Interview with Angela P. Dodson, author of Remember the Ladies

When did the first rumblings for women’s suffrage begin in America, and who were some of the earliest voices calling for the vote?

Abigail Adams brought up the subject of women’s rights in general, but not voting specifically, when she implored her husband to “remember the ladies” in March 1776, while he was attending the Second Continental Congress. It declared independence from Britain, but the Congress did not ultimately deal with the question of women’s rights. It left all decisions on voting qualifications to the states. New Jersey became the only state to grant women the vote in 1776 and later revoked it. It was not until 1848 that a public demand for woman suffrage was made when Elizabeth Cady Stanton included it in the Declaration of Sentiments at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Even there, it was not unanimously accepted. Lucretia Mott, a famed preacher in the Society of Friends (the Quakers) who was the leading convener, spoke against inclusion of voting rights for women. The measure passed after the abolitionist editor Frederick Douglass made an impassioned speech in support of Stanton.

Throughout the struggle, there were always some women opposed to giving the vote to their own sex. Why? Were their numbers significant?

In all likelihood, an overwhelming majority of women opposed suffrage or had no opinion on it. Most women accepted the status quo or were not in a position to state an opinion. Those who were openly opposed mostly argued that it would be a burden for women to leave their homebound duties to cast ballots and to learn enough about politics to use their votes wisely. They argued that most women did not want the vote, and it would be unfair to make them take on such an obligation. The opponents accepted the prevailing view that women should stick to matters in the “domestic sphere” and feared they would lose the “privileges” women enjoyed by being shielded from responsibilities in the “public sphere.” Opponents to the Equal Rights Amendment made similar arguments as late as the early 1980s and succeeded in defeating it.

How did the struggle for women’s suffrage grow out of the abolitionist movement?

All the original conveners of the Seneca Falls convention were active abolitionists or closely aligned with the most radical abolitionists of their time. In fact, most of their homes or relatives’ homes were regular stations on the Underground Railroad. At any given time, one or more of them was hiding fugitives from slavery, giving them provisions, and conveying them across the nearby Canadian border. The conveners were also active in the “free produce” movement that boycotted products derived from slave labor, like rice, sugar and cotton, which would have required tremendous sacrifice. Most of the organizers were Quakers who gave more than lip service to the ideal of equality and justice for all, including women. The Quaker women were used to taking leadership roles. Most of the organizers were also on a first-name basis with black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, both of whom lived in the same area of upstate New York after escaping slavery. Even most people who joined the women’s movement later, like Susan B. Anthony, first earned their reformist credentials in the abolitionist cause.

After the Civil War, with the coming of Reconstruction and the 14th and15th Amendments (which granted the vote to former male slaves), there was a schism in the suffrage movement. What were the causes of this divide and how did it affect the ongoing fight to get the vote for women?

Until then, the women’s movement had debated a wide range of deprivations women faced — including lack of property rights, discrimination within churches, little or no access to education, denial of custody rights and strict limitations on divorce. After a decade of national conventions, the leaders had not settled on suffrage as a main goal, but views began to coalesce after the war to make securing the vote the priority, and they began calling themselves suffragists. With the vote, they reasoned that women could begin to change all the other things.  

Women had set aside their work on behalf of their own rights and worked on efforts to support the war. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony especially had led a petition drive in support of the 13th Amendment to guarantee emancipation after the war. When the 14th and then the 15th Amendment were offered, some of the women (but not all) who had been most active in the abolition and women’s movement were disturbed that women were explicitly left out. For the first time, the Constitution would make one’s sex the basis for voting or not voting. They felt that if the Constitution could make voting, which had previously been an issue for states to decide, a federal right, it could and should be extended to women. Wendell Phillips, a white Bostonian who was then president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, admonished them and declared that securing the vote for the freedmen who were being persecuted by the ex-Confederates was more urgent. It was, he said, “the Negro’s hour.” Phillips had been an early and ardent supporter of the women’s movement.

For a time, the women and some male abolitionist allies formed an organization to work on suffrage for women and blacks, but Stanton particularly was publicly hardening her position against black male suffrage. She and Anthony broke off to form the National Woman Suffrage Association to work exclusively for woman suffrage. Not long after, Lucy Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association to work on behalf of suffrage for women and the black freedmen. Even after the 15th amendment passed, the two groups remained separate and in competition for about 25 years — greatly diminishing their effectiveness. They were reunited in 1890.

You note that many women hoped during both the Civil War and the First World War that men would recognize their contributions to those conflicts and support their right to vote. Why didn’t this happen?

