An extraordinary new series intended to capture extraordinary moments in history.
TURNING POINTS features preeminent writers offering fresh, personal perspectives on the defining events of our time.
Eleanor Clift, Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment
Alan Dershowitz, America Declares Independence
Thomas Fleming, The Louisiana Purchase
William Least Heat-Moon, Columbus in the Americas
Scott Simon, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball
Douglas Brinkley on the March on Washington
William F. Buckley Jr. on the Fall of the Berlin Wall
Sir Martin Gilbert on D-Day
Martin Goldsmith on the Beatles Coming to America
Kweisi Mfume on the Emancipation Proclamation
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment
By Eleanor Clift
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
Stirrings of Discontent
Early grumblings among women over their second-class
status surfaced during colonial times when Abigail Adams
implored her husband and future president John Adams to
"remember the ladies and be more favorable to them than
your ancestors." Adams was meeting with the Continental
Congress in Philadelphia when Abigail wrote him in
March 1776 from their farm near Boston to urge that any
new code of laws drafted along with the Declaration of
Independence put women on a more equal footing. "Do
not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands,"
she pleaded. "Remember all men would be tyrants
if they could. If particular care and attention are not paid
to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and
will not hold ourselves bound to obey any laws in which
we have no voice or representation. That your sex are naturally
tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to
admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy
willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender
and endearing one of friend."
Though Adams recognized that his wife's superior business
sense allowed him the luxuryof a life in politics, he
didn't take seriously the yearnings she expressed. He was
bemused by her letter, and presumed that somebody must
have planted these strange thoughts in her head. He
didn't even try to humor her. "Depend on it," he wrote
back. "We know better than to repeal our masculine systems."
There was no women's movement during the Revolutionary
period to apply pressure on the Founding
Fathers. Maybe we can credit pillow talk for the gender-neutral
language in the Declaration of Independence. The
promise of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and
a government that derives power from "the consent of the
governed" did not exclude women. To the contrary, it
established democratic principles upon which the suffrage
movement was based.
The early suffragists were abolitionists, and the drive to
end slavery became linked in the public mind with agitation
for women's civil rights. Women abolitionists crossed the
ocean to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in June
1840. Among the delegates was twenty-five-year-old Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, who was attending with her journalist
husband, Henry. They had just gotten married the previous
month and were on their honeymoon. Filled with the idealism
of youth and brimming with ideas, Elizabeth Stanton
expected to fully participate in this intellectual assemblage
of world leaders. She wrote later how chagrined she was to
discover that American clergymen, who had landed a few
days earlier, had been "busily engaged in fanning the English
prejudice into active hostility against the admission of
these women into the Convention." The women argued
that a country governed by Queen Victoria surely wouldn't
exclude them; their opponents pointed out with equal certitude
that the queen had sent a man, Prince Albert, to
convey her antislavery views instead of appearing herself. A
vote on whether to seat the female delegates lost by a decisive
margin, and the women were relegated to an area
behind a curtain, where they could hear what was going on
but would not be visible.
Stanton was outraged by the treatment. She had been
rebelling against the boundaries imposed on her gender
since she was a child. One of eleven children, she had seen
several of her siblings die before reaching adulthood, not
an uncommon experience in the days before vaccines and
antibiotics. Four of her five brothers died when they were
children, and the fifth passed away when he was twenty
years old. Her father was overcome with grief, and the
young Elizabeth would climb into his lap in an effort to
comfort him. What he said would shape her life, and her
life's work. "Oh my darling, I wish you were a boy." She
tried hard to fill the void in his life, promising, "I will try
to be all the boy my brother was." There was no endeavor
that was off-limits in her mind because of her gender. She
learned to ride a horse and jump high fences as adeptly as
any boy. She won a Latin competition and became so
skilled at oratory that her father worried she was getting
too good at tasks meant for men, a stigma that could make
her less appealing as a wife.
Stanton worked for fifty years to see that women could
vote, and she died before it happened. What sustained her
that day in 1840 as she sat behind the curtain was a vision
of what was possible, if women would only demand their
fair share. Stanton didn't worry about social conventions.
She had persuaded her husband to omit the traditional
bride's vow of obedience from their wedding ceremony.
Sitting cordoned off like some alien species made her
angry, and as women tend to do, Stanton found a soul-mate.
