Women’s Rights and Reconstruction

Women’s Rights and Reconstruction

Lisa Tetrault

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors warned me against studying women’s suffrage. She told me I’d never get a job.  Evidently because the choice made unflattering statements about my sensibilities as a historian: old-fashioned, myopically white, insufferably heroic, and mired in Whiggish progressivism. These expectations have marked woman suffrage scholarship (fairly and unfairly) to such a degree that the study of Reconstruction frequently overlooks the subject altogether. It simultaneously overlooks the larger women’s movement of which suffrage was only a part.

Reconstruction witnessed the largest and most sophisticated expansion in women’s rights organizing in the nation to that point. Yet most scholarship proceeds without fully recognizing or engaging this fact. Agendas grew exponentially during the postwar years, elaborated and espoused by increasingly massive numbers of women, numbers that quickly dwarfed antebellum organizing.

We can glimpse this vehemence and variegation in all sorts of places, including contemporaries’ own observations. As Susan Cook, an Arkansas resident, wrote in her 1864 diary: “Mr. Higgins is passing the night with us; had quite a debate upon ‘Woman’s Rights,’ that never ending theme.”[1] Turning to the North, Mary Livermore noted just after the war: “In the course of the next ten or twelve years, the whole country was seething with interest in the questions that relate to women.”[2] Scholars are also beginning to document this—both inadvertently, in passing references (often in places where you’d least expect), and deliberately, in focused studies about elements of this larger expansion. Yet so much basic recovery and careful analysis remains to be done. Women’s rights movements—North and South, built around everything from bodily sovereignty to economic security—were absolutely integral to the history of Reconstruction. And their all-too-frequent absence in standard narratives is a sizeable hole in our larger understanding of the period.

This reality is missed, in part, because scholars still too often conflate women’s rights with women’s suffrage. Until recently, Ellen DuBois’s 1978 Feminism and Suffrage was the only scholarly monograph about the suffrage movement during Reconstruction.[3] And DuBois closes in 1870, before the expansive women’s rights ferment of the 1870s and just as a nationwide suffrage movement began taking shape. DuBois also focused on Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, not the grassroots where most of the action actually took place. Because scholars continue to look to Stanton and Anthony to tell this story, we have yet to reckon with how regularly women’s suffrage as well as other women’s rights debates surfaced in the era’s politics.[4]

Another stumbling block in incorporating women’s rights agendas into our understanding has been the continued dominance of a Seneca Falls narrative in framing nineteenth-century women’s rights, which draws attention northward, emphasizes the vote, and makes white women (particularly Stanton and Anthony) the epicenter of the story. Although we rarely think of Seneca Falls as a postwar narrative, it was. People did not tell this story until Reconstruction. Stanton and Anthony invented it in response to postwar organizing challenges, as the pair found themselves quickly engulfed and somewhat displaced by the outpouring of northern activism. Stanton and Anthony used this invented origin (first sketched tentatively, then more robustly) to try to focus activism on the pursuit of a federal woman suffrage amendment, their preferred approach.[5]

In the 1870s, as increasingly large numbers of women veered away from Stanton and Anthony’s strategies for achieving the vote and also pursued other women’s rights agendas, from free love to temperance, a Seneca Falls origin said, “follow us.” The story, as Stanton and Anthony told it, cast Stanton as the movement’s originator and thereby argued that Stanton and Anthony’s rivals were on the wrong side of history. Such an origin encouraged reverence and respect for women who were having a harder and harder time generating either. And it suggested that Stanton as well as Anthony represented the true path of feminism. The pair also used this story to elevate the vote as the supreme emblem of rights, clearly trying to persuade northern activists, spinning off in multiple directions, to narrow their agendas and follow this goal. Although the vote had been one among many demands in 1848, in their postwar telling, only the vote was featured.[6]

It would be decades before the story took firm root, but as historians repeat it, without knowing its history, we reinscribe its boundaries and unhelpfully collapse women’s postwar organizing.[7] The eventual, and continued, dominance of this invented origin is surely one reason the scholarship continues to equate women’s rights during Reconstruction with a story about Stanton, Anthony, the North, and a federal suffrage amendment (even though voting’s advocacy took other forms). Here, the explosion in postwar memory studies, emphasizing the political work of invented narratives, needs to be brought into a more dynamic exchange with women’s rights advocates’ own robust memory projects, many of which remain unexcavated. At the same time, understanding the Reconstruction-era history behind a Seneca Falls origin story sharply underscores the need for an entirely new organizing narrative, one that can better accommodate the diversity of agendas, activists, and origins.

