Today in Feminist History: Politicians Will NOT Stand in the Way of Equality for Women (May 25, 1877)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


May 25, 1877: The New York State chapter of the National Woman Suffrage Association has just made it clear that it will publicly and severely criticize any politician who stands in the way of political equality for women.

The chief offender singled out for chastisement today was Governor Lucius Robinson, who recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed women to serve on school boards.

The first orders of business, however, were to adopt the report made by the Committee of Officers, and to elect Susan B. Anthony as president of the organization. Among the Secretaries elected were Matilda Gage and Lillie Devereux Blake. Gage gave an address that so impressed everyone that it was decided to print up copies of it for distribution.

Then it was on to the resolutions, which proved an effective mix of basic principles, criticism and even a bit of sarcasm.

The first resolution reflected the association’s top priority of winning the ballot. Once women are part of the electorate, their voting power should be able to prevent politicians from passing laws that are oppressive or harmful to women, something officeholders freely do now:

“Resolved, That as the ballot means protection, the women of New York demand it, in order to protect themselves against such invidious legislation as the veto of the Women’s School Bill.

“Resolved, That the veto of Governor Robinson is but another proof that the interests of the non-represented class are always misunderstood, neglected, and betrayed by those in power.

“Resolved, That by his denial of the right of women to sit upon the School Boards, Governor Robinson has entailed upon the community a severe loss, i.e., the legislative, educational and moral influence of a class, especially designed by the ‘God of nature’ to have children in charge.

“Resolved, that the half-million men of New York who voted for Lucius Robinson as Governor, should be extremely grateful to him for intimating that they are so incapable of selecting competent school officers, that he must protect them by his veto from the risks of their own stupidity.”

But the group could lavish praise on a politician as well:

“Resolved, That the thanks of this association are due to Hon. William Emerson, Senator from Rochester, for his able and manly advocacy of a bill giving to women positions on educational boards, for which they have already in other States proved that they are admirably qualified.”

The need to amend the U.S. Constitution for a sixteenth time, in order to enfranchise women nationwide was also endorsed:

“Resolved, That all friends of woman suffrage throughout the State should exert their utmost endeavors to secure signatures to a Sixteenth Amendment petition, and the passage of a national law that shall prohibit respective States from disenfranchising women on the ground of sex.”

The admission and subsequent success of women in academic life at two of the State’s institutions of higher learning was noted, and used as proof that women should be free to compete with men in all occupations, including the law:

“Resolved, That the experience of Cornell and Syracuse University proves woman’s ability to compete with man in all educational interests, and that we demand the passage of a law securing to her the right to enter every branch of the legal profession.”

The highlight of the evening’s session was a speech by Lillie Devereux Blake, who addressed some common arguments against suffrage. Among other things, she said that while opponents claimed women voters would become so preoccupied with politics that they would neglect, or no longer be inclined toward their domestic duties, the opposite was actually true. She noted that a woman could not be a true companion to a man unless she became just as familiar as her husband with the events and political issues of the day.

A practical example of the success of woman suffrage was given by a speaker from Wyoming Territory, where women won the vote on December 10, 1869. He said that women had done an admirable job of voting for the best candidates regardless of party affiliation, and have served well on juries. One woman appointed Justice of the Peace brought order to a previously lawless mining district, and in the ultimate test of suffrage vs. marriage, he noted an instance of a husband and wife running against each other for the same office, which did not disturb the tranquility of their union.

The National Woman Suffrage Association was formed on May 15, 1869, by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It has as its primary purpose securing a Constitutional amendment to enfranchise women nationwide, though it also supports other measures designed to increase the rights and opportunities of women.

One example of the group’s bold approach to winning equality was its demonstration at last year’s Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Susan B. Anthony and a number of other women had been denied permission to be a part of the official program, but were given platform passes to observe a key part of the July 4th ceremony. Right after Richard Henry Lee finished reading the Declaration of Independence, they got up from their chairs and presented a “Women’s Declaration of Rights” to the Centennial’s rather startled presiding officer, then found an empty platform and began making speeches to a crowd that quickly gathered to hear them.

The group has already written the text of a proposed Constitutional amendment to prohibit States from denying anyone the right to vote due to their sex, and hopes to have it introduced into Congress soon, so they’re working in conventional as well as militant ways to secure the vote.

Though the struggle is certain to be a long one – women only vote in the sparsely populated Wyoming and Utah Territories at the moment – the fight should eventually be a successful one judging by the many talented and dedicated individuals who make up just this one segment of one suffrage organization.


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.