Women have exerted influence in American politics since the country's founding. Though initially through individual acts to bring attention to their cause, they eventually organized into unions and societies who commanded attention and effectuate change.
Join me as I jump into the history of women in politics in the United States.
“A Brief History of Women in American Politics.” Washington Week. PBS. June 9, 2016. (LINK)
“A Great Inheritance: Abolitionist Practices in the Women's Rights Movement.” National Park Service. (LINK)
Burns, Ken. “Roots of Prohibition.” PBS. (LINK)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers: Speeches. Campaign Announcement. From the Library of Congress. (LINK)
Fine, Melanie. “How the First Woman Ran for Congress And Lost.” Forbes. Mar 8, 2019. (LINK)
Graves, Kristina. “Women’s Political Participation After 1920: Myth and Reality. National Women’s History Museum. September 10, 2020. (LINK)
Herrick, Taylor and Kaycie Goral. “The History of Women Running for Vice President.” Medium. August 12, 2020. (LINK)
“Milestones for Women in American Politics.” Center for American Women in Politics. Rutgers. (LINK)
“Proceedings of the National Liberty Convention, held at Buffalo, N.Y.Proceedings of the National Liberty Convention, held at Buffalo, N.Y., June 14th & 15th, 1848 : including the resolutions and addresses adopted by that body, and speeches of Beriah Green and Gerrit Smith on that occasion.” Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection. Cornell University Library Digital Collections. (LINK)
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. “Temperance and Woman’s Rights.” Rochester, New York. June 1, 1853. (LINK)
“The First Woman To Run For President: Victoria Woodhull.” National Park Service. Updated January 25, 2021. (LINK)
Zorthian, Julia, Merril Fabry and Olive B. Waxman. “50 Women Who Made American Political History.” Time. March 8, 2017. (LINK)
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“We have been obliged to preach woman’s rights, because many, instead of listening to what we had to say on temperance, have questioned the right of a woman to speak on any subject. In courts of justice and legislative assemblies, if the right of the speaker to be there is questioned, all business waits until that point is settled. Now, it is not settled in the mass minds that woman has any rights on this footstool, and much less a right to stand on an even pedestal with man, look him in the face as an equal, and rebuke the sins of her day and generation. Let it be clearly understood, then, that we are a woman’s right society; that we believe it is a woman’s duty to speak whenever she feels the impression to do so; that it is her right to be present in all the councils of church and state.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, June 1st, 1853.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
Women, you could say, have been in the middle of American politics since the country’s inception. There is the notorious Abigail Adams, who forcefully and consistently took her husband to task to quote unquote remember the ladies. Or Mary Dyer, part of the Boston Martyrs, who dared the early republic to put her to death for her refusal to follow the law regarding religious practice.
While women have only enjoyed widespread suffrage for just over a hundred years, they have consistently been involved in politics and fought to have a say in how the country was shaped. So this week, as we wrap up Women’s History month, I am diving into the history of women in politics.
How did women get involved in politics? What were some of their causes? And who are some of the firsts we should know about?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
I should start by saying many of the movements and women I am about to discuss will get a deeper treatment in future episodes. However, since I wanted to focus on women in politics, the topic required I touched on the achievements of these women and so never fear, dear listeners. We’ll get into a lot of this stuff in more detail soon.
That being said, American history is filled with individual examples of women working hard to right the wrongs they saw or experienced. If you’ve been a long time listener of the pod, then you know I've covered both Mary Dyer and Abigail Adams and the ways they used their positions to effectuate change. Dyer in an ultimate sacrifice of giving her life for her cause and Adams with using her approximation to power to try to influence and shed light on the experiences of women. While both women had admittedly little tangible impact, the fact remains they were committed in their own ways to the betterment of the country and felt invested enough in the outcome to put themselves out there. For the purposes of this episode, I chose to focus on how and when women came together as a collective group and highlight some of the milestones women achieved in what is seen as a heavily male dominated field.
Throughout our history, women have pushed societal expectations and norms to further advance causes close to their heart. While most know about the fight for suffrage, women also fought for things like access to public education, temperance and abolition. While their efforts were small and unorganized initially, they eventually evolved into influential collaborative societies and used their podium, when available, to further advocate their positions.