To date, some of the most sophisticated analyses of postwar women’s rights’ agitation exist in scholarship about the postwar South. Yet much of this scholarship remains unhelpfully segregated from a larger narrative about postwar women’s rights, which is overly northern and overly white. Scholars have recovered black women active in the suffrage movement, and this has been important work.[8] But a much bigger task presents: namely, integrating the rich work on freedwomen’s expansive and stepped-up claims on the state, and on their communities, into our broader understanding of postwar women’s rights. Part of the problem here may be what Kate Masur has identified as Reconstruction scholarship’s current emphasis on parsing definitions of “freedom” over those of “equality.”[9] That orientation may be leading scholars to situate freed black women’s activism in the history of race struggles (organized around “freedom”), rather than simultaneously identifying them as constituent parts of a larger, national women’s rights narrative (alternately organized around “equality”). The long history of marking women as white, and then seeing their agendas as definitional, has powerfully contributed as well.

The strength of this scholarship about southern women’s activism has been twofold. It has patiently parsed, with painstaking historical specificity, the many ways women on the ground defined and claimed their rights. From Tera Hunter’s exploration of black women’s choices to move to cities in pursuit of greater physical protection and their choices, once there, to remake their lives through gaining control over their labor, to Hannah Rosen’s illumination of the ways freedwomen forced new institutions, particularly the Freedmen’s Bureau, to protect their bodies from rape, this work has been groundbreaking.[10] Such scholars have also firmly situated their investigations about freedwomen’s lives in the larger, complex landscape of Reconstruction-era politics, deploying gender as a central tool of analysis. This, in turn, has revolutionized how scholars understand the remaking of labor, race, and politics following the war, with women featured as central actors in that dynamic process.[11]

That type of careful, on-the-ground reconstruction of how rights were defined and pursued, along with how gender functioned more broadly in the remaking of a postwar world (which, in turn, impinged on women’s ability to realize their demands) needs to better inform northern studies, where women and gender have not yet sufficiently moved to the center of analyses about so-called northern Reconstruction.[12] In other words, scholars need to more carefully parse the content of northern women’s rights’ claims, just as they have so expertly done for ideas about “freedom.” We also need more study of how white, northern women’s rights activists helped, wittingly and unwittingly, to deny personhood to free and freed black women, often through enforcing gender norms, sometimes in the name of rights, and how all these women too helped remake labor, race, gender, and politics—the North being no less implicated in that project than the South.[13] Here, we need to bring northern women’s rights activism in careful dialogue with southern women’s rights activism. At the same time, a basic recovery of the many voices comprising this broader negotiation is needed.

Consider two unexcavated northern examples. The scores of women who participated in vibrant northern labor movements—which continued, expanded, and transformed during these years, as the North grappled with the elaboration of industrial capitalism—remain largely invisible in scholarship today. They stay, therefore, erased from the larger landscape of which they were intimately a part. Lara Vapnek has, thankfully, begun this project in the first chapter of her 2009 book, Breadwinners, throwing open a window on explored vistas. In her chapter detailing the Reconstruction years, we meet women like Jennie Collins, Elizabeth Daniels, and Aurora Phelps—all with their own unique strands of labor feminism, where women’s economic security and striving formed a central theme. Rejecting prevalent notions, particularly within the suffrage movement, that posited a universal woman, Collins fought against any singular conception of “woman’s rights” since, as she put it, “there are not certain wrongs that apply to the whole sex.”[14]

A full-blown “free-love” (or sex-radical) movement also erupted in precisely this era, populated by women who demanded women’s economic equality, bodily protection in marriage (women’s bodies belonged to their husbands), control over their fertility, and a right to sexual expression, in and out of marriage (in an era when experts insisted white women lacked sexual desire). Victoria Woodhull occasionally stands in for this movement, but her bright star is no substitute for the intricate constellation that was free love. Only Joanne Passet’s 2003 book, Sex Radicals, has begun to fully examine this grassroots movement. A single opening chapter comprises her examination of the 1860s and 1870s, leaving much more room for investigation. Passet also shifts attention away from the northeast, where so much women’s rights scholarship has focused, and argues that “free love” took root in the Midwest. Her conclusions suggest that the current reorientation of Civil War–era scholarship westward should also inform our narratives of women’s rights. Conversely, the rise of free love in the Midwest can help us understand how the broader region tested and remade rights along lines that may have defied North-South political alignments.[15]

Women in both of these camps, and those in others, also frequently advocated the vote, but what did that mean? It may not mean what we suspect. Scholars generally presume that northern white women held shared understandings of the franchise, working for the same goal, even if they differed over emphasis and tactics. But this is entirely untested. Elsa Barkley Brown has argued that southern black women and their communities invested the vote with radically different meaning than did northern white women, seeing it as a communal possession rather than understanding it through the lens of liberal individualism.[16] This is only the beginning of definitional variation.

