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The Women’s Rights Movement from North to South

The Women’s Rights Movement was an out growth cities of the northeast, but soon attracted proponents in emerging cities in the mid-western and western urban centers. The southern states were last to join the bandwagon. The first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. While many women and men in the rest of the country had committed themselves to woman suffrage by the turn of the century, it wasn’t until the 1890s that women even began to organize in the south.

See other "Women's Issues" such as "Birth Control" and "Childbirth."

As early as 1848, women in the north began to join the paid work force, to seek higher educational opportunities and to perceive a new sense of selfhood. Early women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, publicly advocated women’s equal rights in state legislatures, at the growing number of women’s conventions and in lectures to women’s social organizations. The early feminists, members of the upper middle class, based their agenda on human equality and gained political support by aligning themselves with the abolitionists. They maintained that women had the same rights to political, religious, economic and social independence as men simply because they were no different from men. The early platform was articulated in a speech written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1892. In her speech, titled "The Solitude of Self", Ms. Stanton stated that women deserved complete sovereignty because they, like men, had only themselves to rely on in times of crisis. (Stanton)

The ranks of women’s rights activists grew until emancipation changed the face of the woman’s rights movement forever. It lost many of its male abolitionist supporters and both the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) began to put their efforts toward petitioning the states for voting rights, rather than equal rights. However, they were separated on ideological lines. The NWSA continued to seek to transform the ideological foundations of the prevailing patriarchal society, balancing the feminine and masculine scales. The more conservative, religion based AWSA emphasized the differences between men and women, claiming that the moral and caring qualities of women were better suited for reform movements in areas such as child labor, urban sanitation, and temperance (Green p. 8). The two unions eventually merged, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

During the 1890s the influence of NAWSA crossed the Mason Dixon Line to enlist support for a Federal amendment granting suffrage to women. The climate in the south was ripe for the seeds of change to take root and the first wave of feminism rolled over Dixie. The clouds of change that the northern feminists brought with them were not without opposition. The eradication of the plantation system had shifted towards increased urbanization and industrialization. Textile and tobacco mills, distilleries and other industries were growing in urban centers, creating professional and working classes. Women began dribbling into the paid work force. Educational opportunities for women gradually expanded and most importantly, women’s clubs proliferated. Women took up the call for social reform and began to voice their concerns about the dangers of factories, the exploitation of child workers, and domestic abuse.

The rising employment of women was a major influence on the women’s rights movement in the South. Existing laws made if very difficult for women to own businesses and excluded them from politics and public positions.

Still, postwar economic change in the late nineteenth century mirrored changes that had taken place a generation or two earlier in the north. The emergence of the middle and working classes helped to accelerate the women’s movement in the south. The professional class of white collar workers emerged to provide services to the industrial elite as doctors, lawyers and bankers. The women of these families ranked high in the suffragette movement in the 1890s. The growing cities also provided employment for women as they helped to fill post war labor shortages. Although few working women joined local and state organizations, their plight spread the suffrage sentiment throughout the middle class. In 1898, the NAWSA attended the Louisiana constitutional convention which resulted in partial suffrage to tax paying women.

Another factor that led to greater activism at this time was heightened opportunity for higher education for women. There was a considerable number of college educated women in the Southern suffrage movement. Until the late 19th century, women had been excluded from higher education. Education wasn’t deemed a necessary qualification for wives and mothers. Southern women were at least a generation behind Northern women in their opportunity to receive a college education. Again it was the women from the new professional class that began to attend college at the turn of the century. Very few came from the plantation and industrial elite or the working class. With few exceptions, such as Newcomb College in New Orleans, the few women’s colleges in the South compared unfavorably with their Northern counterparts. If a woman wanted an education equal to that of a man, she usually attended a northern school.

Of all the factors that lead to further involvement in the women’s movement, social clubs seem to have had the greatest impact on the consciousness of southern women. They also lagged a generation behind the northeastern states. The first club, was formed in New York state in 1868. It wasn’t until the 1890s that they appeared in the south. They provided a place to discuss women’s issues and provided a basis for social reform. Most activism in the south centered around reform in areas that were traditionally female such as child labor, urban sanitation and temperance. The membership of most clubs was made up of the professional women with a smattering from the urban elite.

Although conditions in the South were favorable for the arrival of the woman suffrage movement, there was also opposition from the political and industrial elite. These preservers of the antebellum society ideal, upheld the Southern lady as morally virtuous and happily subjugated to husband and hearth. Northern feminists were out to destroy a homogeneous, virtuous society with their liberal, atheistic, and materialistic views. It was another case of the north imposing itself on the south in a period of already unwelcome change. Many white southerners wanted to preserve their superior southern culture whose cornerstone was white supremacy in the guise of state sovereignty (Wheeler p. 10).

Racism was definitely an issue in the 1890s suffrage movement. The national woman suffrage movement seemed to threaten the white political elite, who was devoted to maintaining state sovereignty and the disenfranchisement of blacks. In actuality, NAWSA was lobbying southern organizations to join their leagues as a source of suffrage unity, not to change their ideology. In 1903 NAWSA met in New Orleans and openly discussed the racial policies of the organization. When they were challenged by a local newspaper to defend their position on the "Negro Question," NAWSA responded that "the right of the state is recognized within the national body and that each auxiliary state association arranges its own affairs in accordance with its own ideas and in harmony with the customs of its own section." (Green 10). Southerners could exclude black women from their organizations and from the polls.

The traditional role of woman as the ideal of Southern virtue, compassionate and charitable was in danger from the influence of the immoral, outspoken women of the North. The preservers of the old south put the southern lady on a pedestal where she would act as preserver of Southern religion and morality and as an inspiration to her husband and children. The United Confederate Veterans literally placed young prominent virgins from each state on a pedestal at their annual reunions to eulogize the ideal woman who is loyal, and obedient, trusting solely in the protection of their men (Wheeler p. 8). The southern ideal held that men have public voices while a lady’s influence should extend no further than home and church.

The social, economic and political tides were turning in the 1890s as Southern sisters joined their Northern siblings in the woman suffrage movement. However, the movement began to lose momentum which did not return for another decade. There were too few activists to really make a difference and the threat of a federal suffrage amendment was far from the threatening reality that it became in 1910. The social, economic and political changes that shook the South at the end of the nineteenth century greatly impacted the lives of its women. Women began to open their eyes to possibilities for themselves and their society. They recognized their ability to make an impression in the public sphere through social reform. They considered the value of continued education and experienced themselves as paid laborers. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the Southern lady, long condemned to life on a pedestal, cautiously stepped down and proudly stood her ground.

Works Cited

Green, Elna C. Southern Strategies: Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina. 1987.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill. New Women of othe New South, New York. Oxford. 1973


--Content prepared by Sara Shull.

Copyright (c) 1999; all rights reserved.

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