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Inquiry Question

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Reading 1
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Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: American Women
in the Mid-19th Century

Law, religion, and tradition combined to limit severely the rights of and opportunities for American women before the Civil War. Nowhere in the country could they vote; in many states, once married they could not sign contracts, own property (even if they had inherited it), or control their own earnings. The husband received custody of children after a divorce, no matter what his actions during marriage had been. Though women could hold certain jobs, most notably domestic work, the professions were generally closed to them. The percentage of girls who attended school trailed far behind the figure for boys, and the first women's college, Mount Holyoke, opened only in 1837.

Most Americans of both sexes accepted, even supported, these conditions. They cited Biblical passages that a wife should be subject to her husband. They argued that women were more submissive, gentle, pious, and nurturing than men, leaving them poorly suited for the rough worlds of politics and business. Those same characteristics, however, made them perfect for the "domestic sphere" ­ raising children, keeping the home, and serving their husbands' needs. Women also were considered more moral, a view supported by the fact that they were more likely to convert during religious revivals. Attempts to upset this "natural" order, advocates of this view claimed, would damage both the people who tried it and society in general.

This ideal of the perfect home was often far from reality, however. Financial necessity forced many women to work outside the home at the same time they were expected to handle most of the household responsibilities. Middle-class women who stayed home often found their lives frustrating and exhausting. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who lived in the neighboring town of Seneca Falls and whose family had enough money to hire servants, wrote:

To keep house and grounds in good order, purchase every article for daily use, keep the wardrobes of half a dozen human beings in proper trim, take the children to dentists, shoemakers, and different schools, or find teachers at home, altogether made sufficient work to keep one's brain busy, as well as all the hands I could press into service.... My duties were too numerous and varied, and none sufficiently exhilarating or intellectual to bring into play my higher facilities. I suffered with mental hunger, which, like an empty stomach, is very depressing.1

As the 19th century continued, an increasing number of women challenged traditional views about their roles. Some used the spread of voting rights and the Second Great Awakening's emphasis on the individual as bases for arguing that traditional differences among people were not important. Others reacted against the limits they encountered when they participated in causes such as temperance and abolition. Women reformers who spoke to "promiscuous audiences" ­ that is, ones that included both sexes ­ received much criticism; the organizers of a World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 refused to seat female delegates, even though some of America's most active abolitionists were women. That decision so infuriated Stanton and Lucretia Mott, both of whom had crossed the Atlantic to attend, that they returned to the United States determined to hold a convention to promote equal rights.

Stanton and Mott followed up on their vow at the end of the 1840s. On July 13, 1848, Stanton attended a tea party at the home of Richard Hunt, who besides owning the M'Clintocks' house was another dedicated abolitionist. There she again met Mott, who had attended the Hicksite meeting at which the Congregational Friends were formed. Also at the party were Martha Wright; Mott's sister; Jane Hunt, Richard's wife; and Mary Ann M'Clintock. All were Quakers except Wright, who had been expelled from her meeting for marrying a non-Quaker, and Stanton, who attended an Episcopal Church in Seneca Falls.

During the party the women began to discuss their frustrations over the limits society placed on their lives. They decided to organize, as they announced in the newspaper the next day, "a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of Women" in Seneca Falls on July and 19 ­ just six days away. Over the next week they planned the meeting; the "chief movers and managers," according to Mott, were Stanton and the M'Clintocks.

The M'Clintock House was the scene of a crucial part of their work. On July 16, the five women created the "Declaration of Sentiments," which outlined their views on the role of women in society. "What a time we had writing it!" remembered Stanton in 1866. "We looked over the declarations of societies we could find, but none touched our case, until at last, someone suggested our Fathers of 1776."2 Two days later, more than 300 people came to Seneca Falls for the First Women's Rights Convention. They met in the Wesleyan Methodist Church, whose founding underlined the emphasis certain residents of the Burned-Over District placed on reform: most of the members had left another Protestant church because they wanted stronger stands against slavery.

Despite short notice and limited publicity, people traveled as much as 40 miles to attend the convention. Though most were women, at least 40 men joined the audience as well, including leading abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. The M'Clintocks participated actively: Thomas served as the convention president during part of the session, one of their daughters was secretary, and Elizabeth gave a presentation and joined the committee that edited and arranged for the printing of the minutes of the meeting.

For two days the conventioneers discussed the rights of and restrictions on women. Much of the time went to consideration of the Declaration of Sentiments, which was ultimately signed by 68 women and 32 men. At least half of those from Waterloo who added their names were Progressive Friends, including the M'Clintocks and the Hunts; other prominent signers included Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The participants also debated a dozen resolutions that called for equal opportunity for women. This discussion showed just how deeply rooted attitudes about women were: even among these delegates, the resolution calling for women to gain the right to vote barely passed.

1. In what aspects of life were American women in the mid-19th century restricted? How did people justify these limits?

2. Do you think it mattered that the five women who organized the First Women's Rights Convention already knew each other? Why or why not?

3. How do you think the organizers acquired the skills they needed to make the conference a success?

4. Why do you think many of the people who were interested in women's rights were also committed to the abolition of slavery?

Reading 2 was compiled from Andrea Constantine Hawkes "'Feeling a Strong Desire to Tread a Broader Road to Fortune:' The Antebellum Evolution of Elizabeth Wilson M'Clintock's Entrepreneurial Consciousness,"(Master's thesis, University of Maine, 1995); Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898; reprint, Schocken Books, 1971); and Sandra S. Weber, Special History Study: Women's Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls, New York (Washington: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1985).

1 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898; reprint, Schocken Books, 1971).
2Stanton, Revolution 17 September 1868, 162.



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