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From Abolition to Progressivism: Women in Public Life

Election Day, 1909

Election Day, 1909

Rebecca Hill

Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY


This assignment introduces students to the history of women's suffrage in the context of other nineteenth and twentieth century reform movements using a combination of photographs and written documents. The goal is to teach "form" along with "content," so that students will look at both the images and the written documents for their uses of gendered rhetoric in addition to their more obvious content. The project starts with a "slideshow" that students can either do at home or that the teacher can show in class (or both) and finishes with group discussions and an individual writing assignment.


  1. Introduce students to a wide array of women’s reform activities and the history of the struggle for suffrage.
  2. Introduce students to analysis of representation and rhetoric in both speech and photography
  3. Students will learn to use gender as a framework of analysis in understanding women reformers:
  4. Students will think about how audience affects “message,” as they observe how women reformers were “read” by the public not just as “reformers” but as “women reformers.”
  5. Students will critically analyze the use of gender in political reform movements as they discuss: “Did these gendered representations make the women reformers more or less effective?”
  6. Students will understand the inter-relationship of women’s reform movements around lynching, temperance, and labor rights and the ongoing struggle for women’s suffrage.

Notes to instructors about origins of exercise:
Many discussions of women reformers of the 19th and early 20th centuries in college textbooks mention the women’s use of their status as middle-class women to make their reforms more effective. People like Frances Willard, Florence Kelley and others, who were among the most successful at being heard presented themselves as women who should be listened to because as “respectable” women they were seen as “mothers” or nurturers, as vehicles of moral concern. In my experience, it is difficult to teach this to students when only using documents that address particular reforms. Students are very interested in temperance reform, women’s suffrage and labor regulation, but the rhetorical strategies being used remain invisible. Most students don’t have any experience with analyzing rhetoric unless they have specific course work that addresses these things. I believe that starting with visual analysis and discussion of gender will bring the gendered status of the speakers into the foreground and that students will be able to move more easily to the next step of rhetorical analysis of speeches that reference motherhood, purity and other “feminine” qualities.

Four Part Exercise

  1. “Slide-show” to which students respond by free-writing in class (a computer lab) after a lecture/reading assignment on the history of women's suffrage and its connection to other progressive activism by women from 1848 until 1917.(Annotation for Instructor on slideshow.)
  2. Homework to read documents and write a blackboard post–Students will read documents by women reformers and do homework assignment using blackboard to discuss the documents on two different levels: in terms of what issues the women address and in terms of how the women use “feminine' characteristics to persuade their audience.
  3. Second Day: In class(lab) discussion
  4. Paper

Part 1

Students read the background statement first, or teacher can instead give a lecture which includes something of the following basic information on the history of women’s suffrage and the issue of public presentation.

Background Information for Slideshow

The national women's suffrage movement emerged at a time of widespread reform in American society, in which two reform movements, one to abolish slavery and the other to pass laws against the sale of alcohol, were the most influential. Based in evangelical churches, these reform movements called for the end of slavery as a sinful practice that interrupted the relationship between man and God by making one man the ruler over another. Sara and Angelina Grimke, the daughters of a slave-holding family, became involved in the abolition struggle and made a sensation not just through their opposition to the institution of slavery, but because they were women who spoke in public. In the nineteenth century, it was not considered appropriate for women to engage in political life or to appear in front of mixed gatherings. Even Emma Willard, the founder of one of the first schools for women in 1819 said that her school would not produce female speakers. (see: Emma Willard's “Plan for Female Education”)

When the Grimkes, both devout Christians, began speaking on platforms set up by the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Congregationalist Ministers of Massachusetts issued a Pastoral letter warning of the dangers of women as political leaders. According to the pastors,

We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with widespread and permanent injury. The appropriate duties and influence of women are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobtrusive and private, but the sources of mighty power. When the mild,dependent, softening influence upon the sterness of man's opinions is fully exercised, society feels the effect of it in a thousand forms. The power of woman is her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection. We appreciate the unostentatious prayers of woman in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad; in Sabbath schools, in leading religious inquirers to the pastors for instruction; and in all such associated efforts as become the modesty of her sex...But when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer...she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean on the trellis-work and half conceal its cluster, thinks to assume the independece and overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor in the dust.” Because of their experiences meeting such opposition, the Grimke sisters began to see, to speak about, and write about, the connections between slavery and the treatment of women, who were not only prohibited from voting, but in many states lived under the condition of “coverture” which meant that married women's property and all rights related to its ownership were subordinated to her husband's. (for more information on coverture see: Married Women's Property Laws . Once the Grimkes began making arguments in favor of women's rights, other women joined them and in 1848, women gathered in Seneca Falls to deliver the historic “Declaration” that formally began the national movement for women's suffrage. In the early suffrage movement, the issues most frequently addressed were property rights and the vote, while more radical subjects, such as divorce laws, were eventually moved to the side as too controversial. While they tried to avoid scandal, many of the issues that early women's rights' advocates addressed related to the sphere of life that many would call “private” For example, these women also took part in the temperance movement, which called for personal, spiritual reform, and revealed the problems faced by women whose property was lost to husbands who drank. Another important issue associated with women's rights, anti-slavery and other 19th century reforms was “free love,” originally associated with reform communities and with activists such as Fanny Wright in the 1820s and Victoria Woodhull after the Civil War. Both Wright and Woodhull had trouble being taken seriously or being heard because their criticisms of sexual roles were seen as outside the boundaries of respectability for women.

