Today, 26 August, is Women’s Equality Day which commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote. This day reflects the culmination of a movement which had begun in the 1830s when rising middle-class American women, with an increasing educational background, began to critique the oppressive systems of the early 19th century. In honor of this day, we decided to put together some interesting facts about the origins of the women’s rights movement. This list will give you a better understanding of how the movement originated, and what supported its development.
1. The emergence of a women’s rights movement was delayed but not derailed by the conservative ideology of “republican motherhood.” Exponents of republican motherhood believed that the republic’s urgent need for virtuous male citizenry dictated an educational role for mothers, who would exert their influence within the home. Thus, it indirectly expanded female education, and as young women enrolled in academies in the early republic, they participated in public culture, where they learned “to stand and speak” in ways that set the groundwork for later activism.
2. The Second Great Awakening, which changed the teachings, tenor, and institutional structures of Protestant Christianity, helped support the ideological foundation of the women’s rights movement. During this time, women were recast as more spiritual, more pious, and less sexual than men.
3. The rise of the middle class, the employment of domestic servants, and the decrease in family size (1760-1820) played an important role in the women’s rights movement. It freed up the critical time they needed to devote to fighting for rights, instead of doing onerous house work all day.
4. Rising female literacy rates in northern states in the 1830s and 1840s were fundamental to the movement. Literacy provided a means for rebellious individuals to express their thoughts and communicate to others on a wide scale. Abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in his famous essay “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” argued that with the rise of literacy the fight for women’s rights was inevitable.
5. The women’s rights movement found its roots in abolitionism. When abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke faced criticism for speaking out in public (as it was against social customs and church teachings), they saw parallels between the slaves’ situation and their own. In response, the Grimke sisters began to make the argument that both women and men are created equal by God and are entitled to equal rights.
6. Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass supported the women’s rights movement and publicized their cause.
7. The early women’s rights movement was solely confined to northern states, due to its abolitionist origins. At the time, slaveholding southerners mocked the women’s rights movement and claimed it was “a symptom of northern degeneracy.”
8. Some upstate New York farm women actually petitioned for the ballot before the Seneca Falls Convention. Their rhetoric suggests that women’s rights were being talked about before the Seneca Falls convention, which is popularly marked as the start of the women’s rights movement.
9. A wide range of grievances were articulated at the Seneca Falls Convention, though the right to vote was highlighted as the most radical of all demands. In fact, Stanton proposed the right to vote against the advice of others and that carried only with the help of Frederick Douglass’s endorsement who was also in attendance. As Douglass pointed out, the vote was the most fundamental right, the guarantor of all other rights.
10. The women’s rights movement became a women’s suffrage movement, and by 1877, it had made some faltering progress. Women won the right to vote for the first time in two jurisdictions, Wyoming Territory in 1869 and Utah Territory in 1870. However, with the “New Departure” decision of 1875, the Supreme Court rejected women’s fundamental right to vote. It was not until 45 years later with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 that women had finally won their national right to vote.
Featured image credit: “Suffragists Parade Down Fifth Avenue, 1917” by The New York Times. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.