The fight for abolition is one of the first experiences where women as a group were able to buck societal expectations and move into a public space to call for change. Driven by a sense of morality, many middle class white women fought for the freedom of enslaved men and women, participating in petition campaigns and for some, public speaking. Before abolition, women by and large had a quiet role in the community and were often seen and not heard. With abolition, women found they commanded attention and were able to use their voice to highlight a need for change.
The organized effort of abolition also pushed many women into the cause for women’s rights later in the century, with many considering themselves as in similar situations as the women held in bondage. While that may seem like a hyperbolic comparison when taking the wider lens, the women of the time felt that denial of autonomy and suffrage mirrored the experiences of their enslaved sisters. Women’s experiences in the fight for abolition was pivotal in the development of the coming demand for suffrage. It not only gave women an opportunity to develop alliances and establish a communication network, but it also gave women the confidence to push for societal change.
This emerging confidence came, in part, thanks to the success in ending the institution and by the support received by the male abolitionists who were at the forefront of the fight. Men, such as William Llloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, supported and publicized the female voice. Publishing their speeches and articles, women were able to advocate for equal treatment in a broader manner than ever before.
It was 1848 at Seneca Falls where a large body of women gathered for the first time to demand equality. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the members of the convention spelled out the need for suffrage in their iconic Declaration of Sentiments, which was purposefully modeled after the Declaration of Independence. In the document, the women present laid out to the best of their ability the arguments for why they were demanding equality, writing quote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness,” end quote.
This forceful pronouncement pushed for sixteen sentiments for women’s equality, with suffrage listed among them. Attendee, newspaper publisher, and supporter Frederick Douglass further spread the message of Seneca Falls by publishing a copy of the declaration in his newspaper, The North Star.
Women would have to continue to battle for nearly sixty years, and if you’re looking at access for black and brown women, nearly a century before they enjoyed access to the voting booth with the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.
Another key element to the call for equality? The need for access to higher education. While education in early america was limited and rudimentary for both boys and girls, this gap was quickly eliminated for men with the establishment of universities which came to be known as princeton and columbia. However, education for women remained limited to learning basic literacy with no opportunity for higher education.
One of the most prominent and staunchest supporters of education for women is Emma Willard, who established the first secondary school for women, The Troy Female Seminary, in 1821. Willard spent her life advocating for the rights of women to gain an education and with her trailblazing efforts, schools for women became more commonplace which helped pave the way for female only universities such as Vassar College founded in 1861.
When not pushing for abolition or suffrage, many women trained their eyes on temperance. Stemming in part from the religious fervor that overtook the country during the Second Great Awakening, temperance was a social and religious movement pushing for individuals to abstain from alcohol. It is estimated that in 1830, Americans consumed nearly 15 gallons of alcohol every year, which is nearly three times what we drink today. Or maybe more than we drank before hosting at home happy hours during the pandemic.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, took the charge in pushing for abstinence from alcohol. While it was not the first such organization in existence, it was arguably the largest and most powerful. In 1879 one of the most forceful advocates for the movement became the union’s leader. Her name was Frances Willard. Originally trained as an educator, Willard was an effective lobbyist and masterful politician, though she was never elected to any office. While keenly focused on temperance, Willard also worked to expand the union’s reach, incorporating the fight for suffrage and labor laws, increasing membership for the organization. Willard’s philosophy encouraged women to become active in political life for causes they believed in, calling on them to write letters or sign petitions.
Efforts made by these women helped propel the United States into passing legislation banning the sale of liquor in 1919 with the ratification of the 18th amendment. Known as prohibition, the United States attempted to prohibit the sale of alcohol throughout its borders. While it largely failed, it only further proved women were capable of calling for and gaining real change through the allowable and quote unquote acceptable methods available to them.
