Earlier this month millions of American women went to the polls to cast their ballots in the mid-term elections. Most of us know that women fought for 70 years for our right to vote, but how many of us really realize just what they had to endure? Nov. 15 marked the 105th anniversary of the Night of Terror, in which 33 suffragists were imprisoned and tortured for peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House.
In January 1917, groups of suffragists, all members of the National Women’s Party, began silently protesting in front of the White House, holding signs bearing slogans like “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” In all, these “Silent Sentinels,” as they were known, numbered more than 2,000.
For the most part, these protesters were quietly ignored by both conservative suffragists who disagreed with their tactics and the White House. That is until the U.S. entered WWI and the public began seeing their protests as unpatriotic. On Nov. 10, 1917, when 30 suffragists including Alice Paul, Dorothy Day (yes, the same woman who founded the Catholic Worker’s Union), and Lucy Burns were arrested for obstructing traffic in front of the White House. Or at least that was the official charge. Everyone knew they were really being arrested for protesting.
They were taken to District of Columbia Jail and then remanded to Virginia’s Occoquan Workhouse. There, the women who ranged in age from X to 73, demanded to be treated as political prisoners, which the prison guards laughed at. Who were these women to demand such things? They were denied legal counsel, so Dudley Field Malone, a lawyer for the Wilson administration, resigned his position and agreed to represent their legal rights.
On Nov. 14, 1917, the superintendent of the workhouse ordered the guards to beat the suffragists into submission. They were tortured and left for dead. Dora Lewis was knocked unconscious; Alice Cosu suffered a heart attack and was denied medical care until the next morning; and Lucy Burns was awkwardly handcuffed with her hands above her head, forcing her to stand overnight. Many were thrown against an iron bench or their iron bedframes, one violently hitting her head to the point the others thought she was dead.
In response to this mistreatment and horrible living conditions—rats roamed the halls, there were maggots in the food, the water was filthy, and the restrooms were very public—the women staged hunger strikes. The government wasn’t about to have them die in jail, so they were force-fed through tubes. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Library of Congress records that they suffered “unprecedented psychological intimidation.”
This event, dubbed the “Night of Terror” caught media attention, turning public sympathy toward the suffragists. They were released on Nov. 28. About a month and a half later, President Wilson finally announced his support of women’s suffrage. In March of the following year, a D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the arrests were unconstitutional. Silent Sentinels continued to protest until Congress passed the 19th amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. Then the women went back to their home states to campaign for state ratification.
To learn more about the Night of Terror, read Jailed for Freedom, a first-person account of the events by Doris Stevens, or watch the movie Iron Jawed Angels.
I am so excited to show you the covers of my next two books, which are also my first traditionally published books. You can pre-order both in hardback now; e-book is coming soon and paperback will be out about a year after the initial publication.
Coming November 15!
An insightful look at the cultural impact of the television phenomenon Sex and the City
Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one word was on everyone’s lips: sex. Sex and the City had taken the United States, and the world, by storm. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha influenced how a generation of women think, practice, and talk about sex, allowing them to embrace their sexual desires publicly and unlocking the idea of women as sexual beings on par with men.
In Sex and the City: A Cultural History, Nicole Evelina provides a fascinating, in-depth look at the show’s characters, their relationships, and the issues the show confronted. From sexuality and feminism to friendship and motherhood, Evelina reveals how the series impacted viewers in the 1990s, as well as what still resonates today and what has glaringly not kept up with the times. The world has changed dramatically since the show originally aired, and Evelina examines how recent social movements have served to highlight the show’s lack of diversity and throw some of its storylines into a less than favorable light.
While Sex and the City had problematic issues, it also changed the world’s perception of single women, emphasized the power of female friendship, built brands, and influenced fashion. This book looks at it all, from the pilot episode to the spinoff movies, prequel, and reboot that together have built an enduring legacy for a new generation of women.
Pre-order hardback here:
This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s Cultural History of Television series:
Coming March 1, 2023!
Missouri’s Virginia Minor forever changed the direction of Women’s Rights–not Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Carrie Chapman Catt, or any of the other so-called “marquee names” of the suffrage movement–when she and her husband, Francis, argued Minor v Happersett in 1875. Despite the negative ruling, this landmark case brought the right to vote for women to the U.S. Supreme Court for the first and only time in the seventy-two year fight for women’s suffrage in the United States.