I also note that this pattern of sacrifice with the expectation of some reward started with the Revolutionary War. I’m not sure why it didn’t happen, and in the case of World War I, the suffrage victory ultimately resulted in part because of the women’s loyalty and “war work.” Prior to that, it seemed that once war was over, men forgot how much they had relied on the women, or they simply did not see the sacrifices as something that had to be rewarded. It was not a quid pro quo in men’s minds. Women were supposed to serve them.

The fight for women’s suffrage started out as a state issue, then later became a federal one. How and why did this shift occur?

It was both a state and federal issue. After the Civil War, Congress for the first time put voting rights in the U.S. Constitution, making it a federal issue, but at the same time, two paths to suffrage existed. Women could work for a federal amendment as they did with the introduction of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1878, and they could work for a referendum in each state or federal territory to grant suffrage. The suffragists realized that if the freedmen’s voting rights could be guaranteed in the federal Constitution, Congress also had the power to extend that right to women through a constitutional amendment. Previously, the suffragists had focused only on state and territorial campaigns, and they continued to seek victories at that level until the federal amendment passed in 1920.

Who were the Bloomers?

They were women who adopted a fashion that greatly simplified women’s dress. Amelia Bloomer of Seneca Falls, N.Y., popularized them in her publication, The Lily, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cousin Elizabeth Smith is credited with importing the style from Europe.

The outfits consisted of a short tunic-like dress worn over pantaloons. In the name of “dress reform,” most of the leading suffragists wore them, relieved to shed the pounds of fabric involved in wearing long skirts, petticoats, high collars, corsets, and stockings. The new style gave them much more freedom of movement. When they appeared at the early women’s conventions wearing the new fashion, they were quite a spectacle, and the press often commented on their attire. Many people ridiculed them and even harassed them on the street to the point that most of the women had to give them up after only a couple of years.

The suffrage movement was also tied to the temperance movement, which may seem counter-intuitive. How and why were these movements connected?

Many people mentioned in Remember the Ladies were multi-purpose reformers, working simultaneously in the abolition, women’s rights and temperance movements. The intersectionality of these issues is a major thread in this book. Sobriety became a women’s issue because wives were economically dependent on men and had little if any rights to own property, maintain custody of children or make contracts. Drinking was common in early America and excessive consumption of alcohol became rampant among working men. Women and children who had to rely on men were at great personal and economic risk if the breadwinner had a serious drinking problem. Divorce was generally out of the question. A movement to seek voluntary abstinence from strong drink emerged, and many women supported those efforts and joined temperance organizations. Temperance advocates also came out strongly in favor of woman suffrage. Later, the movement focused on stopping or limiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. The liquor industry became a strong and well-funded foe of woman suffrage for fear that women would use their vote to gut the industry.

Some people have viewed the women’s suffrage movement as a white women’s movement that excluded women of color. Do you think this is a legitimate criticism?

Many people have asked questions about this. Many people assume that black women were not in the movement, by choice or by exclusion. Others recall stories of movement leaders discriminating against black women. When I was working on the book, some people jumped to the conclusion I was going to write only about black women in the movement because I am African American. Others, especially black people, wanted to know if any black women would be in the book.

The truth is I did not set out to write a “black” book or a “white” book. I set out to write a book about the woman suffrage movement holistically in a way that celebrated the women involved. Even I had no idea I would end up writing so much about race, but race enters the women’s rights movement story from its inception because of the abolitionists who started and dominated it and because of the debate over the post-Civil War amendments that gave black freedmen the vote. It remained part of the story because of some overt and well-documented discrimination as Northern movement leaders tried to coax Southern women into the movement, while acquiescing to their prejudices.

Black women specifically enter the story early because they were among the first American women to become public orators. Free black women worked in the abolition movement alongside leaders like Lucretia Mott. Later, Sojourner Truth, who fled slavery, became a regular voice at early national women’s rights conventions.

Black men enter the story early because Frederick Douglass published a notice of the Seneca Falls convention in his newspaper in 1848 and came to Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s defense at that gathering when she presented her woman suffrage demand. Other free black men regularly attended and supported the women’s rights conventions before the Civil War and after. Despite the schism in the movement after the war, Douglass attended women’s rights conventions till the day he died. He maintained friendships with Susan B. Anthony and others in the movement. Later, W.E.B. Dubois supported woman suffrage through the NAACP publication, The Crisis.

Finally, one fact that is rarely acknowledged is that the woman suffrage victory took so long to achieve in large part because many Southern lawmakers especially did not want to extend the vote to black women. Opponents raised this as an issue up to the end, as the last state needed for ratification, Tennessee, debated the woman suffrage amendment.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott—these are some of the well-known figures you profile in Remember the Ladies. Who are a few of the lesser-known, or even forgotten figures, whose stories you most want readers to know?

