First Women's Rights Movement

OHS AL04183.jpg
Lucy Stone was an abolitionist and a prominent leader in the women's rights movement in the nineteenth century.

In North America, the women's rights movement first gained momentum with the American Revolution.

Some women believed that the men fighting for America's independence from Great Britain were hypocrites. The men claimed that they opposed Great Britain's rule because King George III refused to grant the colonists representation in Parliament, the legislative branch of the British government. The revolutionaries rallied around the cry of, "No taxation without representation." Women pointed out to the men that women also did not have representation; that the men held ultimate and complete power over women just like the British government had complete power over the colonists.

While the women's rights movement began to grow with the ideas of the American Revolution, women's rights advocates remained small in number throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Many men opposed women having a life outside of the home, believing that women were to nurture their husbands and to raise virtuous children so that the United States would flourish. This concept, not defined as such until 1976, is known as Republican Motherhood: the idea that the new republic would succeed only if women raised virtuous children. Some women began to play a greater role in the public sphere by participating in various reform movements that arose in the early 1800s, especially the temperance and abolition movements. These women claimed that, if women were responsible for creating virtuous children, women should also play a role in helping those people who have become consumed by immoral acts redeem themselves.

In 1836 Angelina Grimke published An Appeal to Christian Women of the South which was her personal petition for abolition; postmasters burned the pamphlet because women were not allowed to speak publicly. Both Angelina and her sister Sarah opposed the gender restriction by volunteering to give speeches at abolitionist gatherings. Their increasing notoriety caused many men to shun the sisters from society and coerce them into fearful resignation. Angelina and Sarah only hardened in the face of communal pressures, establishing a liberal school where they educated women and minorities. As the abolitionist movement began to garner significant support, many women, especially middle-class white women, began to question their second-class status.

Numerous Ohio women actively participated in reform movements. Ohio women formed the Ohio Women's Temperance Society and the Female Moral Reform Society to assist other people in living in a more moral manner. Ohioans Lucy Stone and Harriet Beecher Stowe played a vital role in the abolitionist movement through their speeches and writings. It was apparent to the reformers, in Ohio and elsewhere, that women did not enjoy the same opportunities for which they were fighting for other groups. Many women, such as women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, would not stand for this.

The women's rights movement truly blossomed in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention. The Seneca Falls Convention took place on July 19 and 20, 1848, at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York. At the meeting, Stanton introduced the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. This document was a statement of the rights that the participants at the convention felt women deserved. Conference attendees included approximately 260 women and 40 men, among them escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The inequitable state of property rights between the genders, biased educational opportunities, and the lack of women’s suffrage were among the grievances, or “sentiments,” addressed in the document. The preamble of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments includes the line “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” This phrase was borrowed and modified from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

Every right that Stanton sought for women received unanimous approval from the conventioneers except for granting women the right to vote. Many women, including Lucretia Mott, feared that critics would denounce the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments as being too radical if the document called for women to receive the right to vote. Mott believed that it was better to attain goals by which men would feel less threatened at first. At the urging of Frederick Douglass, this demand remained in the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, but it did not pass unanimously. One hundred women signed the final document. Some of the signers, after they received harsh criticism for their actions, eventually demanded that their names be removed from the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. Despite the fact that some women wavered under criticism, the women's rights movement finally had a list of the rights that women's rights advocates were seeking from the government.

The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments motivated some Ohio women to become more demonstrative for attaining women's equality with men. Columbus resident Elizabeth Bisbee established a newspaper, the Alliance, to fight for equal rights for women. Many women, including Frances Dana Gage, helped organize women's conferences across Ohio during the early 1850s. Gage presided over one of these meetings, which was held in McConnelsville and did not include any men. This conference, along with others, collected petitions asking the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851 to give women the right to vote. Gage led another state convention in Akron on May 29, 1851. At this meeting, Gage and the other women found that the local community was not accepting of their goals. Many men, including several ministers, came to the convention to heckle the speakers. It was at this conference that Sojourner Truth, a former slave, gave her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech. In 1852, a number of people met in Massillon, Ohio, at the Women's Rights Convention. Participants voted to establish the Ohio Woman's Rights Association, which held its first statewide meeting in Ravenna on May 25, 1853. The attendees helped to draft a petition to the state legislature, requesting legislation that would grant women more rights.

Despite their efforts, women's rights supporters in Ohio gained few successes by the end of the American Civil War. The Ohio Constitution of 1851 denied women the right to vote. In 1852, the Ohio legislature did pass a law to protect women working outside of the home, however, state authorities refused to enforce it. In 1861, married women, assuming that their husbands no longer lived with them, received the right to own property and to make contracts. Prior to this law, all property when a couple married became the exclusive property of the husband. While these legislative acts were improvements for women living in Ohio, men still retained tremendous power over women by the Civil War's conclusion. Many women remained determined to attain equality, and a second women's rights movement would blossom in the late nineteenth century.

See Also


  1. Geary, Linda L. Balanced in the Wind: A Biography of Betsey Mix Cowles. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1989. 
  2. Isenberg, Nancy. Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. . Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  3. McMillan, Sally. Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.