Scholars such as Heather Cox Richardson and Victoria Hattam have shown that the vote had no fixed or self-evident meaning in these years.[17] Debates about enfranchisement were only nominally about who got to vote (where most of the scholarship remains focused). These debates were equally interventions in unsettled debates about the substance of economic and political citizenship, the relationship between labor and capital, the nature of the new industrial economy, and the proper scope of federal power. Demands for women’s enfranchisement need to be situated within these larger debates, not simply about who could vote, but also about what the vote—and ultimately the substance of freedom and equality—meant. When we do this, I suspect we’ll find women’s rights advocates were influential actors in their own right, helping to define these broader, contested meanings, whether they were ultimately enfranchised or not.[18]

Perhaps this is why debates about women’s suffrage surfaced in formal politics so continuously and so robustly after the war, something that remains largely unrecognized and underexplored in the literature. Scholars make passing references to isolated cases (generally following a few well-worn outlines), but when viewed together, these cases are a force to be reckoned with. State constitutional conventions considered women’s suffrage in New York (1867), Arkansas (1867), Illinois (1869–70), Vermont (1870–71), Nebraska (1871, 1875); Pennsylvania (1872–73), New Jersey (1873–74), Ohio (1873–74), Missouri (1875), Texas (1875), Colorado (1876–77), California (1878–79), Washington Territory (1878), and Louisiana (1879). Women’s suffrage also made its way into state legislative and congressional debates with regularity, being voted on every session in some states. A deciphering of these numerous, recurring debates is desperately needed. Many of the votes taken on this question were also favorable, which contradicts assumptions about the supposed unpopularity of women’s suffrage. In 1872, as just one example, the territory of North Dakota defeated full women’s suffrage by a single vote. This brief inventory is necessarily incomplete, but it reveals how regularly—and seriously—citizens as well as politicians addressed this question after the war. Understanding the vote as idiom, as opposed to a simple possession, should help scholars grapple with the deep resonance of women’s suffrage in politics throughout the North and even across the South.[19]

To return to the most familiar instantiation of postwar women’s rights, a postwar women’s suffrage movement, even this is poorly understood in the scholarship. As much as that movement should be repositioned, there should also be significantly more analysis of it. Considered as a movement (as opposed to voting advocacy within other coalitions), women’s suffrage was far more popular, expansive, varied, and grassroots than conventional scholarship depicts. Postwar newspapers, which routinely reported on suffrage activity, preserve a localized world yet uncovered. Attention to regional diversity is needed too. Like free love, suffrage organizing took firm, rapid root in the Midwest, an understudied region that frequently outpaced or sidestepped national-level organizing efforts rooted in the northeast. Women at all these levels—national, state, and local—clashed over countless issues, issues well beyond tactics or support for the Fifteenth Amendment (the usual narrative). Indeed, it appears they even clashed with one another over the vote’s very definition.[20]

For all the scholarly emphasis on Stanton and Anthony, we don’t really know them either. There exists only one recent scholarly biography of Stanton.[21] And there exists no biography of Anthony by a professional historian.[22] None. We also have very little idea what the pair were up to, on the ground, in any detail, during the 1870s—a decade of intense activism in their respective careers. This, despite one of the more important documentary editing projects: the Stanton and Anthony Papers, led by Ann D. Gordon, which has pulled together scattered materials into a single, massive microfilm collection (and there’s an index!).[23] This, combined with the increasing sophistication of Reconstruction-era scholarship more generally, makes this a particularly promising time to reassess their postwar careers.

In the end, Reconstruction-era scholarship, more generally, points toward new conclusions about the success of these various agendas. Scholars’ repositioning of women’s analyses as a critical and routine part of larger debates about the remaking of rights, rather than as parallel but separate debates, has produced new conclusions. Where women’s multiple agendas failed to be fully realized, it was not necessarily because they were unpopular on the face of it, or “unthinkable” by their communities on the grounds of simple sexism. Failures also existed because such agendas were inseparable from the broader political culture. Larger community support for women’s demands meant continuing to define rights expansively. Yet by 1872, as Radical Reconstruction drew to a close, many whites were unwilling to sanction such a broad reading because of the larger implications for the power of white laborers and freed blacks, at a time when politicians and the judiciary demanded increasingly narrow readings of hard-fought gains won by each. This, as much as anything else, must be recognized as we try to grapple with understanding women’s activism in the past and continuing to demand rights in the present.


LISA TETRAULT is associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. Her first book, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) won the Organization of American Historians’ inaugural Mary Jurich Nickliss women’s history book prize.