As women became more engaged in public life, whether as workers in the new factories in Lowell, Massachusetts that brought young women from farms into the urban labor force, or as anti-slavery speakers, women also called for more rational forms of dress for women. Temperance activist, Amelia Bloomer wore an outfit with no corset and with pants that were eventually named for her: “Bloomers.” Some of the most prominent suffrage advocates tried to promote the new way of dressing. The issue of dress was not a trivial one, but symbolized the role that women occupied in American society.

Early opponents of the women's rights movement were alarmed by these ”cultural” issues, which they considered radical challenges to the structure of the family and to women's place in society. Women's rights activists responded to some opposition by backing away from dress reform; for example, suffrage activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton stopped wearing the ”bloomer” costume and wrote to Susan B. Anthony, explaining why: “we put the dress on for greater freedom, but what is physical freedom compared with mental bondage?” (Flexner, 79) The way women looked when they spoke was important to the way they were described in the media, as you can see from this passage describing a speech on free-love given by Victoria Woodhull, according to the New York Herald, March 1872 “Mrs. Woodhull came on the stage in a quiet black dress, her hair cut short and allowed to float freely on her shoulders. There was a pleased flush on her cheeks as she looked first into the parquette, then into the dress circle, and finally into the amphitheater, and smiled 'victoriously' at the tiers upon tiers of eager faces.Victoria read from her notes slowly and with precision, and so distinctly that she was heard all over the Academy. It is a popular belief that Victoria Woodhull is a sort of Bacchante, cut on the bias, with low neck and short sleeves, whatever she may be she has achieved success and has at last secured an audience.”

The next major phase in the woman's suffrage movement came following the Civil War, when Stanton and Anthony opposed the 15 th amendment to the Constitution, because it specifically said that Black men would be eligible to vote. The debate over the 15 th amendment divided the women's suffrage movement into those who argued that this was “the negro's hour” and those who said that once the amendment became part of the constitution that the word “male” would be officially tied to the right to vote for the first time in national law. The two women's suffrage associations continued to push for women's right to vote, arguing that the national constitution must be amended to allow women's voting.

In the 1880s, women's status as workers, and the new immigrants to the country both took a much more significant place in the effort to win women's right to vote. Most labor movement activists argued that wages for men should enable them to support their families so that their wives could achieve the “domestic ideal” of the woman who stayed at home, tending to her children's and husband's needs. This notion of the “family wage” implied that women shouldn't work or that women's work was merely temporary and supplementary and made it hard for women to argue for equal pay with men. For activists like Florence Kelley and the earlier Sojourner Truth, the fact that women could and did work was an argument for women's equal status with men, proof that the idea of the woman's domestic and fragile nature was wrong.

As women left home-work and went into factories, they were able to insist on their rights as members of the public, who did all the things that men did and therefore deserved equal rights. As women became involved in the labor movement, they argued that the vote was their right as American workers. During this same era, Blacks in the South lost the voting rights they had won following the Civil War, and several women came to the fore in the struggle for Black voting rights and an end to segregation. While these women focused extensive attention on the victimization of Black men by lynching, they also insisted that voting rights for women would help all African-American people.

In this time of social conflict, white middle-class activists were both sympathetic to the demands of workers and concerned about the possibility of class conflict, revolution, and violence. These middle class activists, who called themselves “progressives” sought to reform American society from what they defined as the worst ills of rapid industrialization, urbanization and concentration of wealth. Florence Kelley, Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells all worked with working-class women in the settlement houses that they created in New York and Chicago. Like the previous generation, many of these activists were Christians, and brought moral arguments to their reforms. Progressives called for the 8 hour day, the end of child labor, safety regulations in factories, “trust busting” and compulsory public schooling, as well as reforms more associated with individual behavior, such as the movement to ban the sale of alcohol and crackdown on prostitution they called a “purity crusade” Many of the most famous progressive activists were women, and they argued that if they had the vote, American society would undergo great moral improvement. More so than the activists of the pre-Civil War era, these progressives argued that women, as mothers, would bring a positive moral influence into American politics.

Frances Willard and other members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union argued that if women won the right to vote that they would act as the nation's house-keepers, making the world more “home-like” and purifying society, eliminating not only drinking, but other social ills that stemmed from the newly industrialized society. Now, instead of explicitly challenging women's presumed moral role in the home, this new group of suffrage activists self-consciously argued that woman's maternal nature fitted her for both reform work and voting. Only women, they argued, would care enough to pass laws against child labor, to fight for equal wages for women workers, or to ban the sale of alcohol. More insidiously, these women sometimes made racist arguments for women's suffrage by arguing that (white, middle-class) women should win the vote in order to counter the votes of European immigrant and Black men. (For more on the history of prohibition see Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform.)

