Feminism: One Movement in Four Waves (Part 1)

Some of you may be aware that I’m working on a proposal for a non-fiction book on the history of U.S. feminism that I hope to have published on or near the 100th anniversary of American women getting the right to vote, which is August 19, 2020.  This week, Diana at Creating Herstory is featuring a four-part article I wrote on this very same subject and I thought I’d repost the article each day as it runs on her site. It will give you a rough idea of what the book will include, although the book also will have a section on colonial feminist thought that this article doesn’t cover.

Image purchased from Adobe Stock

For me, every day is Women’s History month because I’m currently researching the history of the feminism movement in the United States for a book.

Honestly, although I’ve considered myself a feminist for more than 20 years, I never really thought much about the movement in general or how it came to be. But then I researched my historical fiction novel Madame Presidentess, which is about Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist and the first woman to run for president in the U.S. in 1872 – 48 years before women won the right to vote. Because she was friends with the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, I came to learn a lot about how feminism and women’s rights came to be in our country.

Historians generally agree that there have been at least three “waves” or intense periods of activity around women’s rights. But that is where the consensus ends. Exactly when these waves took place and what they encompassed is a serious matter of debate, especially where later waves are concerned. Some people (like me), believe we’re currently living in a fourth wave of feminism, while others say we’re still in the third or even in a fifth. There is even some debate on whether or not feminism in American dates back to colonial times, far before the generally accepted seminal event of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention.

While one article could never do justice to the many facets of the feminist movement (that’s what the book is for, and even then it is impossible to hit all points), here’s a brief summary of the three accepted waves, as well as my theory of a current fourth wave. All dates are approximate.

Wave One: 1840-1920 – Women Fight for Citizenship and Suffrage
Key figures: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, and others.

Susan B. Anthony (standing) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in the 1830s, women started to quietly talk amongst themselves about their rights and to question why, under United States law, they were not considered full citizens. This eventually led to the first public debate on women’s rights at Oberlin College in 1846 and the first public address about women’s rights the next year. The first women’s rights convention in the United States took place the following July in Seneca Falls, New York. From this meeting came the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, was all about woman and her rights, or lack thereof, in the country at that time. It became the basis for the women’s rights movement until the Civil War disrupted the whole country and placed the public’s attention squarely on abolition.

After the Civil War, the women’s movement split into two groups divided over the idea of enfranchisement of blacks as well as whether universal suffrage should be granted at the Federal or state levels. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the leaders of the radical National Woman Suffrage Association, whose members believed that the enfranchisement of black and immigrant men would make it more difficult for women to be given the vote and called for a federal agreement for women suffrage. On the other side of the fence were Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association, whose members supported the 15th Amendment and worked for women’s suffrage on a state-by-state basis.

This division hampered the efforts of both groups, by weakening resources, causing in-fighting within the movement and fracturing public attention. As time went on, some states granted suffrage on a case-by-case basis, usually beginning with school suffrage. The first state to grant women full voting rights was Wyoming in 1869. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull ran for president, even though she wasn’t technically old enough and the vast majority of women didn’t have the right to vote for her. Despite the odds, Susan B. Anthony succeeded in voting in that election (not for Victoria, as the two were bitter enemies by this point) but was arrested and found guilty of illegal voting. But she made history and headlines with her act, and her widely publicized trial spurred on flagging suffragists across the country. In 1875, Virginia Minor, a suffragist from Missouri, argued before the Supreme Court that women already had the right to vote under the 14th amendment of the Constitution, which that states suffrage is a right of all citizens of the United States. But the Supreme Court ruled against her, stating that all “men” had the right to vote, and the suffragists realized that the Federal government wasn’t going to help them. Thus began the decades-long campaign

Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enfranchise women.

The two warring factions of women’s suffrage finally reunited in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the united cause of getting suffrage state-by-state. Twenty-six years later, tired of this slow, tame approach, Alice Paul formed the National Woman’s Party, a militant group focused on the passage of a national suffrage amendment. The following year, more than 200 members of this group – known as the Silent Sentinels – were arrested while picketing the White House. Many of them went on hunger strikes in prison and were subjected to torture and barbaric practices like forced feeding. (These women were the Iron-Jawed Angels of the 2004 film of the same name.)

Despite these setbacks, the women’s movement continued under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, who focused whole-heartedly on the national amendment from 1916 on. Women finally gained the right to vote on a Federal level on August 20, 1920. But it took a long time for the states to catch up (Mississippi was the last state in the union to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment in 1984) and it wasn’t for several decades that African-American women were truly able to vote without fear of discrimination and harm.

Tomorrow’s Part 2 will talk about the Second Wave of feminism, which lasted approximately from 1960-the late 1980s.

P.S. – Did you know that the National Woman’s Party still exists? I’m a member!

Victoria Woodull’s 1872 Election Day as Seen on Facebook

“Lock her up!” is a common refrain in this election, with opponents of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for president on a major party ticket, loudly calling for her to spend election day in jail. Ironic then, that the first woman to ever run for President in the U.S., Victoria Woodhull, did just that in 1872.

