Why did women intensify their efforts to achieve rights for equality over the nineteenth century?
Essay submitted for HIS8005 Duties to rights: Women’s European history (Masters)
Margaret Fuller’s 1845 Woman in the Nineteenth Century
Emily J Harding’s c. 1907 illustrated poster, She. Is it time I got out of this place. Where shall I find the key? Convicts lunatics and women! Have no vote for parliament
The changing democratic landscape post-eighteenth-century revolutions led women – albeit largely the middle-class – to intensify their efforts to achieve rights for equality over the long nineteenth century, a period spanning from 1789-1914. Their efforts further escalated from the delineation of gender roles and rights being granted to men and slaves. Two primary sources that attest to this intensification are American suffragist Margaret Fuller’s 1845 Woman in the Nineteenth Century and English artist Emily J Harding’s c. 1907 illustrated poster. Both works exemplify developments – albeit asynchronous – in the transnational movement for women’s suffrage. This essay thus uses the empirical approach to situate the historical contexts in which the texts were published to then analyse their significance to the building momentum of women’s demand for equality.
The French Revolution is pinned as the moment women entered politics to claim their rights (Anderson & Zinsser 1998, p. 350; Sanders 2006, p. 15). Despite the subsequent setbacks to the French women’s suffrage efforts from the Reign of Terror and Napoleonic eras – including Olympe de Gouges following Marie Antoinette to the guillotine – the spirit of questioning authority and inequality pursued into the next century (Anderson & Zinsser 1998 pp. 351-352; Levy & Applewhite 1998, pp. 266-288; Mousset 2007, p. 60, 99; Perry 2014, p. 347). As Scott (as cited in Levy & Applewhite 1998, pp. 267-268) elucidated: “when revolutionary feminists connected their interests to universal rights, they opened a complex and continuing dialogue about the necessary and sufficient conditions of liberty, equality, and autonomy for women as political selves, citizens in the modern world”.
In 1792, Englishwomen Mary Wollstonecraft published Vindication of the Rights of Woman calling for girls to be educated for economic independence (Cole 2012, p. 15; Sanders 2006, p. 15); however, at the time, Wollstonecraft’s work paled in influence compared to the “advice manuals” and “conduct books” written for women (Sanders 2006, p. 16). For nineteenth-century England and America delineated gender roles, relegating women to the private sphere, aka the household, and men to the public sphere (Faulkner 2011, p. 60; Hughes 2014, p. 1). Further, working-class women were subsumed by exploitative working conditions under industrialisation (Gleadle 2001, pp. 9-23; Frader 1998, pp. 298-321) while education for middle-class women prioritised ‘accomplished’ skills and downplayed intellectual pursuits (Hughes 2014, p. 1). Nevertheless, the abolitionist movements of the nineteenth century allowed Quakers and other women to perform public roles beyond the Church and charities like public speaking or petitioning legislators – thus encroaching on citizenship rights denied to them and breaching social and gender norms (Faulkner 2011, p. 65; Sanders 2006; p. 21; Perry 2014, p. 348). Women also helped men to achieve suffrage, however, the patriarch feared women’s enfranchisement would “under[mine] marriage and the family” (Perry 2014, p. 348). Marriage, both in legislation and socially-entrenched values, was likewise gendered. Women had to be chaste until marriage whereas men could turn to prostitutes and a woman’s ‘desire’ to marry stemmed from financial considerations rather than emotional or sexual love (Hughes 2014, p. 7). According to Doctor Acton (1865, p. 8) women submitted to conjugal sex from the “wish of pleasing or gratifying the husband than from any strong sexual feeling”. Divorce laws similarly reeked of inequality. Up until 1804, only four women in England had received a parliamentary divorce; by 1850, the recommended grounds for a dissolution of marriage was restricted to an adulterous wife (Shanley 1993, pp. 36-38).
Born in Massachusetts in 1810, Sarah Margaret Fuller was relentlessly pushed by her intrusive, controlling and at times unkind and demeaning father to be intellectual and self-righteous; by age nine, she was reading adult-level books like Aeneid and Oberon (Murray 2008, pp. 4-21). She came to admire feminists like Wollstonecraft, French salonniere Germaine de Stael and George Sand (Cole 2012, p. 20; Fuller 1845, p. 62; McFadden 1999, p. 79; Murray 2008, p. 60). And as an adult, she was drawn to the Romantics and Transcendentalists as she found herself increasingly at odds with her gender’s identity and frustrated by the inequalities suffered by her sex (Murray 2008, pp. 68-223). This included the ‘humiliating’ experience of being financially vulnerable upon her father’s death as an unmarried woman (Murray 2008, p. 223). Nevertheless, before publishing Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, Fuller was working as a journalist and had become Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mentee (Murray 2008, pp. 1, 92).
Little is known of Englishwoman Emily Harding except that her illustration was published by the Artist’s Suffrage League (ASL) c.1907. By this time, concepts of feminism and feminist had entered the European vernacular, restrictions on public speech had relaxed, the ‘penny press’ had arrived, and the fight for women’s equality had split into two factions (Boxer & Quataert 2000, p. 138; Offen, 1998, pp. 346-348). They were the suffragists and the suffragettes – the latter taking up militant action, “critiqu[ing] the “constitutional” approach as ladylike and unexciting” (Mayhall 2003, p. 7). However, militancy playing out as civil disturbance, damage to public property and so forth, resulted in suffragettes being arrested and imprisoned.
