The Women’s Rights Movement (2022)


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The Women’s Rights Movement from North to South

The Women’s Rights Movement (1)

The Women’s Rights Movement was an out growth cities ofthe northeast, but soon attracted proponents in emerging cities in themid-western and western urban centers. The southern states were last tojoin the bandwagon. The first women’s rights convention took place in SenecaFalls, New York in 1848. While many women and men in the rest of the countryhad committed themselves to woman suffrage by the turn of the century,it wasn’t until the 1890s that women even began to organize in the south.

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As early as 1848, women in the north began to join thepaid work force, to seek higher educational opportunities and to perceivea new sense of selfhood. Early women’s rights activists such as ElizabethCady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, publicly advocated women’sequal rights in state legislatures, at the growing number of women’s conventionsand in lectures to women’s social organizations. The early feminists, membersof the upper middle class, based their agenda on human equality and gainedpolitical support by aligning themselves with the abolitionists. They maintainedthat women had the same rights to political, religious, economic and socialindependence as men simply because they were no different from men. Theearly platform was articulated in a speech written by Elizabeth CadyStanton in 1892. In her speech, titled "TheSolitude of Self",Ms. Stanton stated that women deserved complete sovereignty because they,like men, had only themselves to rely on in times of crisis. (Stanton)

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The ranks of women’s rights activists grew until emancipationchanged the face of the woman’s rights movement forever. It lost many ofits male abolitionist supporters and both the National Woman Suffrage Association(NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) began to puttheir efforts toward petitioning the states for voting rights, rather thanequal rights. However, they were separated on ideological lines. The NWSAcontinued to seek to transform the ideological foundations of the prevailingpatriarchal society, balancing the feminine and masculine scales. The moreconservative, religion based AWSA emphasized the differences between menand women, claiming that the moral and caring qualities of women were bettersuited for reform movements in areas such as child labor, urban sanitation,and temperance (Green p. 8). The two unions eventually merged, formingthe National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

During the 1890s the influence of NAWSA crossed the MasonDixon Line to enlist support for a Federal amendment granting suffrageto women. The climate in the south was ripe for the seeds of change totake root and the first wave of feminism rolled over Dixie. The cloudsof change that the northern feminists brought with them were not withoutopposition. The eradication of the plantation system had shifted towardsincreased urbanization and industrialization. Textile and tobacco mills,distilleries and other industries were growing in urban centers, creatingprofessional and working classes. Women began dribbling into the paid workforce. Educational opportunities for women gradually expanded and mostimportantly, women’s clubs proliferated. Women took up the call for socialreform and began to voice their concerns about the dangers of factories,the exploitation of child workers, and domestic abuse.

The rising employment of women was a major influence onthe women’s rights movement in the South. Existing laws made if very difficultfor women to own businesses and excluded them from politics and publicpositions.

Still, postwar economic change in the late nineteenthcentury mirrored changes that had taken place a generation or two earlierin the north. The emergence of the middle and working classes helped toaccelerate the women’s movement in the south. The professional class ofwhite collar workers emerged to provide services to the industrial eliteas doctors, lawyers and bankers. The women of these families ranked highin the suffragette movement in the 1890s. The growing cities also providedemployment for women as they helped to fill post war labor shortages. Althoughfew working women joined local and state organizations, their plight spreadthe suffrage sentiment throughout the middle class. In 1898, the NAWSAattended the Louisiana constitutional convention which resulted in partialsuffrage to tax paying women.

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Another factor that led to greater activism at this timewas heightened opportunity for higher educationfor women. There was a considerable number of college educated women inthe Southern suffrage movement. Until the late 19th century,women had been excluded from higher education. Education wasn’t deemeda necessary qualification for wives and mothers. Southern women were atleast a generation behind Northern women in their opportunity to receivea college education. Again it was the women from the new professional classthat began to attend college at the turn of the century. Very few camefrom the plantation and industrial elite or the working class. With fewexceptions, such as Newcomb College in New Orleans, the few women’s collegesin the South compared unfavorably with their Northern counterparts. Ifa woman wanted an education equal to that of a man, she usually attendeda northern school.

Of all the factors that lead to further involvement inthe women’s movement, social clubs seem to have had the greatest impacton the consciousness of southern women. They also lagged a generation behindthe northeastern states. The first club, was formed in New York state in1868. It wasn’t until the 1890s that they appeared in the south. They provideda place to discuss women’s issues and provided a basis for social reform.Most activism in the south centered around reform in areas that were traditionallyfemale such as child labor, urban sanitation and temperance. The membershipof most clubs was made up of the professional women with a smattering fromthe urban elite.

Although conditions in the South were favorable for thearrival of the woman suffrage movement, there was also opposition fromthe political and industrial elite. These preservers of the antebellumsociety ideal, upheld the Southern lady as morally virtuous and happilysubjugated to husband and hearth. Northern feminists were out to destroya homogeneous, virtuous society with their liberal, atheistic, and materialisticviews. It was another case of the north imposing itself on the south ina period of already unwelcome change. Many white southerners wanted topreserve their superior southern culture whose cornerstone was white supremacyin the guise of state sovereignty (Wheeler p. 10).

Racism was definitely an issue in the 1890s suffrage movement.The national woman suffrage movement seemed to threaten the white politicalelite, who was devoted to maintaining state sovereignty and the disenfranchisementof blacks. In actuality, NAWSA was lobbying southern organizations to jointheir leagues as a source of suffrage unity, not to change their ideology.In 1903 NAWSA met in New Orleans and openly discussed the racial policiesof the organization. When they were challenged by a local newspaper todefend their position on the "Negro Question," NAWSA responded that "theright of the state is recognized within the national body and that eachauxiliary state association arranges its own affairs in accordance withits own ideas and in harmony with the customs of its own section." (Green10). Southerners could exclude black women from their organizations andfrom the polls.

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The traditional role of woman as the ideal of Southernvirtue, compassionate and charitable was in danger from the influence ofthe immoral, outspoken women of the North. The preservers of the old southput the southern lady on a pedestal where she would act as preserver ofSouthern religion and morality and as an inspiration to her husband andchildren. The United Confederate Veterans literally placed young prominentvirgins from each state on a pedestal at their annual reunions to eulogizethe ideal woman who is loyal, and obedient, trusting solely in the protectionof their men (Wheeler p. 8). The southern ideal held that men have publicvoices while a lady’s influence should extend no further than home andchurch.

The social, economic and political tides were turningin the 1890s as Southern sisters joined their Northern siblings in thewoman suffrage movement. However, the movement began to lose momentum whichdid not return for another decade. There were too few activists to reallymake a difference and the threat of a federal suffrage amendment was farfrom the threatening reality that it became in 1910. The social, economicand political changes that shook the South at the end of the nineteenthcentury greatly impacted the lives of its women. Women began to open theireyes to possibilities for themselves and their society. They recognizedtheir ability to make an impression in the public sphere through socialreform. They considered the value of continued education and experiencedthemselves as paid laborers. As the nineteenth century drew to a close,the Southern lady, long condemned to life on a pedestal, cautiously steppeddown and proudly stood her ground.

Works Cited

Green, Elna C. Southern Strategies: Chapel Hill:The U of North Carolina. 1987.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of othe New South,New York. Oxford. 1973

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--Content prepared by Sara Shull.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

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