outside the home. It was firmly established culturally that a woman’s place was in the domestic sphere. That notion would not really be challenged until WWII and the post-war era, when the next wave of the Women’s Movement was getting started by Betty Friedan and her book The Feminine Mystique, which advocated for women to leave the household and stop sitting at home waiting for their husbands to try to satisfy them. Friedan launched major controversy by stating such things as: “We have made woman a sex creature…She has no identity except as a wife and mother. She does not know who she is herself. She waits all day for her husband to come home at night to make her feel alive” (Friedan, 1963, p. 29). That was the general feeling of Feminists in the 1960s when Friedan was writing. Others like Gloria Steinem followed with Ms. Magazine, promoting new changes in society, women in the workplace, gender equality, abortion rights, and so on.
In the late 19th and early 20th century such steps would have been unfathomable. It was an entirely different world in those days and it took two World Wars to change it. The First World War helped to light a fire for Progressivism, which is why the 1920s saw so much social and political change in America. The Second World War helped to set the stage for the Women’s Movement shifting into a higher gear. The American Civil War in the 19th century also played a part, as it set the stage for transformation in society and put an end to slavery, which was a major focus of many progressive women at the time. That victory gave them confidence to keep going and to keep striving for new ground.
Still, there were many different women involved in the Movement as it developed over the decades. Elizabeth Blackwell, for instance, felt that the National Woman’s Rights Convention of 1850 was a bit much and that women were demonstrating an anti-man bias. Blackwell (1850) stated, for instance, in an Editorial written about the Convention that “I cannot sympathize fully with an anti-man movement. I have had too much kindness, aid, and just recognition from men to make such attitude of women otherwise than painful; and I think the true end of freedom may be gained better in another way.” Other women adopted a much more aggressive point of view and saw the patriarchy as an obstacle to women’s empowerment. They would especially become dominant in the latter half of the 20th century under the leadership of Feminists like Friedan, Steinem and numerous others.
But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the focus was mainly on moral reform, temperance movements, and overturning the idea of the Cult of True Womanhood—the notion that true women were pious and submissive and domesticated. The Seneca Falls Convention helped to put a new kind of woman on the map, thanks to the work of leaders like Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The main focus…
…like Angelina Weld and Sojourner Truth would tour the country speaking out against slavery. After slavery ended, women took up the crusade for moral reform and the right to vote. Campaigning for women’s suffrage took up many decades of struggle and women became frustrated with what was happening on that front so they began to lash out against men and call for the total rejection of Old World values and attitudes the way Elizabeth Stanton and some others did.
However, women like Elizabeth Blackwell and Carrie Chapman resisted the more radical undercurrent within the Women’s Movement and advocated instead for a middle road approach. Carrie Chapman learned how to lobby by getting states to change their laws on suffrage for women. The big goal for her was to get an amendment to the Constitution. To do that she had to support the President’s war effort in 1918. Even though women were traditionally opposed to war, Carrie Chapman led the suffragettes in a campaign to support the war and her reward was the 19th Amendment.
The Women’s Movement did not stop with Carrie Chapman’s death but it did die down for a bit until the 1960s when Betty Friedan resurrected it with The Feminine Mystique—the updated version of Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible. Friedan argued that women should reject the idea of being domesticated, that they should stop trying to be a housewife, and that they should instead look for fulfillment and meaning in the workplace. Thus, in the latter half of the 20th century the Women’s Movement took on a new direction—equal rights in the workplace and as a result there are now fewer marriages in the U.S. than ever, fewer children being born, and more divorces.
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Siegel, R. B. (1994). Home…
Blackwell, E. (1850). Elizabeth Blackwell on the 1850 Women's Rights Convention. Retrieved from http://www.wwhp.org/Resources/WomansRights/blackwell_comments.html
Griffith, E. (1984). In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford University Press.
History. (2019). Women’s suffrage. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage
Lawson, E. N. (2013). Smugglers, Bootleggers, and Scofflaws: Prohibition and New York City. SUNY Press.
Siegel, R. B. (1994). Home as Work: The First Woman's Rights Claims Concerning
Wives' Household Labor, 1850-1880. The Yale Law Journal, 103(5), 1073-1217.
Van Voris, J. (1996). Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York City: Feminist Press at CUNY.
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