Days before the November 4, 1872, election, she and her sister, Tennie, published a scandalous issue of their newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly, in which Victoria accused Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of having an extramarital affair with one of his parishioners, and Tennie recalled the debauchery of a public party years before. Due to a quote Tennie used (which also appears in the book of Deuteronomy), the sisters were changed by Anthony Comstock, America’s self-appointed moral crusader, of sending obscene material through the mail and arrested.

I present to you my imaginings of what Victoria, Tennie and the other women of the suffrage movement might have posted on Facebook on and around Election Day.

victorias-election-day-as-played-out-on-fb

Guest Post – Making History – A Woman Runs for President by Rebecca Now

Article author Rebecca Now (center) with me and a friend at the re-enactment of the election of 1872.

Article author Rebecca Now (center) with me and a friend at the re-enactment of the election of 1872.

My friend Rebecca Now recently wrote an article on Victoria Woodhull for a local women’s paper and then posted it on her blog. Yes, it does mention my book. I’m thrilled to be able to reproduce it here with her permission. Rebecca has a kind of connection to Victoria in that she frequently portrays Elizabeth Cady Stanton at historical/educational events. If you’ve been following my blog, you know that Elizabeth and Victoria were dear friends for many years. As such, I find it highly appropriate that she and I became friends this past summer. Take it away, Rebecca!

She was the first woman to run for president of the United States.

Was your first thought about the candidate running in 2016?  Wrong. The first American woman to run for President was Victoria C. Woodhull, in 1872.

This little-known figure was but a footnote in the history books, but she was certainly ahead of her time, had great courage and conviction, and changed the trajectory of the women’s suffrage movement.

Many history books on the 72 year-long movement for American women’s suffrage leave Woodhull out entirely, and yet, she was the first women to address a joint committee of congress in 1871, arguing that women, as citizens of the nation, had a right to vote based on the 14th amendment to the constitution.

Born in Ohio in a poor and abusive family of n’ere do wells that would make the Beverly Hillbillies look like aristocrats, her family was once run out of town with a collection taken up by the townsfolk.

She married at 15 to escape her family life, only to find her charming husband become a drunk who visited brothels.  Woodhull was a “spiritualist” who could communicate with spirits for guidance.  She advised numerous women in post Civil War society who had suffered from abuse and violence from men.

Woodhull felt the spirits were calling her to a “become a ruler of her people.”

Now, a fascinating historical fiction novel about Victoria Woodhull has been published, Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evelina.

Evelina credits a post on social media as inspiring her to write the book.  She saw a black and white photo of a woman from the 19th century, and the caption read “Known by her detractors as “Mrs. Satan,” Victoria Claflin Woodhull, born in 1838, married at age 15 to an alcoholic and womanizer.  She became the first woman to establish a brokerage firm on Wall Street and played an active role in the woman’s suffrage movement.  She became the first woman to run for President of the United States in 1872.  Her name is largely lost in history.  Few recognize her name and accomplishments.”

The book is a powerful good read.  It opens a window into the disparity in social freedom between men and women in late 19th century America.   Woodhull, as the heroine of the novel, is not really a sympathetic character, yet she is without doubt a most unique and colorful character, and clearly a ‘self-made’ woman who blazed new trails.  The book has already won recognition.  The 2015 Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction gave the book first place in the Women’s US History category for 2015, even before the book was formally published.

The twelve pages of author notes at the end of the book are fascinating, and clearly layout what is fiction and what really happened, according to written records.  After doing her research, remarked Evelina, “So much of her family’s antics and Victoria’s own actions are more grandiose than I could ever invent.”

History books, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – A Friendship that Changed the World by Penny Colman paint Victoria C. Woodhull as a scandal that tainted the woman’s suffrage movement by the association with a “Free Love” doctrine.

Susan B Anthony first learned of Woodhull when she read a newspaper announcement that Woodhull would be addressing a joint committee of congress, on the same day that the National Woman Suffrage Convention was to convene in Washington, D.C.  Both Cady-Stanton and Anthony attended the session and were impressed by Woodhull.  They asked her to speak at the convention that evening. As Colman relates in her book,

“Thrilled by Victoria’s fiery rhetoric, Elizabeth declared that she was ‘a grand, brave woman, radical alike in political, religious, and social principles.’ Susan, however, was becoming wary of Victoria.  She suspected that Victoria had attached herself to the suffrage movement in order to advance a personal ambition that she had recently revealed – to run for president of the United States.”

Woodhull did run for president, and lost.  She later was accused of sending obscene materials in the mail, and spent time in prison before being acquitted.  She moved to England, and married her third husband, a wealthy banker.

While Elizabeth Cady Stanton was visiting her daughter in London in 1891, she met with Woodhull.

Victoria had endured “great suffering,” Elizabeth wrote in her diary. “May the good angels watch and guard her.”

Let’s Celebrate Our History!

My thanks to Rebecca for being my guest and for providing those interesting tidbits about Victoria’s association with these historic women. And if you ever need someone to portray Elizabeth Cady Stanton, you know who to call!