America’s Forgotten Suffragists: Virginia and Francis Minor is the first biography of these activists who had a profound impact on the suffrage movement but have largely been forgotten by history. Virginia and Francis were unique for their time in being jointly dedicated to the cause of female enfranchisement. Unlike the brief profiles available now, this book will paint a full picture of their lives, depicting their youth, married life, and their highly-lauded civilian work during the Civil War. Their early suffrage work and famous Supreme Court case will be covered in depth, along with an exploration of how it actually helped the suffrage movement by giving it a unifying direction, despite the court delivering a negative verdict. This biography will also cover Virginia and Francis’ continued fight for women’s suffrage after the case, including Virginia’s tax revolts, writings, and campaigning for the franchise in Nebraska.
Here in the U.S. I am blessed to be celebrating this month in peace, but I have been thinking a lot about the women of Ukraine, who are once again bravely defending their homes, some for the second or third time in their lives. From members of Parliament to citizens from the countryside, they are joining together in Resistance.
When we think about war, it is usually the soldiers on the battlefield or the government leaders (mostly men) who come to mind. But for all of known history, women have been fighting in their own ways. Today, as we kick off this important month, I want to remember all the women, past and present, who have:
Like Boudicca, led revolts when their homes were invaded.
Like Boudicca’s daughters, survived rape and other forms of abuse at enemy hands.
Like Catherine Van Rensselaer and Peggy Schuyler, burned their own crops so the enemy wouldn’t have anything to eat.
Like Hypatia, defended the intellectual and cultural centers of their cities.
Like Irena Sendler, risked their lives to save children from death at enemy hands.
Like Virginia Minor, supplied hospitals with food and comforted the sick and dying.
Like Catherine McAuley and her Sisters of Mercy, walked bravely onto the front lines and into enemy territory to nurse the wounded and dying on both sides.
Like Catherine Jarrige and the martyrs of Compiegne, stayed true to their faith and values, even in the face of death.
Like Elise Rivet, gave their lives in exchange for those of the innocent.
Like Stanislawa Leszczyńska, aided women in their hour of need and brought new life into the world amid death and darkness.
Like Hedy Lamarr, used their intelligence to invent revolutionary technology in times of war.
Like Shaista Suhrawardy Ikramullah and Eleanor Roosevelt, used their diplomatic skills to try and broker peace.
Like Deborah Sampson, hid their sex in order to fight in their army.
Like Naomi Parker Fraley, the real Rosie the Riveter, worked in factories, producing the items men needed to fight.
And the millions of unnamed, ordinary women who have:
Taken up arms (legally or not) to defend her homes, families, and homelands.
Governed or run their lands while men were away at war.
Lost children, husbands, fathers, brothers and fellow women to war.
Lost their lives to bombings, gunfire and other violence.
Sewed clothing, made bandages and cooked food for those who would fight.
Raised money to aid their cause.
Prayed for peace while bombs fell around them and gunfire blared.
We salute you and thank you for all you have done. May we learn from your strength, tenacity and courage. And may your efforts never be forgotten.
If you are the praying kind, please do so for the women of Ukraine and all who face similar circumstances around the world.
In 245 years of American History, only one woman has ever received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the government’s highest and most prestigious military honor, and she did it back on Nov. 11, 1865. Meet woman of many trades – doctor, spy, abolitionist, P.O.W. – Dr. Mary Edwards Walker.
Mary Edwards was born Nov. 26, 1832, in Oswego, New York, to abolitionists Alvah and Vesta Whitcomb Walker. From a young age, they encouraged Mary to think for herself and allowed her to ditch the corsets and skirts expected of women in favor of “bloomers” (a dress combined with short pants), which would later lead her into the dress reform movement, which advocated for more reasonable and comfortable clothes for women.
Her parents believed that both boys and girls should be educated equally, so they started the first free school in Oswego, New York, to ensure their five daughters would learn the same things as their son. After that, Mary and two of her older sisters went to Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. Mary never did stop wearing men’s clothes, as she felt they were more comfortable and hygienic.
Although Mary studied teaching, her real ambition was to become a doctor, something few women at the time dared contemplate, much less attempt. For her, teaching was a way to earn money for medical school. She attended Syracuse Medical College and received her medical degree in 1855—she was the second woman to graduate from the college, after Elizabeth Blackwell, whom we profiled in February.
