Sally G. McMillen is the Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor of History and Department chair at Davidson College. Her newest book, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement illuminates a major turning point in American women’s history, a convention and its aftermath, which launched the women’s rights movement. In the article below McMillen inhabits the minds of her heroines and predicts what advice they would have had for Hillary Clinton.
Having recently completed Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement, I decided to imagine what advice my book’s four nineteenth-century heroines—Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony—if alive today, would offer Hillary Clinton and her campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Having absorbed myself in these women’s lives and ideas through their letters, public writings, and diaries or memoirs, this seemed like an inviting exercise.
All four women, who spent most of their adult lives working tirelessly to win women the right to vote, would be thrilled that at last a woman is a serious candidate for president. They would be excited to learn that Clinton has experienced many of the opportunities that they never enjoyed—attending college and law school, pursuing a lucrative career, serving in the U.S. Senate, and wearing pants but no corset. They would be relieved that confining women to a separate domestic sphere is no longer the norm. The large number of women who support Clinton’s candidacy would delight them as well, since my four activists early on faced hoards of female contemporaries who were either indifferent or opposed to winning the vote for women.
I think they would dismayed, though perhaps not surprised, that a woman’s candidacy has been so long in coming. None of my women was alive to witness the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which took seventy-two years after they began their struggle at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York. It was here that the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments” first asserted that “all men and women are created equal.” Here, they insisted on the right to vote. As they soon discovered, powerful opponents and the strength of the nation’s laws, traditions, and scripture demanding female submission proved to be enormous barriers.
Both Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone would be upset that race has emerged as an issue in this campaign, and they would advise Clinton and her surrogates to avoid even subtle racial swipes at her opponent. In 1869, the question of race caused Stanton and Anthony to part company with Stone in a national debate over passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, giving all men citizenship and forbidding the exclusion of male voters on the basis of race. Stanton and Anthony insisted that educated white women deserved full citizenship and suffrage before black men. Stanton resorted to racist language in publicly denouncing these amendments and expressed dismay that women should “stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.” Anthony demanded that intelligent white women receive the right to vote before foreigners, Mexicans, and blacks. Stone, on the other hand, supported the Fifteenth Amendment, believing (incorrectly as it turned out) that once black men won the right to vote, Congress soon would reward women. Over this issue and growing acrimony on a more personal level, Stanton and Anthony in 1869 founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. A few months later, Stone, her husband Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, thus dividing a formerly united women’s movement. Lucretia Mott deeply regretted this division, longed to return to female activism of the 1850s, and wisely tried to stay above the fray by remaining friends with both sides.
These women ultimately would agree that emphasizing race created problems for their movement. In addition to its fostering division among female activists, several male supporters became disillusioned with Stanton and Anthony. Stanton was denounced for her racist comments, though she alone among the four still would encourage Clinton to say whatever was needed to win the nomination. “I have always been in chronic condition of rebellion,” she wrote late in life. Stanton never shied away from stating her bold opinions, whether promoting free love or defending the questionable company she and Anthony kept. The outrageous George Train’s racist remarks delivered throughout the women’s 1868 Kansas campaign for suffrage did much to blemish Anthony’s and Stanton’s reputations. Their friendship with the scandalous, flamboyant Victoria Woodhull, who took up the cry for women’s suffrage and declared her candidacy for president, was another problematic supporter. In her later years, Anthony would have urged Clinton to exert caution with words, realizing that her friend Stanton sometimes went too far in making a point and defending ill-advised actions. For Anthony, victory was the ultimate goal, even if it meant compromising and, at times, parting company with Stanton.
Two of these independent, strong-minded women also would caution Clinton to take care in involving her husband in the campaign. Anthony, a spinster her entire life, faulted any woman who had to depend on a man. To her, marriage and motherhood impeded women’s commitment to their cause. She exhibited ongoing frustration with Stanton’s bearing and rearing seven children and was upset when Stone bore daughter Alice. Henry Stanton did little to support Elizabeth’s involvement in the movement and often seemed embarrassed by his outspoken wife. After their children were grown, the couple chose to live apart, and Stanton embarked on a decade of public lecturing. “I do in truth think and act for myself,” she commented.
Finally, I think that all four women would urge Clinton not to lose sight of the greater good and a Democratic victory in November. Internal bickering and personal slights and insults did much to keep the two women’s rights associations estranged from one another, sometimes alienating supporters and often each other. Too much of women’s energy was expended in running two separate organizations as they each sought the same goal. Such squabbling deferred their dream to achieve female suffrage. Not until 1890, under a new generation of female activists, did the two groups unite to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association and to work together for thirty more years to win female suffrage. Based on their own experiences, all might warn the Clinton campaign that negative rhetoric could impede the Democrats’ dream of recapturing the White House in 2008.