High School Unit II

Lesson B: The Activists

Key Questions

  1. Why did some individuals seek to change the status quo for women?
  2. What challenges did woman's rights activists face?
  3. Why was there resistance to increasing rights for women?

Primary Sources

Document HS II-7: "Ladies or Mongrels"? Excerpts from Newspaper Reports on First National Woman’s Rights Convention, 1850.

Document HS II-7: "Ladies or Mongrels"? Excerpts from Newspaper Reports on First National Woman’s Rights Convention, 1850.

Two years after the historic meeting in Seneca Falls, women from 11 states gathered at Brinley Hall in downtown Worcester for the first national woman’s rights convention. Newspaper reports ranged from sympathetic to scornful.

From Massachusetts Spy, October 30, 1850:

Very able speeches were made by several members of the convention, the first of which was read by Abby Price of Hopedale, in this county, and another, extemporaneous, by Mrs. Rose of New York, who we learn, was by birth a Polish Jewess. Both were decidedly good speeches, and no one could listen to them without respect for the talents of the speakers, whatever they might think of the merits of the cause. The latter [the Rose speech] was a strong, compact, and lucid argument delivered in a manner that few practised public speakers can equal. At dusk the convention adjourned till evening.

During the afternoon the Hall was densely crowded, and numbers went away for want of accommodation. . . .

This body continued its sessions at Brinley Hall Thursday, through the day and evening. The Hall was crowded, even in the morning session, and great interest was manifested in the proceedings throughout. We have known no convention or other public meeting held in this city, where all the exercises were conducted with more decorum or in better spirit, or where the whole of the speaking has been more uniformly able and unobjectionable. We confess ourselves agreeably disappointed in this respect, for we had not looked for such a display of forensic talent as we witnessed in the female speakers especially. We presume that some of the addresses will be published, and we regret that there was not a good phonographic reporter present, for some of the speeches which were the most effective, because entirely impromptus, and called forth by the incidents of the moment, were well worthy of being reported, and no abridged sketch can do justice to them.

From New York Herald, October 28, 1850:

That motley gathering of fanatical mongrels, of old grannies, male and female, of fugitive slaves and fugitive lunatics, called the Woman's Rights Convention, after two day's discussion of the most horrible trash, has put forth its platform and adjourned. The sentiments and doctrines avowed, and the social revolution projected, involve all the most monstrous and disgusting principles of socialism, abolition, amalgamation, and infidelity. The full consummation of their diabolical projects would reduce society to the most beastly and promiscuous confusion — the most disgusting barbarism that could be devised; and the most revolting familiarities of equality and licentiousness between whites and blacks, of both sexes, that lunatics and demons could invent. doctrines like these contemplating the overthrow of society, law, religion, and decency, might occasion some alarm, but for the notoriously vagabond character of the leaders in the movement; and the fanatical and crazy mongrels, in breeches and petticoats, who make up the rank and file. . . . There is not a lunatic asylum in the country, wherein, if the inmates were called together in sit in convention, they would not exhibit more sense, reason, decency and delicacy, and less of lunacy, blasphemy, and horrible sentiments, than this hybrid, mongrel, pie-bald, crack-brained, pitiful, disgusting and ridiculous assemblage. And there we drop them, and may God have mercy on their miserable souls. Amen.

These and other newspaper accounts are included in Assumption College’s online women’s history archive. http://www.assumption.edu/whw/


  1. Compare and contrast these two newspaper reports.
  2. Identify the words in each report that indicate the writer’s bias. 
  3. Why are the two accounts so different?
Document HS II-8: No Promise to Obey: Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell’s Marriage Vows, 1855.

Document HS II-8: No Promise to Obey: Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell’s Marriage Vows, 1855.

Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell signed this protest before their wedding on May 1, 1855. Their fellow reformer, the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, married them. He read the statement during the ceremony and distributed it to other ministers in hopes that they would encourage other couples to follow Stone and Blackwell’s example. Very few did.

While acknowledging our mutual affection by publicly assuming the relationship of husband and wife, yet in justice to ourselves and a great principle, we deem it a duty to declare that this act on our part implies no sanction of, nor promise of voluntary obedience to such of the present laws of marriage, as refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer upon the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess. We protest especially against the laws which give to the husband:

  1. The custody of the wife’s person.
  2. The exclusive control and guardianship of their children.
  3. The sole ownership of her personal [property], and use of her real estate, unless previously settled upon her, or placed in the hands of trustees, as in the case of minors, lunatics, and idiots.
  4. The absolute right to the product of her industry.
  5. Also against laws which give to the widower so much larger and more permanent interest in the property of his deceased wife, than they give to the widow in that of the deceased husband.
  6. Finally, against the whole system by which “the legal existence of the wife is suspended during marriage,” so that in most States, she neither has a legal part in the choice of her residence, nor can she make a will, nor sue or be sued in her own name, nor inherit property.