Not long after graduation, Mary married fellow medical school student Albert Miller in a ceremony just as unconventional as fellow suffragist Lucy Stone’s. She refused to include “obey” in her wedding vows, kept her maiden name, and wore a short skirt and trousers instead of a traditional wedding dress. Husband and wife started their own medical practice in Rome, New York. Unfortunately, it was a complete failure because people did not trust a female doctor. The couple later divorced.
Her gender worked against her during the Civil War as well, when she was denied a post as a medical officer because she was a woman. Undeterred, Mary decided to volunteer as a surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office Hospital in Washington, but she was only allowed to be a nurse, not a surgeon. During her time there, she wore only trousers and shirts because they made her work easier. She also organized the Women’s Relief Organization to help families of the wounded.
In 1862, Mary moved to Virginia and started treating wounded soldiers near the front lines. She also wrote to the War Department in September of that year requesting to become a spy, but she was rejected. However, in 1863 her request to practice as a surgeon was finally accepted. She became the first female U.S. Army surgeon as a “Contract Acting Assistant Surgeon (civilian)” in Ohio.
Because she cared for all, Mary often crossed over Union and Confederate lines. In an ironic twist of fate, she was arrested in April 1864 by Confederate soldiers as a spy, the very occupation denied to her by the government. For the next four months, she was held as a prisoner of war in the notoriously brutal Castle Thunder outside of Richmond, Virginia, all the while refusing to wear the dresses provided to her. Later, when she was arrested in New Orleans for being dressed like a man, she famously said, “I don’t wear men’s clothes, I wear my own clothes.” She was eventually released as part of a prisoner exchange.
After the Civil War, Mary was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service by President Andrew Johnson for her time as a P.O.W, the result of which was partial muscular atrophy that qualified her for disability. She became a suffragist and even attempted to register to vote in 1871 under the popular suffragist philosophy that the Fourteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote but was turned away. Inspired by other women in politics like Victoria Woodhull, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Belva Lockwood, she ran for the U.S. Senate in 1881 and for Congress in 1890, both of which she lost.
In 1916, Mary’s Medal of Honor was revoked after the government decided she wasn’t really eligible, but she continued to wear it until her death in 1919 at the age of 86. She was buried wearing a black suit, still refusing in death to wear a dress. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter legally restored Mary’s Medal of Honor.
Mary told the world what she wished to be remembered for in 1897: “I am the original new woman…Before Lucy Stone, Mrs. [Amelia] Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were, I am. In the early ’40’s, when they began their work in dress reform, I was already wearing pants…I have made it possible for the bicycle girl to wear the abbreviated skirt, and I have prepared the way for the girl in knickerbockers.”
Although American women couldn’t join the military on a permanent basis until 1948, they had been enlisting since Loretta Walsh became the first woman allowed to serve in any branch of the military in 1917. This month, we’re introducing you to Annie G. Fox, an Army nurse who was the first woman to receive the Purple Heart.
Annie Gayton Fox was born on Aug. 4, 1893, in East Pubnico, Nova Scotia, in Canada to Annie and Charles Fox, a doctor. Nothing is known of her life before 1918, when she enlisted to serve in the Army Nurse Corps in World War I or why she chose to do so. After her tour ended on July 14, 1920, she was based in New York, then Fort Sam Houston in Texas, and Fort Mason in San Diego. Annie was then transferred to the Philippines where she served at Camp John Hay in Benguet and then in Manilla.
In 1940, she returned to the United States, where she was stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii. There, she passed her exam to become Chief Nurse, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and was transferred to Hickam Air Field Station Hospital, a small 30-bed hospital with six nurses.
Less than a month later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Victims were sent to hospitals all over the island, including Hickam, where Annie was in charge. The noise of torpedoes, bombs, machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns was deafening and bombs fell all around the hospital, one leaving a 30-foot crater 20 feet from the hospital and another exploded across the street. Hospital staff, wearing gas masks and helmets, reported trying to save the wounded while enemy aircraft flew so close overhead that they could see the pilots conversing.
Annie not only cared for the wounded and assisted in surgery during the attack, but also organized civilian volunteers to provide assistance and make bandages. For her “outstanding performance of duty and meritorious acts of extraordinary fidelity” during this ordeal she was awarded the Purple Heart on Oct. 26, 1942, becoming the first woman to receive it. (At this time, recipients were not required to have been seriously wounded to receive this honor.)
