In the years between 1820 and 1920, women were as divided as they were united in their pursuit of expanded roles for themselves, with elite white women often pursuing their own rights at the expense of other groups. Many studies of women’s activism focus on nineteenth-century Quaker activists, particularly their participation in benevolent reform and abolitionism, and, to a lesser extent, women whose activist careers came to fruition in the years just before World War I, including those active in the final years of the suffrage movement, peace activism, public health, and professionalization.
The materials here reframe the history of the women’s rights movement as a series of dialogues between and among different groups of women. They help to identify those moments in which different groups of women talked to each other, capturing both the conflicts and the genuine moments of cultural exchange that resulted.
Forced to confront their ideas about race, class, and womanhood, women activists were able to sharpen their agenda and move it forward.
Women’s nineteenth-century activism was born in many ways from the recognition of difference and a desire to work across such differences.
Crusades against poverty, drink, the poor treatment of prison inmates, and prostitution emerged from a genuine reforming spirit, and there is some evidence that women were able to work together across certain differences. Rebecca Gratz, a philanthropist and reformer from a prominent Jewish family, was involved in the predominantly Quaker Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. Yet, these efforts were also highly coercive. Relief efforts distinguished the “worthy” from the “unworthy” poor, establishing a pattern that lasted well into the twentieth century. Often this meant widows—not single or divorced women—but only “real” widows, in the words of one group. Many groups either would not help African American women or relied on a more stringent rubric for determining their “worthiness.” Poverty and other circumstances, including imprisonment, were usually attributed to individual rather than structural causes. Addressing a group of inmates, Quaker Rebecca Singer Collins insisted to her audience that they were in prison because they were sinners. The experiences of the women to whom these reformers ministered are more difficult to capture; they appear largely as shadows in the extant sources. Women described as uncooperative, stubborn, resistant, or difficult were exercising their agency in one of the few ways they could.
More documentation exists for the abolitionist movement.
Black and white women worked alongside one another in such groups as the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, although not always on equal ground. White abolitionists, for example, did not always extend their concern to the status of free blacks, and they were certainly not always committed to full racial equality. Local abolitionist, scientist, and teacher Graceanna Lewis, for example, relied on phrenology as evidence for the perceived intellectual inferiority of African Americans. Moreover, although an organized woman suffrage movement depended for its existence on abolitionism, white suffragists showed themselves willing to abandon their black counterparts when it became politically expedient to do so. From arguing that white women could serve as a counterweight to the votes of “uncivilized” black men to insisting to southern politicians that enfranchising women would do nothing to upset the race question, the woman suffrage movement was wrought with racial conflict throughout its existence. Luckily, evidence exists to document multiple examples of African American women speaking out against this treatment.
During the Progressive era, conflict emerged between groups of women over such issues as childrearing, foodways, housekeeping, entertainment, and more.
Middle-class reformers were particularly critical of immigrant mothers for their reliance on midwifery, the ways they kept house, and even the food they fed their children. Garlicky and spicy foods—precisely the kinds that recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe cooked—were singled out as dangerous and unhealthy for children. While rehearsing a play at Hull-House in Chicago, native-born residents, who had studied Greek drama in college, argued with their Greek immigrant neighbors about whose interpretation of Greek drama was more authentic. At the same time, an older group of women was intent on “saving” a younger generation of wage-earning women. Reformers with various Young Women’s Christian Association branches, for example, were convinced that the young “women adrift” whom they hoped to serve would fall to vice (prostitution) were it not for the healthy moral influence of the YWCA and other such institutions. Working women, however, refused to accept this view of themselves, proudly asserting an alternate identity as independent, modern women. Eventually, at least some reformers came to share this view of working women.
In the same era, professionalization raised the entry bar to many fields, making it more difficult for women to stake a claim to such fields as law and medicine.
Faced with fierce opposition, medical women often relied on conservative gender discourse to justify their places as doctors, nurses, and medical students. Beyond emphasizing women’s nurturing capabilities, these discourses were often fraught with assumptions about race and nation—educated women were to serve as a symbol of white, Christian America to the rest of the world, particularly in missionary work; other nations were often singled out as “backwards” because of their gender practices. Domestically, white medical women associated African Americans with poverty and disease. Black women, however, also claimed the mantle of professionalism and respectability, consciously presenting themselves in ways that challenged such racist assumptions.
When a woman in the nineteenth or early-twentieth century worked “in her own right,” “her” did not always refer to all women. While one could argue that using the singular “woman” in so many organizations was a mere linguistic quirk—the National American Woman Suffrage Association, for example—it also represented a very real avoidance of diversity. Nonetheless, as different groups of women pursued their activism, they inevitably bumped up against other groups with different needs and desires. The conversations that arose from these interactions were fundamental in determining the shape and structure of the women’s rights movement.