Before long, she and Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia,
who was a generation older and a battle-hardened veteran
of the abolitionist wars, abandoned the convention and
spent much of their time haranguing the male delegates
staying at their hotel for their undemocratic behavior. The
two women vowed to convene a woman's rights convention
once they returned home to America.
Eight years passed before the promise they made to
each other on a long walk in one of London's parks would
become a reality. Life got in the way. Stanton had given
birth to the first three of her seven children, while her husband
studied law with her father, who was a judge in
Johnstown, New York. After Henry Stanton passed the
bar, the family moved to Boston, where Elizabeth thrived
in the cosmopolitan atmosphere. Henry longed for a less
competitive environment, and in 1847 the couple moved
to Seneca Falls, New York, a sleepy upstate community
where he could establish a law practice of his own without
fear of competition. Elizabeth missed her activist Boston
friends, and was miserable in Seneca Falls.
In one of those fateful moments of history, who should
materialize at the same time in this out-of-the-way western
New York town than Lucretia Mott. Her youngest sister
lived in the area and was pregnant with her seventh child.
Mott had come to visit, pleased that despite the numerous
pregnancies, her sister clung to unconventional ideas,
teaching her sons needlework, and bragging that one had
knit a bag for his marbles. At an afternoon tea at the home
of a mutual acquaintance, Stanton and Mott renewed their
friendship and revived their call for a woman's convention.
Egged on by the other women there, all Quaker activists
like Mott, they took action that very afternoon in 1848,
composing the notice that would appear a few days later in
the Seneca County Courier and launch the long campaign
to win woman suffrage:
WOMAN'S RIGHTS CONVENTION-A Convention
to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition
and rights of women, will be held in the Wesleyan
Chapel, at Seneca Falls, New York, on Wednesday
and Thursday, the nineteenth and 20th of July, current;
commencing at 10 o'clock A.M. During the first
day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who
are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally
are invited to be present on the second day, when
Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, and other ladies and
gentlemen, will address the convention.
The Sunday morning before the convention, the
women gathered in the parlor of one of the local Quaker
women activists to draft the program. First they pored over
papers from the numerous meetings they had attended
having to do with ending slavery, banning alcohol, and
promoting peace. None seemed right for the far-reaching
changes they sought in the status of women. They decided
to think really big, so they took as their model the Declaration
of Independence, which had been written seventy-two
years earlier, in 1776. Little did they know it would be
another seventy-two years before their Declaration of Sentiments
would be fulfilled, or they might not have been so
giddy with enthusiasm as they struck the words "the present
King of Great Britain" as the purveyor of tyranny and
substituted "all men."
Some three hundred people showed up at the Wesleyan
Chapel on the morning of July 19, quite a large number
considering it was a weekday, when people had chores to
tend to, and Seneca Falls's population was only eight thousand.
The organizers had a last-minute moment of panic
when they discovered the doors locked and they were
without a key. One of Stanton's nephews had to be
boosted through a window to unlock the chapel. So many
women had gotten their husbands to hitch up the horses
to bring them to town that an unexpectedly large number
of men were present. The leaders decided on the spot to
let the men attend the first day's proceedings, overruling
their own newspaper ad and establishing the important
precedent that attitude and outlook, not gender, determine
who is a feminist.
Women were unaccustomed in 1848 to any kind of
public role. There was a taboo against public speaking by
women, and there were no women's organizations of
any consequence yet where women could learn the skills
of running a meeting according to parliamentary rules.
Overwhelmed by the large crowd they had attracted,
Stanton and the others hastily retreated to the altar in the
church, where they held a quick meeting and decided that
they would let the experienced men who were there take
the lead role. Lucretia Mott's husband, James, presided,
dressed in Quaker costume and looking quite dignified.
Various women leaders read speeches, but the star of the
convention was Frederick Douglass, ten years out of slavery
and an imposing figure both physically and intellectually.
Douglass stood well over six feet tall at a time when
the average man was considerably shorter. He was a formidable
lecturer, capable of holding the attention of thousands
of people for up to two hours at a time, a far more
taxing task on the vocal chords in the days before microphones.
He could command $100 for a lecture, a huge
sum at the time. The speaking fees he earned eventually
made him a rich man, and he delighted in displaying crystal
and fine china in his home.
Douglass provided a charismatic presence at Seneca Falls
that helped offset the ridicule aimed at the women who
attended "The Hen Convention," as it was popularly
dubbed. One newspaper writer described the women as
"divorced wives, childless women, and some old maids."