The citation describes what Annie experienced and how she reacted:
“During the attack, Lieutenant Fox, in an exemplary manner, performed her duties as head Nurse of the Station Hospital… in addition she administered anesthesia to patients during the heaviest part of the bombardment, assisted in dressing the wounded, taught civilian volunteer nurses to make dressings, and worked ceaselessly with coolness and efficiency, and her fine example of calmness, courage and leadership was of great benefit to the morale of all with whom she came in contact….”
Two years later, the military added the stipulation that recipients of the Purple Heart had to sustain wounds during enemy action. As a result, on Oct. 6, 1944, Annie, now a Captain, was given a Bronze Star in lieu of her Purple Heart. The Bronze Star Medal is “awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone.”
After the war, Annie continued her military career in San Francisco, and then as Assistant to the Principal Chief Nurse at Camp Phillips, Kansas, where she was promoted to Major. She retired from active duty on Dec. 15, 1945, two years before President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into law, allowing women to serve as full members of all branches of the Armed Forces.
Annie eventually moved to San Diego to be with two of her sisters. She never married. She died January 20, 1987, in San Francisco, at the age of 93.
In March 2017, Hawaii Magazine ranked her among a list of the most influential women in Hawaiian history.
September is the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Women in Medicine Month, which celebrates the accomplishments of, and showcases advocacy for, female physicians, while also highlighting health issues impacting female patients.
Did you know that the AMA, which was founded in 1874, didn’t have its first female president until 1998? It didn’t even have any female leaders until 1969, when Louise C. Gloeckner became vice president. That’s nearly 100 years after today’s subject, Sarah Hackett Stevenson, became the first woman to join the AMA.
Sarah was born in the small town of Buffalo Grove, (now Polo), in northwestern Illinois, which her father helped found. As a young woman, she attended Mount Carroll Seminary and State Normal College, in Bloomington, Illinois, and graduated with honors as a teacher. After several years of teaching and serving as a principal in public schools in Bloomington, Mount Morris and Sterling, Illinois, she moved to Chicago to study anatomy and physiology at Woman’s Hospital Medical College as one of its earliest students.
During her course of study, Sarah spent a year in England at South Kensington Science School in London learning from famed biologists Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley. After returning to America, she graduated from the medical college with the highest honors in 1874, becoming one of Illinois’ first female physicians. She went back to Europe to continue her studies under Huxley and Darwin at hospitals in London and Dublin. During this time, she was appointed by Illinois Governor John Beveridg as a delegate to the International Sanitary Conference in Vienna, which was the fourth of 14 conferences organized to standardize international quarantine regulations against the spread of cholera, plague and yellow fever.
Back once again in the United States, Sarah began her medical career as physiology chair at the Woman’s Hospital Medical College in Chicago, a role she held for five years. In 1875 she was elected as a member of the Illinois State Medical Society and appointed head of the Illinois State Medical Society’s committee on progress in physiology. The following year, she was named an alternate delegate to the AMA convention in Philadelphia, becoming a full delegate and the organization’s first female member when the original male delegate was unable to attend. She appears to have met with surprisingly little resistance and even boldly listed her full name on the official delegate roster instead of using first and middle initials like many of her male colleagues.
She served as a delegate again three more times and in 1878, was chair of an AMA special committee for advancing physical sciences. In 1879, she presented a paper on the sympathetic nervous system. Sarah was also the first woman appointed on the State Board of Health and the first woman to be on staff at the Cook County Hospital. She wrote several books, including the well-known The Physiology of Woman.
Sometime in 1880, Sarah resigned from her position at Woman’s Medical College because she believed that men and women should be taught together, rather than segregated by gender. She wrote, “I hope that men and women will be educated in one institution–educated as physicians without any regard to the sex question at all. It seems to me, if we be physicians, that the first necessity is equality of opportunity, and that is all the woman physician asks.”
Advocacy for Women
Sarah was also actively involved in the temperance movement, serving as the first superintendent of the Department of Hygiene of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1881-1882. In 1886, the Chicago WCTU organized the National Temperance Hospital (later renamed the Frances Willard Hospital) with the express purpose of providing care without using medicines containing alcohol, and Sarah served as staff president.
