Finding a Place:  Women's Search for Public Life


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Early American Women's Public Life

Women participated in various ways in early American public life.

During the early history of American public life women participated in many public spheres, although within the context of men's place as leaders of the family. In a society organized vertically with the family as the primary unit of participation in public life, generally men spoke for the family. But in cases where no male was present, women often participated in public life.

In addition, there were also spheres where women developed public life with other women.

But through early national history governmental public life in the United States became gendered.

By the 1830s, women had joined African Americans, Aboriginal Americans, and unlanded Americans as generally excluded from governmental spheres. We noted earlier how in the face of exclusion from the National Public Sphere in the early 1800s, other public spheres grew and the women's sphere was among these.

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The Public Concerns of Women in 1840

Thus, in the early nineteenth century, women were barred, legislatively or culturally, from many aspects of public life:

This division supported by a rhetoric used to define different roles for men and women based on their "nature."

There emerged the Cult of True Womanhood, sometimes called the Cult of Domesticity, in which women were deemed the gentler sex, charged with nurturing the young in a home (Republican Motherhood) that was a refuge from the less gentle competitive world of work. Males were deemed more aggressive and charged with defending the home and seeing after it from the outside world including the rough and tumble world of democratic government.

  Men Women
Where Outside home economically and politically Home; haven from the rough and tumble of outside
Role Earn a living for the family Be the heart of the family; nurture children and husband
Domain Politics and Finance Spritual and Emotional
To succeed Must be competitive, aggressive Ministering, caring for others
Nature Lustful, amoral, competitive, ambitious pure, pious, domestic, submissive

At the same time they were denied legal recourse, women faced severe problems that seemed to call for public attention:

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History of the Women's Movement

Emergence from the reform movement

In the 1860s, the Women's Movement split into two factions

By 1860, two issues had emerged which fueled a lively debate at the convention.

By 1868-69, these divisions had split the movement into two organizations:



Stanton and Anthony headed up the National Women's Suffrage Association in New York Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe headed up the American Women Suffrage Association in Boston
Argued for universal suffrage --makes for some strange allies--started endorsing Democratic Party which at the time was heavily anti-black suffrage; got involved with George Train (funding) who was a noted racist and very controversial figure who was trying to run for President Argued for the "Negro Hour"--maintained the connections with the abolitionists
Argued for a constitutional amendment (Federal Enforcement) Anthony wrote the equal rights amendment Worked for suffrage on a state-by-state basis (State Rights)
Published the Revolution--targeted working-class women and got involved in labor reform; a politically and socially "radical" and controversial publication Published the Women's Journal --targeted women professionals and a lot of women not necessarily committed to suffrage for women (often published "success" stories of women)
Broader feminist vision--took on several issues including divorce laws, equal pay, dress reform Focus was solely on suffrage (sometimes women's education issues)
A Rhetoric of Individualism A Rhetoric of Morality












The 1890 Reunion

In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA reunited into the National American Women's Suffrage Association.

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Places for Women's Public Life

In the early movement

After the Civil War

The movement, like other places for public life organized into formal organizations.

The Public Space

In general, the movement sought to provide women a place to develop their public voices so they could move into greater influence in the governmental sphere.

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Authority in the Women's Movement

In the early movement, tied to reform

Late in the movement

Authority is tied the long years of struggle

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The Feminine Style

A style of discourse developed that has been called the feminine style (although it is not a style solely used by women). Karyln Campbell claims the style was rooted in the craft community experience. It has several characteristics:

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Ways of Motivating public action

A deep division developed in the 1860s and continued through the success of the movement that revolved around how you motivated public attention.

Rhetoric of Individualism
Rhetoric of Morality

Used argument from justice:

Women are individuals, they are citizens, therefore they deserve the full rights of citizenship. Allowing them to participate in public life will fulfill them as individuals and contribute to the national community.

Used argument from expediency:

Women are the gentler sex, the guardians of society's morality.  Allowing them to participate in public life will make the national community more pure, more peaceful, more moral.

Built on the Declaration of Independence and the notion of natural rights. Grew directly from the Reform movement. Built on the "Cult of True Womanhood."  Attempted to turn the basis of opposition into a basis for support. Traded on the rhetoric of moral inheritance.
Important Ideographs: <rights> <citizens> <freedom> <equality> Important Ideographs: <moral> <family> <security> <home> <family>
Example:  Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Solitude of the Self" Example: Rhetoric of the Women's Christian Temperance Union.











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This lecture was developed with the assistance of Lisa Gring-Pemble, Diane Blair, Michele Mason, and Lindsay Hayes.