Print materials were used by the women’s rights movement to disseminate propaganda that doubled as fundraising (Florey 2013, p. 153; Schlossberg 2012, p. 95). Like the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Suffrage Aelier, the ASL promoted and awarded public submissions for print designs (Florey 2013, p. 153). Some were then sold to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and advertised for sale “in the Woman’s Journal for twenty-five cents each” (Florey 2013, p. 153).
In tribute to her upbringing, Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) is saturated with references to literature, Greek mythology, Christian anecdotes and female rulers that contested the culturally-constructed ideologies of women as inferior (see for example pp. 11-14, 32-33, 35-36, 39-40, 52-54). But her sharpest critiques were her exposure of hypocrisies including the argument women were unsuited to the public sphere.
Those who think the physical circumstances of woman would make a part in the affairs of national government unsuitable, are by no means those who think it impossible for the negresses to endure field work, even during pregnancy, or the sempstresses to go through their killing labors.Fuller 1845, p. 24
Fuller was similarly scathing towards the inequalities experienced by wives and mothers.
If a husband dies without making a will, the wife instead of taking at once his place as head of the family, inherits only a part of his fortune, often brought him by herself, as if she were a child, or ward only, not an equal partner … or if the wives leave them …. [they] threaten to rob them of the children … the fact that she alone and borne the pangs of their birth, and nourished their infancy, does not given an equal right to them.pp. 20-22
She keenly exposed the irony:
Man is of woman born, and her face bends over him in infancy with an expression he can never quite forget … it is an hacknied observation, that most men of genius boast some remarkable development in the mother. The rudest tar brushes off a tear with his coat-sleeve at the hallowed name. (p. 38)p. 38
And while Fuller (1845) observed ‘woman’s lot’ was sad, misfortunate, and had stifled their aspirations (pp. 37, 145), she nevertheless optimistically prophesied a world without barriers for women:
We should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres would ensue. Yet, then and only then, will mankind be ripe for this, when inward and outward freedom for woman as much as for man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.p. 26
Emily Harding Andrew’s illustrated propagandist poster published by the Artists’ Suffrage League is symbolic on two levels. The dignified female scholar is caged alongside a ‘convict’ and ‘lunatic’, the poster reading: “She. It is time I got out of this place. Where shall I find the key? Convicts lunatics and women! Have no vote for parliament”. Besides the conspicuous reading of women still unable to secure enfranchisement, the illustration also symbolised the imprisonment of suffragettes.
In considering the significance of the sources to the intensifying women’s rights movement of the long nineteenth century, Woman in the Nineteenth Century was published at the time when American women were ranking together to abolish slavery while they remained slaves to their husbands. Fuller’s convictions fused her intense education, immersion in Romantic and Transcendentalist circles as a woman and her financial vulnerabilities upon her father dying. She saw gendered barriers and intended to understand how they had come to be, but she also envisioned and advocated for an alternative world. Inspired by feminists like Sand – whose novels explored romantic love both in and out of marriage as well as “emotional honesty and independence for women” (McFadden 1999, p. 77) – Fuller “radically” differed from her mentor Emerson in advocating for marriage that beared semblance to those she had studied in literature. But she not only fiercely rejected the patriarchal subjugation of wives, but also mothers. Indeed, her work was credited by fellow suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as the “precursor” to the American women’s rights movement (as cited in Coles 2012, p. 15).
Whereas Fuller was attributed with starting a movement, Harding’s illustration contributed to the propaganda arsenal during the precipice of the suffrage movement in Britain. But printed propaganda was likewise used by the ‘enemy’ anti-suffragists who “sought to represent pro-suffrage men as a series of misogynistic and homophobic types on a spectrum of degeneracy from emasculation to effeminacy” (Garrett & Thomas 2019, p. 217). As mentioned, Harding’s poster encapsulated the frustration felt by women in being unable to obtain the vote. They led schools, orphanages and hospitals, but “were unable to vote for members of the House of Commons until after World War I” (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob & Daly 2016, p. 616). However, what has been missing from scholarly debate – surprisingly – is the recognition of the illustration dually symbolising the imprisonment of suffragettes. Hundreds were jailed, many of whom later adopted the Russian tactic of hunger-striking (Grant 2011, pp. 116-117). As Schlossberg (2012, p. 95) elaborated, they campaigned “in part, against Victorian fantasies of a female body that was too weak to bear the responsibility of making weighty political or intellectual decisions”. In attesting to the political tension and perceived threat from the suffragette’s actions, the Government began force-feeding the women prisoners from July 1909 to prevent them becoming martyrs (Miller 2009, p. 359) and come 1914, restricting where posters could be placed (Florey 2013, p. 153).
In concluding, each source captured a pivotal moment in the nineteenth-century intensification of the woman’s suffrage movement that was borne from the revolutionary spirit of the eighteenth century. Fuller’s experiences allowed her to articulate and advocate for women’s justice and equality at the same time other groups in society were achieving rights, kickstarting the American woman’s suffrage movement. And Harding’s illustration added to the cultural and political milieu of the British movement that nearing the end of the long nineteenth century bared witness to militant tactics, hunger strikes and subsequently government panic and censorship.
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