[1] Quoted in Hannah Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 307, n104.
[2] Mary Livermore, The Story of My Life (1899; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1974), 493.
[3] Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–1869 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).
[4] There is a disagreement in the scholarship about whether suffrage was a leader-driven or grassroots campaign. Jean Baker and Faye Dudden have both argued that the movement was defined by and must be told through leaders. Jean H. Baker, “Getting Right with Women’s Suffrage,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 5, no. 1 (2006): 16; and Faye Dudden, Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), esp. 12. For a counter argument about Reconstruction-era women’s suffrage as a grassroots campaign, where leaders were emphatically not in charge, see Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014), esp. 75–111; and Tetrault, “The Incorporation of American Feminism: Suffragists and the Postbellum Lyceum,” Journal of American History, 96, no. 4 (2010), 1027–56.
[5] The pair first tried to cohere this tale in 1873; it took firm root by the late 1880s. Tetrault, Myth of Seneca Falls, esp. 46–111.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Telling the story today does not necessarily need to reinscribe the morals earlier tellers offered. But on this point of boundary drawing and attention focusing, it continues to reinscribe unhelpful earlier meanings and purposes.
[8] The leading example is Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African-American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998). For a different approach, see Lisa Materson, For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877–1932 (Charlotte, NC: UNC Press, 2009).
[9] Kate Masur, An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C. (Charlotte, NC: UNC Press, 2010).
[10] Tera W. Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Rosen, Terror in the Heart of Freedom.
[11] This paradigm-shifting turn to gender as an analytical lens took firm root in the 1990s. As examples, see Noralee Frankel, Freedom’s Women: Black Woman and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999); Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997); and Laura Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
[12] For an important exception, see Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998). In some cases, scholars of women’s activism haven’t helped matters. Jean Baker, while urging more scholarly attention to women’s suffrage, repeatedly calls its adherents “the ultimate outsiders.” Her conclusion about suffragists’ ostensible marginalization is as confusing as it is unpersuasive. Since the 1990s, feminist scholarship has rejected the idea of a separate women’s political culture residing outside mainstream political culture. And scholars have shown disenfranchised women to be robust and even experienced political actors, inside and outside of formal politics. Her argument also implicitly pits gender against race, resurrecting a dead-end and harmful debate about whose oppression was greater—who were “the ultimate outsiders” (emphasis mine). Baker, “Getting Right,” 16; and Jean Baker, introduction to Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited, ed. Jean Baker (New York, Oxford University Press, 2002), 7.
[13] Where scholars do merge Reconstruction-era politics with northern women’s rights activism, it is almost invariably around the Fifteenth Amendment. This engagement needs to be significantly broadened and deepened. For examples that begin this work, see Louise Newman, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Allison Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870–1929 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
[14] Lara Vapnek, Breadwinners: Working Women & Economic Independence, 1865–1920 (2009), 28.
[15] Joanne Passet, Sex Radicals and the Quest for Women’s Equality (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
[16] Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” Public Culture 7, no. 1 (1994): 107–46.
[17] Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North, 1865–1901 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004); and Victoria Hattam, Labor Visions and State Power: The Origins of Business Unionism in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).
[18] Such historical deciphering about the vote’s definition should help overturn conclusions about suffragists being quaintly naïve for putting their faith in the vote, which rest upon a late-twentieth-century vantage point where the vote is seen as having limited utility. It should also help overturn scholars’ skipping over postwar women’s suffrage, mentioning only a few broad, well-worn outlines, if they mention it at all.
[19] Martha G. Stapler, ed., The Woman Suffrage Yearbook (1917); Tetrault, Myth of Seneca Falls, 77, 81.
[20] Lisa Tetrault, “’The Real Meaning and Value of a Vote’: The Political-Economic Visions of Postwar Suffragists,” unpublished work in progress.
[21] Lori D. Ginzberg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2009). Stanton’s thought and life has also been explored in various other studies, whereas Anthony’s has not. See, for example, Ellen DuBois and Richard Cándida-Smith, eds., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Feminist as Thinker: A Reader in Documents and Essays (New York: NYU Press, 2007); and Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton’s Bible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).
[22] For accounts of how difficult it is to find Anthony under the layers of interpretation and appropriation of her over the past century and a half, see Ann D. Gordon, “Knowing Susan B. Anthony: The Stories We Tell of a Life,” in Susan B. Anthony and the Struggle for Equal Rights, ed. Mary M. Huth and Christine L. Ridarsky (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2012); and Tetrault, Myth of Seneca Falls.
[23] Patricia G. Holland et al., eds., Guide and Index to the Microfilm Edition of the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1992).

2 Replies to “Women’s Rights and Reconstruction”

  1. I am an 8th grade social studies teacher teaching early American history through Reconstruction. I would like to provide my students with the opportunity to explore the role of women during Reconstruction. Do you have any suggestions of materials or websites that might work for 14 year olds on women in that era?
    Many thanks for any suggestions you can provide!
    Best regards,
    Bess Spero Li
    Crossroads South Middle School
    South Brunswick, NJ

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