But women were not solely limited to petitions and conventions. They saw the men who surrounded them residing in the halls of power, implementing laws and policies that impacted them, but for which they had no say and grew tired of the limitations embedded in writing petitions and conducting speeches.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women broke boundaries and inserted their voice by infiltrating local government positions, often before many of their fellow females could exercise their right to the franchise. From the first all female local government in Oskaloosa, Kansas in 1888 to the first woman of color to hold statewide executive office in 1923, women pushed closer and closer to ensuring they had a seat at the table - or to quote a famous musical, be in the room where it happens.
In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the first woman to run for the United States House of Representatives as an Independent from New York. Known for her work at Seneca Falls in 1848, Stanton continued her push for suffrage with her campaign announcement, writing quote: “Although, by the Constitution of the State of New York woman is denied the elective franchise, yet she is eligible to office; therefore, I present myself to you as a candidate for Representative to Congress,” end quote.”
She captured only 24 votes.
And a century before Shirley Chisholm made history with her attempt at the presidency in 1972, a woman by the name of Victoria Woodhull ran as the candidate for the Equal Rights Party. A stockbroker and publisher who mentored under Cornelius Vanderbilt, Woodhull amassed quite a fortune and attempted to challenge Ulysses S Grant and Horace Greely in the 1872 presidential contest, despite her not yet achieving the constitutionally required age of 35. One of my favorite podcasters, Anne Marie over at Armchair Historians, interviewed Dr. Teri Fineman about Woodhull and her attempts to win the presidency. It was a fascinating episode and I would highly recommend you check it out if you want to learn a bit more.
And before you think Woodhull was the sole attempt at the presidency before Ms. Chisholm, think again. There were a few more women who took the leap, only to fall short. In 1884 and 1888, Belva Lockwood ran for the office, again as the candidate for the Equal Rights Party, followed by Margaret Chase Smith who launched her bid for the Republican nomination in 1964 and Charlene Mitchell, who ran for president under the Communist Party ticket in 1968, making her the first black woman to vie for the office. And while there have been several other attempts at presidential runs since Ms. Chisholm, as of this recording in 2022, a woman has not yet broken through.
Though women have yet to capture the top spot, the same can no longer be said for the role of Vice President. A number of women vied for the position before Kamala Harris made history with her election in 2020. Way before Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferrero as his running mate in 1984, Lucretia Mott garnered 5 votes in 1848 during the Liberty Party’s National convention. That was followed by Lena Springs who in 1924 garnered support during the contentious Democratic National Convention and Charlotta Spears Bass who was the first black woman nominee for Vice President, nominated to the Progressive Party ticket in 1952.
In 1916, Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress and is the only person to vote against both world wars. A grassroots activist who successfully campaigned across the country convincing states to allow women the right to vote, she surprised many when she beat the odds and was elected as the Republican representative from Montana.
And though she served only one day, Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first woman to serve in the Senate, appointed in 1922. Her appointment was largely symbolic, meant to commemorate a decades-long career in politics. Several other women would be appointed to their Senate posts before Margaret Chase Smith made history by becoming the first woman to run for Senate without first being appointed in 1948. It took until 1992 for Carole Moseley Braun to break the color barrier, becoming the first black woman elected to the Senate. She remains one of only two black women to hold a senate seat, with current Vice President Kamala Harris as the second, representing California before her elevation to the Vice Presidency. And sadly, it wasn’t until 1998 that an openly gay woman, Tammy Baldwin, was elected to Congress, first to the house and then in 2012, to the Senate where is currently a sitting member.
Women continue to break barriers and influence policy for millions of Americans. From diplomatic posts to the cabinet, from local city mayors to the Vice Presidency, women remain a force to be reckoned with. And as Shirley Chisholm once said, quote: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” end quote.
And with that, peeps, we’ve come to the end of Women’s History Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to these last few episodes as much as I did recording them. Another big thank you and shout out to Dr’s Roth and Rabinovitch-Fox for taking time from their schedules to come chat with me.
Before I sign off today, I do want to say a quick thank you to Sherie who is a long time listener of the pod and recently contributed to the show via buy me a coffee. I very much appreciate the support. If you would like to learn how to support the show, or read about the fabulous guests I’ve had on or review episode materials, head on over to the website at www dot civics and coffee dot com.
Thanks, peeps. I will see you next week.
Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.