Sarah was also a passionate advocate for women’s rights. Her writings on the plight of women in late 19th century Chicago are available online. But she didn’t only write about injustice; she acted to end it. In 1880 she co-founded the Illinois Training School for Nurses, along with Lucy Flower. In 1893, Sarah proposed to the Chicago Woman’s Club to create a safe home for women and children who did not have money but needed shelter. Her proposal was accepted and funded by donations as the Woman’s Model Lodging House. Those who could pay were charged 15 cents/night, but women who could not worked instead. She also spoke in support of admission of a black member to the Chicago Woman’s Club, of which she was president.
Sarah retired in 1903 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage that left her paralyzed and bedridden. She died in 1909 at the age of 68.
With the release of Consequences and the Historical Novel Society Conference, June almost got away from me without our monthly column on women in history. But luckily I was working on next month’s and realized it.
This month we’re looking at a woman whom I remember from my childhood. (Can you believe 35 years ago is the definition of historical in the publishing industry? I feel so old!)
Did you know that the United States Mint is honoring 20 women on U.S. quarters over the next few years? One of the first two is Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who earned this designation on June 18, 1983, (the other is poet Mya Angelou).
Sally Kristen Ride was born May 26, 1951, in Los Angeles. As a young woman, she was interested in science, but put that on the back-burner to focus on her tennis career. Despite being a nationally-ranked player, Sally eventually returned to science, studying physics and English at Stanford, where she earned her bachelors in 1973, masters in 1975 and her doctorate in 1978. She specialized in astrophysics and free electron lasers.
After she graduated, Sally was one of only 35 people (and six women) selected out of 8,000 applications to participate in NASA Astronaut Group 8, the first NASA selection in more than a decade. It was the first group to include women and people of color.
She trained for a year and then became a ground-based capsule communicator (CapCom) for NASA’s second and third space shuttle flights and helped develop the Space Shuttle’s “Canadarm” robot arm.
On June 18, 1983, at 32, she became the youngest woman ever in space and only the third ever (behind USSR cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982). She is also the first known LGBTQIA+ astronaut. Before her first flight, the media expressed reservations about women in space, asking her questions about her emotional capability to withstand the journey and if she worried about how space would affect her ability to have children. Sally ignored them all and said she didn’t think of herself as a female astronaut, but simply as an astronaut.
On her first flight, Sally’s job was to work the robotic arm that helped place satellites in space for Canada and Indonesia. This was the first successful deployment and retrieval in space. On her second space flight in October 1984, she used the shuttle’s robotic arm to remove ice from the shuttle’s exterior and to readjust a radar antenna. Sally was assigned to a third shuttle mission, but her crew’s training was cut short by the Challenger disaster in January 1986.
Sally left NASA in 1987. She worked for two years at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, then at the University of California, San Diego, researching nonlinear optics and Thomson scattering.
During this time, she started looking for ways to help women and girls who wanted to study science and mathematics. She came up with the idea for NASA’s EarthKAM project, which lets middle school students take pictures of Earth using a camera on the International Space Station. Students then study the pictures. She also wrote or co-wrote seven books on space for children to encourage them to study science.
Sally served on the committees that investigated the Challenger and Columbia Space Shuttle disasters, the only person to participate in both. Sally provided key information about how O-rings get stiff at low temperatures, which led to them being identified as the cause of the Challenger explosion.
In 2003, Sally was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame. Sally died on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61 after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. She was honored with many awards after her death, including being featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
This is the May column on women in history that I write for the women’s group at my day job. You’ll be hearing more about Sojourner from me in the future.
May is a month full of women’s firsts in sports, women’s suffrage, politics, finance and flight. But we’re going to focus on a woman whose name we all know, but whose story is often reduced to a handful of incidents. Read on to learn about outspoken advocate Sojourner Truth.
Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Bomfree (also spelled Baumfree, the name of her master’s family) into slavery in Ulster County, New York, in 1797. She was sold at the age of nine to an abusive master. By the age of 13, she had been sold several more times, finally to John and Elizabeth Dumont. When she was in her late teens, Isabella fell in love with another slave from a nearby farm named Robert, but they were not allowed to marry because they had two different masters. Instead, she was forced to marry a slave named Thomas who was also owned by Dumont. Together, they had five children between 1815-1827.