The widely held view that women agitating for rights were
life's losers served as a powerful deterrent against women
openly declaring themselves in favor of women's rights. If
a woman's role was solely to bear and nurture children,
then these women were society's misfits. The women
themselves were divided over how far they legitimately
could go without being totally dismissed as wackos, and
couldn't agree on whether to include a demand for the
ballot on their list of grievances. Stanton favored it; Mott
opposed, fearing that suffrage was so wild an idea that it
would undermine any credibility the fledgling women's
movement had. Stanton's husband, a radical reformer in
his own right, told her that if she supported a woman's
right to vote, he would be so embarrassed that he would
have to leave town. She did, and he did, but only for the
duration of the convention.
Douglass sided with Stanton, making the case that the
right to participate in government is a fundamental principle
of equality, from which all other rights would flow. The
Stanton-Douglass position carried by a small majority. But
when the final document was voted on after two days of
debate, the resolution calling for the right to vote was the
only one of a dozen resolutions that did not pass unanimously.
For those with a looking glass into the future, that
signaled the difficulty ahead when women activists and
their male sympathizers could not fully agree that the ballot
was necessary. For the ordinary rank and file of women,
it would be decades before even a majority of them would
With much work left undone and their enthusiasms
unleashed, Stanton and the others arranged for a follow-up
meeting in two weeks in Rochester, New York. They
placed a notice in the daily newspapers, and once again so
many women showed up that the Unitarian church where
the meeting was held was filled to overflowing. This time
the women did not shrink from their role as leaders.
Though James Mott was there and volunteered to preside,
the women ran the meeting. Some had never spoken in
public before and had difficulty summoning the vocal
power needed to be heard by everyone in the church.
There were repeated cries of "Louder! Louder!" but the
women didn't back down. It was an exercise in survival of
the fittest until a handful of women emerged with the ability
to project themselves well enough to be heard. Perhaps
because the setting was a church, much of the discussion
centered on the biblical interpretation of a woman's place.
Stanton pointed out that nowhere in the Bible does it dictate
a woman should take her husband's name.
Spurred on by the large turnout, the women grew bolder
and more concrete in their actions. The first resolution they
adopted called for the vote; another commended Elizabeth
Blackwell, the first woman admitted to a traditional medical
school. In contrast to the lofty calls for equality issued at
Seneca Falls, the Rochester convention focused on bread-and-butter
issues: the inheritance rights of widows, property
ownership, and the right of women to keep the money they
earned. Women had almost no status in the eyes of the law.
Granting a husband the legal right to his wife's earnings
reduces her "almost to the condition of a slave," the conventioneers
declared, a statement meant to solidify the
bonds between women's aspirations and the growing abolitionist
movement in America. Douglass was there to lend his
considerable moral stature to the fight.
Susan B. Anthony, a stern and stubborn schoolteacher, read
news reports about the conventions. She did not attend
either of them, and had no intention of becoming an
activist. She backed the call for better education and more
equal economic opportunity, but she balked at the demand
for the ballot. She was a Quaker and a pacifist and believed it
was wrong to cast a vote for any government that would go
to war. Her father did not vote until 1860, when he was
confronted with conflicting moral priorities. Because he was
convinced that war was the only way to rid the country of
slavery, he voted for Abraham Lincoln. Born on February
15, 1820, Susan B. Anthony displayed an independent
streak from an early age. When a teacher in elementary
school told her long division was only for boys ("A girl
needs to know how to read her Bible and count her egg
money, nothing more"), Anthony worked out a compromise
that allowed her to sit behind the teacher and take notes. In
an era when few women worked outside the home, Anthony
had taken a teaching job to help support her family.
Excerpted from Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment
by Eleanor Clift
Copyright © 2003 by Eleanor Clift .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments.
Stirrings of Discontent.
"Aint't I A Woman".
Testing the Limits.
Passing the Torch.
Division in the Ranks.
Martyr for the Cause.
Out of Bondage.
A Vote for Mother.
What People are Saying About This
"In this important electoral year, how women use their vote will be crucial both to the election and to securing the advances women have made, Eleanor Clift has given us a timely history of how hard fought these gains were, and how essential it is for women to again show ourselves as a force in our democracy."--Marie Wilson, President, The Ms. Foundation for Women. President, The White House Project