In this issue, HISTORY NOW looks at the efforts by women across two centuries to gain the right to vote and to enjoy equal opportunities within American society. The women’s rights movement, like the struggle by African Americans to gain their freedom and their civil rights, is one of most important reform efforts in our nation’s history. Bringing this story to the classroom allows us to raise vital questions with our students: how has the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, been expanded and made more inclusive over the course of our national history? Under what circumstances do reform movements begin—and end—and how do we evaluate their successes and failures? In addition to these broad questions, the study of the women’s rights movement brings to life individual women and groups of women who have shaped our history and who deserve recognition. Bringing their stories into the classroom provides female students with the opportunity to look into the mirror of the past and see their own faces—just as their male classmates have long been able to do.
HISTORY NOW has called upon some of the most noted scholars in the field of women’s history to discuss many of the key ideas, events, and issues of the women's movement, especially the long struggle for suffrage. In her essay on the legal status of women from 1776-1830, Marylynn Salmon sets the scene for the reform efforts of the following century. She shows us how U.S. law viewed women as dependents within the family both before and after the Revolution and denied them a formal political voice. In her essay on feminist pioneers, Anne Firor Scott traces the emergence of ideas that challenged women’s inferior status. Beginning with the Enlightenment, American and European thinkers begin to argue that women’s apparent intellectual inferiority was the result of poor educational opportunities and restrictive social customs rather than innate characteristics. Scott shows us that the chorus of voices challenging the status quo grew steadily over the course of the early nineteenth century and lead to the history-making demand for suffrage in 1848. Judith Wellman takes us to that memorable moment at Seneca Falls, when the first women’s rights convention met in 1848. Here, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, and Lucretia Mott, along with Frederick Douglass, firmly linked the credo of equality in the Declaration of Independence to the rights of women and made the first public demand for the right to vote for women. Next, Ellen DuBois follows the political crisis that suffrage organizations faced in the years after the Civil War. DuBois places the split in the movement in the context of Reconstruction legislation and reminds us of the tensions and complications that arise when the demand for reforms based on race and gender collide. Barbara Winslow provides us with a much needed comparative perspective in an essay that examines the women’s movement in the United States and in England. The parallels are striking, but so too are the differences. This comparison reminds us that the differences in the political structures of the two countries play a critical role in shaping the strategies suffragists pursued. Finally, Sara Evans takes us through twentieth century developments and controversies, tracing the ebb and flow of the women’s movement from the triumph of the Nineteenth Amendment to the activism of the 1970s. Taken together, these essays provide us with an essential overview, but they also provide us with discussion topics for our classroom that should stimulate thoughtful consideration of changing gender roles, the American reform tradition, and the way in which our society grapples with majority and minority rights.
As always, Mary-Jo Kline provides a rich array of primary and secondary sources for those who want to pursue this subject in depth. And HISTORY NOW’s expert teachers provide lesson plans for elementary, middle, and high school classes. After reading the essays, take our “Voting Rights Quiz” and test your knowledge.
Our women’s suffrage issue is the third in this year’s focus on equality, carrying us from the abolition movement, to Lincoln and Emancipation, to the struggle for women’s political participation. Our next issue will be devoted to the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, the final example that illustrates this theme.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.