Dumont had promised to grant Isabella her freedom on July 4, 1826, “if she would do well and be faithful,” but when the time came, he went back on his word. In 1827, she fled the plantation and sought refuge for herself and her infant daughter, Sophia, with an abolitionist family in another town, the Van Wageners. (Her other children were still owned by Dumont.) Dumont tracked her down and when he attempted to take mother and child back, the Van Wageners bought her freedom for $20 (about $530 today). When the New York Anti-Slavery law was passed later that year, they helped Isabella sue Dumont for the return of her five-year-old-son Peter, who was illegally sold into slavery in Alabama. She was the first black woman to sue a white man in a United States court and prevail.
While living with the Van Wageners, Isabella converted to Christianity. She moved to New York City in 1828 to work as a housekeeper for a series of preachers. In 1843, she felt compelled to follow in their path and “preach the truth,” so she took the name we know her by, Sojourner Truth.
Over the next decade, Sojourner became an outspoken abolitionist, working with famous advocates such as William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She never learned to read or write, so she dictated her speeches to Olive Gilbert, who would later become her first biographer.
Sojourner gave her most famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?” on May 29, 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. In it, she recounted the discrimination she experienced as a Black woman. My favorite quote from it is, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it. The men better let them.”
In the 1850’s, Sojourner moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where three of her daughters lived. She continued speaking nationally and helped slaves escape to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
When the Civil War started, Sojourner recruited Black men into the Union army and worked in Washington D.C. with the National Freedman’s Relief Association, gathering food, clothes and supplies for black refugees. While she was in Washington, she purposefully rode white-only streetcars as a form of protest against segregation. When a streetcar conductor tried to physically block her from getting into his car and became violent, she got him arrested and he was punished—a rarity in those days. In 1864, she was invited to the White House to meet President Abraham Lincoln.
After the war, Sojourner became involved with the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping freed slaves find jobs and build new lives. She also continued to work for women’s rights and temperance from her home in Michigan as she slowly grew nearly blind and deaf with age. Sojourner died on Nov. 26, 1883. Though her tombstone says she was 105, other records put her age at 86.
March is National Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Equality Day. Despite representing 50.8% of people in the United States and coming a long way since our nation’s founding, women are still considered a minority group. That is because, like people of color of both sexes, they have fewer rights compared to white men. In fact, 85% of the constitutions in the world now contain wording that protects the equal rights of women. However, despite being one of the oldest in the world, the U.S. Constitution does not. The U.S. is one of only 28 U.N. member nations that doesn’t guarantee equal rights between men and women in its laws. Overall, we are 53rd out of 153 countries that the World Economic Forum studies regarding gender equality.
This is one of many reasons why we celebrate women’s history in March. I decided to write about how women’s power evolved in the United States for this blog. There was so much fascinating information that it turned into a three-part series.
Part 1 will focus on how women gained power within marriage.
Part 2 will cover women in the workplace.
Part 3 will show how women went from not even being considered citizens to holding the second highest office in the land.
Women Under Coverture
No discussion of women’s rights* in the United States can begin without an explanation of coverture. In 1769, the American colonies formally accepted the English system of law called coverture, which had prior to that time been in place informally but not committed to paper. Under this system, women were “covered” under the law by a man from their first moment of existence. At birth, a woman’s rights were subsumed by her father. Upon marriage, they passed into her husband’s hands, so that during her entire life—unless she became a widow—she had essentially the same rights as a child, a slave, or a person declared mentally unfit.
The actual language of the law stated, “by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage.” Therefore, women did not legally exist. This made women highly dependent on the men in their lives for everything, especially as it related to money and the law. They couldn’t vote, enter into contracts, or be sued. As historian Catherine Allgor explains, “They could not own or work in business. Married women could not own land or any other property, not even the clothes on their backs, and upon the death of her husband, a woman’s legal agency would transfer to her nearest male relative…. [A husband] owned her labor and could even lease her to work for someone else, taking her wages. He had absolute ownership of his wife’s children. If he chose, he could take custody of children after a divorce and could refuse to allow his former wife to ever see them again; and he could seize her property from other heirs upon her death… And of course, a husband could legally beat his wife, or ask that she be remanded to prison or an asylum…When it came to their rights as specifically women and wives, legally the only difference between a slave and a married woman was that a husband could not sell his wife…and even these distinctions were sometimes shaky.”
