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Women's Suffrage and the 19th Amendment



Worcester's Wonder Women

Lucy Stone helped create the first national forum on women's rights

"Nature does not teach that men and women are unequal, only unlike."
- Paulina Wright Davis

Regardless of nature's lesson, women are not on an equal footing with men in our country. We've never had a woman President of the United States. There are only two women out of the nine Supreme Court Justices. There are only three female state governors out of 50. Women earn 76.5 cents on the dollar compared to men. Half of all lawyers are women, while only 13% make partner in their firms. Until statistics like these are changed, we cannot pretend that women have entirely gained the equal rights they have struggled to claim for decades now.


We have come a long way. 150 years ago, being a wife meant being a husband's possession to do with as he pleased. Becoming married was often called a woman's "civil death," since she was forced to give up all of her rights as an individual in favor of her husband's opinion. Women had no political power; they were not allowed to vote or run for office. Women were not allowed to sue or testify in court. We had no recourse against an abusive husband, a drunken husband, or a husband who gambled. Women weren't allowed to own property or inherit their husband's property after his death. We were not educated in schools with men until the end of the nineteenth century, and were instead taught the domestic tasks that were needed to run a family at home.

This situation could not continue forever. Women have since been able to claim these rights in the United States, and the inspiration for change lies with a core group of passionate men and women who decided to change the system back in the mid-nineteenth century.


Although speakers for women's rights had been traveling around the northeast, alongside abolitionists for some years, the ball really got rolling for women with the idea for a national women's rights convention. Feminists Lucy Stone, Abby Kelly Foster, Paula Wright Davis, Lucretia Mott, and Ernestine Rose, as well as abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and Sojourner Truth, all deserve credit for creating the first national forum ever for women to publicly discuss the issue of equal rights.

Worcester, Massachusetts was chosen as the site for the 1850 Women's Rights Convention, because it was easily accessible by train for people coming from all over the young United States. Hundreds of people piled into the convention hall to hear the feminists and abolitionists speak to the different concerns of those assembled there.

The speeches were filled with emotion and determination to change the status quo. These eloquent women tried to motivate their audience to fight for the rights that had been denied to them by their new American government. Some of the primary things they wanted to claim were:

  • Equal opportunities with men for appropriate and well-paid jobs
  • Equal legal and political rights (this meant "suffrage," or the ability to vote, and to hold office)
  • Equal property rights after marriage
  • Equal educational opportunities
Leaders like Abby Kelly Foster rallied the crowd with her demand not for "woman's rights, but [for] the rights of human beings," while Frederick Douglass advised the crowd that women must educate themselves, to "take her rights, and then she shall be free."


The kindness of strangers has really been overwhelming...

While the speeches were moving and positive, the reception from the crowd was not always cheers. There was a large part of the audience who did not agree with the radical messages the speakers were voicing. Most newspapers that covered the event did so with scorn for these women who were trying to create an unwelcome change in our wealthy-white-male-dominated country. The convention was laughed at by the New York Herald as an "Awful combination of socialism, abolitionism and infidelity." Regardless of their reception however, the leaders of the 1850 convention did not back down from their ideals. Unfortunately, the convention did not bring about immediate change in our society, but it was a great jumping-off point for the reforms that would eventually come.

It was not until 1870 that black men gained the right to vote in our country, and not until 1920 that women finally achieved that same right. I hate to throw too many dates and numbers your way, but when you take a minute to work out the math, the injustice of the situation is overwhelming. Just think that it took our government 70 years from the start of the women's rights movement to finally begin granting women their equal rights! And looking backwards, you realize that modern women have only had the right to vote in America for the past 80 years, while white, land-owning men have been voting here for 225 years. Not a great example of "liberty and justice for all," is it?

Although the 1850 Convention did not cause immediate change, it certainly inspired the beginnings of an incredible movement. If it were not for the brave leaders of the Worcester meeting, the process to gain equal rights for women might have taken much longer than it did. Of course, there are still struggles that we need to overcome for modern women of all backgrounds across the USA. The work of Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth needs to be carried on until true equality of opportunity is attained for everyone. Their cause continues for women and minorities everywhere, and it is our responsibility to do all we can to change the things that we know are unfair. Worcester delegate Ernestine Rose offers advice to those who will carry on the 1850 mission:

"Let us by honoring the memory of reformers in the past, and by aiding the efforts of those in the present, encourage the rise of others in future time."


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Astronauts, judges, senators, truck drivers, TV producers - women rock!
Kevin - It's my last name and I'll keep it if I want to!
Daphne - Stirring the cauldron of equality
Rebecca - What's got 7 layers of clothes and a broken rib?
Team - Depression, anxiety and irritability: the low down on being too thin