We believe that personal independence and equal human rights can never be forfeited, except for crime; that marriage should be an equal and permanent partnership, and so recognized by law; that until it is so recognized, married partners should provide against the radical injustice of present laws, by every means in their power…

Quoted in Lucy Stone: Speaking Out for Equality, by Andrea Moore Kerr (Rutgers University Press, 1995).


  1. Why did Stone and Blackwell change the traditional marriage vows?
  2. What surprises you most about their action?
  3. Do couples make similar vows today?
Document HS II-9: “For a Woman as Freely as for a Man”: Excerpts from Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1855.

Document HS II-9: “For a Woman as Freely as for a Man”: Excerpts from Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, 1855.

Margaret Fuller was one of the few women among the leading Transcendentalists and an accomplished journalist, literary critic, and writer. Her most important legacy was Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the provocative book she published in 1845.

….We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man….

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. As the friend of the negro assumes that one man cannot by right hold another in bondage, so should the friend of Woman assume that Man cannot by right lay even well-meant restrictions on Woman….

What Woman needs is not as a woman to act or rule, but as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home….

I think women need, especially at this juncture, a much greater range of occupation than they have, to rouse their latent powers….

In families that I know, some little girls like to saw wood, others to use carpenters' tools. Where these tastes are indulged, cheerfulness and good-humor are promoted. Where they are forbidden, because "such things are not proper for girls," they grow sullen and mischievous….

I have no doubt, however, that a large proportion of women would give themselves to the same employments as now, because there are circumstances that must lead them…. The difference would that all need not be constrained to employments for which some are unfit.

From Woman in the Nineteenth Century, by Margaret Fuller (1855; reprint W.W. Norton, 1971).


  1. What opportunities did Margaret Fuller want women to have? Why?
  2. How does Woman in the Nineteenth Century differ from the “Declaration of Sentiments”?
  3. Do you agree with Margaret Fuller that “a large proportion of women would give themselves to the same employments as now”? Why or why not?
Document HS II-10: Taxation Without Representation! Lucy Stone's Letter to the Tax Collector, 1858.

Document HS II-10: Taxation Without Representation! Lucy Stone's Letter to the Tax Collector, 1858.

In 1857 Lucy Stone bought a small farm in Orange, New Jersey, and she and her husband Henry Blackwell moved there. When she received her first property tax bill in November, she refused to pay it. She wrote the tax collector a letter of protest, which she ensured was published in the local newspaper.

Mr. Mandeville, Tax Collector, Sir:

Enclosed I return my tax bill, without paying it. My reason for doing so is that women suffer taxation and yet have no representation, which is not only unjust to one half of the adult population, but is contrary to our theory of government. For years some women have been paying their taxes under protest but still taxes are imposed and representation is not granted. The only course now left us is to refuse to pay the tax. We know well what the immediate result of this refusal must be.

But we believe that when the attention of men is called to the wide difference between their theory of government and its practices in this particular, they cannot fail to see the mistake they now make by imposing taxes on women, while they refuse them the right of suffrage, and that the sense of justice which is in all good men, will lead them to correct it. Then shall we cheerfully pay our taxes--not till then.


Lucy Stone

Orange Journal, January 18, 1858. Online at New Jersey Women’s History website.


  1. Which document is Stone echoing in her letter of protest?
  2. To what sentiments is she appealing?
  3. She wrote that she knew well “what the immediate result …must be.” What was it likely to be? What happened? How can you find out?
  4. How effective do you think this type of protest might be? Who else protested in similar manner? When? What were the results?
Document HS II-11 “Are We Aliens Because We Are Women”? Angelina Grimké Addresses Massachusetts Legislature, 1838.

Document HS II-11 “Are We Aliens Because We Are Women”? Angelina Grimké Addresses Massachusetts Legislature, 1838.

In the winter of 1838, Angelina Grimké addressed a committee of the Massachusetts legislature. No advance notice had been given, but word-of her appearance had spread, and the hall was full to overflowing. A fellow abolitionist in attendance wrote, “For a moment a sense of immense responsibility resting on her seemed almost to overwhelm her … but this passed quickly, and she went on to speak gloriously.”

….In the age which is approaching she should be something more—she should be a citizen…. I hold, Mr. Chairman, that American women have to do with the subject [of slavery], not only because it is moral and religious, but because it is political, inasmuch as we are citizens of this republic and as such our honor, happiness and well-being are bound up in its politics, government and laws.”

Quoted in The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition, by Gerda Lerner (Houghton Mifflin, 1967; University of North Carolina, 2006).


  1. Why did Angelina Grimké use questions rather than statements in her testimony?
  2. What role did she believe women played in allowing slavery to continue in the U.S.?
  3. What was the most radical thing she said to the legislative committee?

Mr. Chairman, I stand before you as a citizen, on behalf of the 20,000 women whose names are enrolled on petitions which have been submitted to the Legislature …. These petitions relate to the great and solemn subject of slavery…. And because it is a political subject, it has often tauntingly been said, that women had nothing to do with it. Are we aliens, because we are women? Are we bereft of citizenship because we are mothers, wives and daughters of a mighty people? Have women no country … no partnership in a nation’s guilt and shame?