In the American colonies, ending a marriage was even more difficult than being in one. While some marriages were “dissolved,” divorce as it is defined today was rare until the late 19th century. For women in the southern colonies, divorce was not an option because they followed English law. However, women in the northern colonies had it little better; they could only divorce their husbands if they could prove adultery, desertion or bigamy.
These restrictions eased somewhat after the Revolutionary War, partly because people began to think that if colonies could leave their king, why couldn’t a husband leave his wife? However, proof of cause still had to be provided, i.e. that one spouse had committed the crimes listed above, or were physically cruel, had threatened their life, did not provide economically or refused their marital duty in the bedroom.
Laws Begin to Change
The first American law that permitted a woman any control over her own property was passed in Connecticut in 1808. It allowed a woman to leave a will and have her bequests honored. But that was power only after death. Similarly, widows had the right of “dower,” which is the right to property they brought into the marriage, as well as to one-third of their husbands’ estate. But again, this power only came after his death.
From 1821-1931, a series of marriage reform laws began to chip away at the stranglehold coverture had over women’s lives. For most of the 19th century, states passed a series of marriage reform laws aimed at granting women greater property rights, but they varied widely by state. The first state to act, in 1839, was Mississippi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names with the caveat that they had to have permission from their husbands.
In 1849, New York issued one of the most sweeping changes to marriage law under the Married Women’s Property Act, which granted a married woman separate control over any rent or profit earned from property she held at the time of her marriage and protected it from her husband’s creditors. In addition, if a married woman was given property during her marriage through a grant or bequest, such as inheriting from her father, it was under her control, not that of her current or future husband. New York expanded women’s rights in 1860 with a reform statute stating “the earnings of any married woman, from her trade, business, labor or services, shall be her sole and separate property.” For the first time, women had full control over the money they earned.
During this period, divorce became increasingly common, though adultery or cruelty still were really the only grounds. This was due in part, at least to the increasing economic independence changes in marriage law gave to women. Divorce was expensive, so previously only the higher classes could afford to bring suit, which many did not out of fear for their reputation and social standing. But now some women’s rights advocates—including Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president of the United States in 1872—began to advance the belief that the law and religion should have nothing to do with marriage or divorce. Woodhull famously proclaimed that she believed a marriage occurred when two people fell in love and dissolved when they were no longer in love.
In 1871, cruelty, one of the most common reasons for divorce, became illegal for the very first time when Alabama became the first state to outlaw the beating of one’s wife. Previously, according to lore, a husband was only allowed to whip his wife with a switch no bigger than his thumb (which is where we get the phrase “rule of thumb”). Other states attempted to follow, with mixed results. Maryland made wife-beating illegal in 1882, but it wasn’t until 1920 that it was formally illegal in all states, and not until 1970 that domestic violence was treated as a serious crime under the judicial system.
20th Century Progress
By the year 1900, every state had passed legislation granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name. The fight for the next three decades (1907-1931) was to allow women to marry foreign men (especially Asian men) without losing their own citizenship, which began with the Expatriation Act (also known as the Married Women’s Citizenship Act) of 1907. The Cable Act of 1922 (also called the Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act), partially reversed this ruling, stating “the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman;” however, a wife’s nationality was still dependent upon her husband’s status. This law was amended four times and repealed before the Nationality Act of 1940 allowed women to marry men of any nationality without loss of citizenship and restored the status of all affected by previous laws.
In 1967, interracial marriage (meaning Black and White) was legalized in the Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia, but is still not accepted in some places today. Two years later, California adopted the nation’s first “no fault” divorce law, allowing divorce by mutual consent. By 1975, no-fault divorce was common in all states.
But the ability to own property, keep one’s wages and marry and divorce at will is just the beginning of how modern women gained the rights we have today. In the next edition, we’ll look at women in the workplace and how we went from being regarded as the “angel of the house” in Victorian times to working women, wives and mothers today.
Please keep in mind that women’s history is very complex, so these articles can only scratch the surface. In addition, these articles are written in general terms. In reality, women of the upper classes experienced the world very differently from those of the lower and each race of women has their own history and their own struggles that continue to this day.
Allgor. Catherine. “Remember…I’m Your Man”: Masculinity, Marriage, and Gender in Hamilton.” Historians on Hamilton. Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter, eds. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rugters University Press, 2018, 104-106.