Past Issues

Nineteenth-Century Feminist Writings

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ca. 1890. (Library of Congress P&P)Contemporaries sometimes called the nineteenth century "The Woman’s Century." Certainly it is true that there were dramatic changes in the status and rights of women between the 1790s and 1900, foreshadowing even greater changes in the twentieth century. Most people who are interested in the subject at all know a little about the women’s suffrage movement and its fifty-two-year battle to amend the Constitution so that white women could vote. (Other women had to wait another forty years.) But while suffrage was an important part of the larger movement for women’s rights, it was only a part. The 300 or so women and men who came to Seneca Falls in 1848 cut a much wider path than suffrage when they boldly declared that men and women were created equal, and that the history of mankind "is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of men toward women."[1] For evidence they included a long list of grievances.

Before this could happen, some women had had to think and write about their own condition. We have no idea how many women had long wondered why they were cut off from many of the rights and privileges that men enjoyed, but the first systematic effort to publish an analysis of women’s situation came in the 1790s in a series of articles and books written by a Massachusetts woman, Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820). Like many of her successors, Murray had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and had found herself in hearty agreement with its central argument, which was that what had so long been perceived as women’s inferior intelligence was not something inborn, but was a result of women’s lack of education.

The next reflection on what would soon be called "the woman question" came from another New Englander, Hannah Mather Crocker (1752–1829), descendant of the celebrated Mathers, who had read both Wollstonecraft and Murray, and who in 1818 published her own somewhat rambling treatise, Observations on the Real Rights of Women. She, too, stressed again the idea that until women had equal educational opportunity, there could be no basis for judging their minds to be less able than those of men.

A far more systematic analysis of women’s condition, also influenced by Wollstonecraft, came from the pen of Sarah Grimké (1792–1873). Grimké, who had been born into a Charleston, South Carolina, slaveholding family, first became visible in the anti-slavery movement, where her background meant that her opposition to slavery carried particular weight. Her first statement about women, in Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, came in 1838. The clarity of her discussion corroborated her father’s comment that if she had been a man she would have been a great jurist. It is refreshing to read her spare, well-argued prose after Crocker’s rambling discourse. Grimké begins by saying that she plans to "advance arguments in opposition to a corrupt public opinion, and to the perverted interpretation of Holy Writ,"[2] and she proceeds to demonstrate that the parts of the Bible used to keep women subordinate had been mistranslated by a male committee. As she grew older, her views about women’s rights became steadily more radical as she continued to write, publish, and talk about the subject. Her friend and mentor Lucretia Mott wrote later that Grimké had read and admired Wollstonecraft; however, it is possible that Grimké hesitated to be publicly identified with Wollstonecraft after William Godwin published his Memoir and told the world of Wollstonecraft’s out-of-wedlock child. This revelation enabled critics of Wollstonecraft’s views about women to raise a hue and cry, vehemently asserting that she was not to be taken as any model for American women.

Like Grimké, Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) was extremely active in the anti-slavery movement, and she was also active among the Hicksite Quakers. Early on, she began to read and think about women, and unlike Grimké, she openly admired Wollstonecraft. In 1840, attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a bride on her honeymoon, and they had many long talks. (When Stanton came home someone asked her what she had seen in London. Her answer was "Lucretia Mott." It had been a transforming conversation for her.) Mott took part in shaping the Seneca Falls Convention, and was a major figure in the movement. She believed—and in her own life exemplified the belief—that a woman could live in the worlds of both activism and domesticity.

No inhibition about scandal kept Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) from declaring allegiance to Wollstonecraft in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Although Fuller’s book is carelessly written and filled with extraneous material, and therefore very hard to read, her obvious passion for the idea that women should be free to develop fully whatever talents they possessed had strong appeal. Fuller herself ranged widely in her interests. In Notable American Women, vol.1, she is called author, critic, teacher, and feminist. She was all these things and was recognized by the Transcendentalist philosophers as one of their own. They chose her to edit The Dial, the Transcendentalist journal. She grew rapidly in intellectual stature, and there is no telling what she might have become had she lived beyond her forty-first year. As it was, she was—and still is—admired for her intelligence and vigor of thought.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), like Mott, combined family life with much spoken and written discussion of women’s status. Stanton was one of those people who is reasonably sure that the established opinion on any subject is wrong. She raised seven children and in the process developed advanced and controversial theories of child rearing. She helped bring about the Seneca Falls Convention and shocked even Mott when she insisted on including a call for the ballot. First to promote the cause of women and later to help pay for the education of her children, she spoke all over the country to large audiences; after each lecture she insisted on private meetings for women only. She wrote speeches for Susan B. Anthony, took part in compiling the first source book for American women’s political history, edited and published The Woman’s Bible to make the Bible friendlier to women, and in an essay called "The Solitude of Self," developed her own philosophy of womanhood. As long as Mott lived, the correspondence that she and Stanton kept up continued to analyze the causes of women’s repression.

Although the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) extended well into the twentieth century, no discussion of nineteenth-century feminists can omit this writer and thinker. Gilman’s Women and Economics (1898) made a strong case for women’s economic independence as the basis for all improvement in their condition. Gilman was a complex woman of remarkable intelligence and independent thought who would have flourished in the late twentieth century. As it was, she was much in demand as a lecturer and popular author.

There were many other nineteenth-century American women talking, thinking, and sometimes writing as they grappled with society’s general view that women should be subordinate to men, but the seven women discussed here raised most of the significant arguments that provided the underpinning for changes in law and custom that were visible in their own time and that accelerated in the next century. For anyone interested in the history of American women, there is no substitute for reading what these seven women had to say in their own words and sensing the deep feeling that those words represented.

[1] "Declaration of Sentiments," The First Convention Ever Called to Discuss the Civil and Political Rights of Women, Seneca Falls, NY, July 19, 20, 1848. (1848), 2.

[2] Grimké, Sarah Moore. Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman Addressed to Mary S. Parker, President of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (Boston: I. Knapp, 1838), 3. Available online at the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress,

Anne Firor Scott, a pioneer historian of American women, is W. K. Boyd Professor Emerita of History at Duke University and the author of The Southern Lady (1970, 1995); Making the Invisible Woman Visible (1984); Unheard Voices: The First Historians of Southern Women (1993); and most recently, Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White (2006).