One, Maria W. Stewart, was a free black woman who emerged in 1831 as the first American woman on record to speak before an audience of men and women on political issues — something women were barred from doing by custom. I’m not sure if people know the role of the Grimké sisters, Angelina and Sarah, who finally pushed down the barriers to women speaking in public. They were abolitionist lecturers who had grown up in a slaveholding family in the South. Both joined the Quakers, moved North and became active in the antislavery movement. When they were criticized for lecturing publicly to men and women, they defended their right to do so and became active in the women’s movement out of necessity.  

Most people probably aren’t as familiar with Lucy Stone as they are with other major leaders of the women’s movement. She was one of the first American women to earn a college degree and to keep her own name after she married. She went on to found the American Woman Suffrage Association, to work for passage of the 15th Amendment assuring voting rights for black freedmen and for woman suffrage. With the help of Julia Ward Howe, she formed her organization after Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in protest of the 15th Amendment.

Many other names mentioned in the book probably are not familiar to most people, because women have often been left out of the histories men write, and women’s efforts to fill in the blanks are relatively new and sparse. Among those who come to mind are Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis of Rhode Island, who organized the first national women’s rights convention in 1850 in Worcester, Mass.; Ernestine Rose, who petitioned for women’s property rights in New York in the 1840s; Ida Husted Harper, a journalist who helped complete the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage and was Susan B. Anthony’s biographer; Belva Lockwood, who ran for president in 1884; Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a Howard University-trained lawyer who petitioned Congress for suffrage; Jeannette Pickering Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress in 1916, elected from Montana, where women had the vote; and Mary Church Terrell, who was president of the National Association of Colored Women and addressed several women’s rights conventions.

I also think people generally do not realize that quite a few men, black and white, regularly attended the women’s rights conventions from the first one at Seneca Falls, as Douglass did. Among them were Lucretia Mott’s husband, James; Lucy Stone’s husband, Henry Blackwell and other leading abolitionists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith and Henry Ward Beecher. The latter became the first president of the American Woman Suffrage Association. The black men who were active supporters included Philadelphia abolitionists Robert Purvis, James Forten and James McCrummell (or McCrummill), a black barber/dentist.

It is interesting that there was a big women’s march on Washington tied to Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913—an event that has had a parallel a century later with the inauguration of Donald Trump. How were the roots of these two marches similar? Do you think the 2017 march has sent the same message to the White House?

Both marches were planned because a man known to be hostile to women’s rights was elected president. In both cases, women wanted to make their displeasure known and make sure their issues were on the agenda. The 1913 march was on the day before Wilson’s inaugural. The 2017 march was on the day after the inaugural. Both were a show of force. The message to both presidents was the same. Wilson eventually sided with the women, but it took several more years of agitation, picketing, jailings, hunger strikes, persuasion and cajoling, not to mention a world war. It is probably too early to tell if the current occupant of the Oval Office got the message, but nothing in the public record indicates he has.

Although Hillary Rodham Clinton did not win the presidency, she did win the popular vote. What do you think that fact says about women’s political power moving forward?

I think it says we will elect a woman as president of the United States. It is just a question of whom and how soon it will be. I think Remember the Ladies can make an important contribution to the conversation we need to have about how to make that happen.

Women actually vote in larger numbers than men. What do you think that has meant for the shape of our political institutions?

Every since they got the vote, women have had an impact on politics, gradually electing more women to office, getting women’s issues on the agenda and eliminating many of the legal impediments they had endured. However, women did not begin to vote in larger percentages than men did until 1980, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. CAWP found that a greater proportion of women than men has voted in every presidential election since 1980, and the number of women voting has exceeded the number of men voting since 1964. Women have cast four to seven million more votes than

men have in recent elections, CAWP said. The center found that 65.4 percent of women and 62.1 percent of men voted in 2004. According to CAWP, in 2012, 63.7 percent of women and 59.8

percent of men reported voting. Women also are voting differently from men, creating the “gender gap.” Increasingly, they had been voting for Democratic presidential tickets. In 2012, for instance, the Democrat, President Barack Obama, got 55 percent of the women’s vote for re-election and 45 percent of the men’s vote. His Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, got 52 percent of the men’s vote and 44 percent of the women’s.

This tendency of women to vote in larger numbers forces the parties to pay more attention to the economic security issues women are interested in and to women’s health issues. However, despite their growing clout, women do not always vote in their own self-interest or for other women. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016, women as a whole did not rally to put her in the White House and make her the first woman to be president. According to CNN exit polls, 53 per­cent of white women voted for her Republican opponent, while only 4 percent of black women and 26 percent of Latinas voted for him. So, I don’t know what that says about the future, but that should be part of the discussion going forward.

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