The suffrage movement lapsed in strength towards the beginning of the twentieth century, but was revitalized by two competing groups of activists during the First World War. Alice Paul and her National Women's Party adopted the militant tactics of English suffragists, violating all rules of social propriety by picketing and going on hunger strikes. They also made sure that in those states where women could vote, that they vote against President Woodrow Wilson because of his refusal to support the suffrage amendment. In contrast, Carrie Chapman Catt negotiated behind the scenes with Wilson and Democrats in congress, calling for the ballot as the just reward of women for helping the United States during the First World War. Probably as a combined result of the efforts of both groups, the 19 th amendment to the constitution was passed by congress in 1919 and ratified by the states in 1920. While Black women and immigrant women argued for the vote as part of the struggles of their ethnic communities, white-middle class women also argued for the vote to empower a white race which they feared was increasingly threatened by the presence and power of Blacks and European immigrants.

Student Activity Day One: Slide Show on the Representation of Gender Differences (notes about the images)

First, go through the images and just look at them. After the slideshow, the students can take five to ten minutes to free write a response to the images. Before writing, consider the following questions:

Discussion following the free write:

After free writing, ask students volunteer to share their comments with the large group for a general discussion, or have the students meet briefly with one other student and then share their ideas about the slideshow as a team.

Once you have free-written your responses, meet with at least one other student and compose a blackboard post explaining what you saw in the images. In your post, answer this question: Did you think the women were pictured in a way that was different from the way men were portrayed? If you find these pictures representative, what qualities do you think were associated with “womanliness” for the people of this era?

Student Activity Part Two: homework assignment:

Read Documents, take notes and respond to discussion questions on blackboard.

Questions to answer on blackboard:

After reading your assigned documents, answer the following questions in ONE blackboard post, using one or two paragraphs.

Alternative Homework Approach for more advanced classes:

Instructors may choose to offer more flexibility in their homework assignment questions to be less directive. Here is an alternative set of homework questions for the reading:

After reading your group of articles, write one or two paragraphs in a blackboard post in which you briefly summarize the main points made by each of the reformers. What were the major similarities and differences in their arguments? As activists, how did their strategies for winning the vote differ from each other? Why do you think this might be?

Large Group Discussion: Back in class. This can be done in a regular classroom setting or in a computer lab. The primary benefit of the lab for this exercise is the access to the images by the students as they have their discussion in the small group, but it is not essential.

Students who read the same articles should meet together in groups and discuss their blackboard posts from the night before. The students should then work together as a group to come up with a collective answer to the over-all discussion question and to identify for the class what their group found most important in their reading and viewing of the images. Students can review the slide show as part of this project.

Discussion question for group one: How did the way that these women made their arguments for suffrage change over time? What role did issues of personal morality and respectability play in the women's suffrage movement? What role do you think that issues of sex, marriage, and motherhood played in the effort to win the vote for women and why?

Discussion question for groups two and three: In the struggle to win the vote, how important do you think “gender” (how we define men and women) was and how important were the issues of race and class? How did these three “categories” influence the path of the movement?

Extension of the exercise into formal writing:

Essay. You may choose to have students write an essay incorporating the different sources. Note to instructors: some of these questions imply that the students would do research; others are more based on the documents in this module.

Suggested Essay Questions:

  1. Write a 3 page essay about one or more of the images in the slideshow. In your essay, explain how the visual representation shows what was expected of women/men at that time, and what the rules were that people followed in order to remain “respectable.” Does this image challenge any of the rules of “gender respectability?” why/why not?
  2. Based on your readings by and about women reformers, what do you think were the most persuasive arguments made for reform? How were the reforms limited? When considering the limitations of women’s reforms, think both about limits that came from inside the movement and limits that came from outside the movement.
  3. In your opinion, what were the best ideas of the women reformers? Do you think that the women were successful in getting these ideas across to people in their own time? Why/why not?
  4. What surprised you most in any of the documents or images? Why was this so surprising? How can you explain this unexpected idea/image by looking at the context of the time when it was made? What does this idea or image tell you about the historical moment when it was produced?
  5. If you look at the reforms proposed here, you can see that some represent the “outer limits” and were not considered respectable – what were those? In today’s debates about women’s rights and marriage, what would you say the “outer limits” are? Are the limits to today’s debates at all similar to the limits facing reformers of a hundred years ago? Are the issues different now or the same? Why/why not?
  6. The reformers in this unit are mostly middle-class progressives. Based on your reading in other parts of the course, how would you compare them and their views to other social activists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Further Resources for Instructors

Catt Collection Suffrage Photographs

Teaching With Documents: Woman Suffrage and the 19th Amendment

Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

National Woman's History Project

Alice Paul Institute

Frances Harper

Women and Social Movements in the United States

recent publications that relate to more specific aspects of the module:

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz , The Journal of American History Vol. 87, No. 2 (Sep., 2000), pp. 403-434.

Jean H. Baker, editor. Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited. (Viewpoints on American Culture.) New York: Oxford University Press. 2002

Sandra Adickes, “Sisters not Demons: The Influence of British Suffragettes on the American Suffrage Movement,” Women’s History Review, v.11

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