Document HS II-12: Celebrating Change: Excerpts from “The Progress of Fifty Years,” a Speech by Lucy Stone, 1893.

Document HS II-12: Celebrating Change: Excerpts from “The Progress of Fifty Years,” a Speech by Lucy Stone, 1893.

Lucy Stone gave this speech to the Congress of Women held at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It was her last public speech. She died a few months later at age 75.

I think, with never-ending gratitude, that the young women of today do not and can never know at what price their right to free speech and to speak at all in public has been earned. Abby Kelly once entered a church only to find herself the subject of the sermon, which was preached from the text: "This Jezebel is come among us also." They jeered at her as she went along the street. They threw stones at her. They pelted her with bad eggs as she stood on the platform. Some of the advocates of the very cause for which she endured all this were ready to drive her from the field. Mr. Garrison and Wendell Phillips stood by her. But so great was the opposition that one faction of the abolitionists left and formed a new organization, after a vain effort to put Abby Kelly off from the committee to which she had been nominated.

The right to education and to free speech having been gained for woman, in the long run every other good thing was sure to be obtained.

Half a century ago women were at an infinite disadvantage in regard to their occupations. The idea that their sphere was at home, and only at home, was like a band of steel on society. But the spinning-wheel and the loom, which had given employment to women, had been superseded by machinery, and something else had to take their places. The taking care of the house and children, and the family sewing, and teaching the little summer school at a dollar per week, could not supply the needs nor fill the aspirations of women. But every departure from these conceded things was met with the cry, "You want to get out of your sphere," or, "To take women out of their sphere;" and that was to fly in the face of Providence, to unsex yourself–in short, to be monstrous women, women who, while they orated in public, wanted men to rock the cradle and wash the dishes. We pleaded that whatever was fit to be done at all might with propriety be done by anybody who did it well; that the tools belonged to those who could use them; that the possession of a power presupposed a right to its use. This was urged from city to city, from state to state. Women were encouraged to try new occupations. We endeavored to create that wholesome discontent in women that would compel them to reach out after far better things. But every new step was a trial and a conflict. Men printers left when women took the type. They formed unions and pledged themselves not to work for men who employed women. But these tools belonged to women, and today a great army of women are printers unquestioned….

Women have acquired a certain amount of political power. We have now in twenty states school suffrage for women. Forty years ago there was but one. Kentucky allowed widows with children of school age to vote on school questions. We have also municipal suffrage for women in Kansas, and full suffrage in Wyoming, a state larger than all New England.

The last half century has gained for women the right to the highest education and entrance to all professions and occupations, or nearly all. As a result we have women's clubs, the Woman's Congress, women's educational and industrial unions, the moral education societies, the Woman's Relief Corps, police matrons, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, colleges for women, and co-educational colleges and the Harvard Annex, medical schools and medical societies open to women, women's hospitals, women in the pulpit, women as a power in the press, authors, women artists, women's beneficent societies and Helping Hand societies, women school supervisors, and factory inspectors and prison inspectors, women on state boards of charity, the International Council of Women, the Woman's National Council, and last, but not least, the Board of Lady Managers. And not one of these things was allowed women fifty years ago, except the opening at Oberlin [College]. By what toil and fatigue and patience and strife and the beautiful law of growth has all this been wrought? These things have not come of themselves. They could not have occurred except as the great movement for women has brought them out and about. They are part of the eternal order, and they have come to stay. Now all we need is to continue to speak the truth fearlessly, and we shall add to our number those who will turn the scale to the side of equal and full justice in all things.

Quoted in The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, ed. by Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 58-61).


  1. What changed to open up opportunities for American women?
  2. What signs of progress for women did Lucy Stone see?
  3. What did Lucy Stone hope would happen next?
Document HS II-13: “A Female Suffrage Fancy,” Cartoon by Joseph Veppler, published in Puck, July 1880.

Document HS II-13: “A Female Suffrage Fancy,” Cartoon by Joseph Veppler, published in Puck, July 1880.

Text included in the pictures, beginning with top left corner and moving clockwise:

caption: “Nevermore—Nevermore!”

Ballot Box; Political Machine; Sewing Machines for SALE Cheap;

caption: The Sewing Machine is Superceded

caption: Wife out Electioneering

caption: Ugly-Looking Man Driven from the Polls

Our Candidate; The Ladies PET, Demure and Simple;

caption: A Handsome Fool gets the Office

[large image in center] caption: Lovely Woman having Removed her “political Disablities” is Prepared to Vote;

[books on the floor]: Cook Book, Female Deportment, Modesty; [on left, label on the bottle]: beard grease; [words on paper]: Whiskers Forced to Grow; [individual’s hand rests on box labeled] Cigars

caption: Treats like a Male Politician and has it “Chalked Up” like one

caption: Good Looking Ones Caressed


  1. What story does each of the eight cartoons tell?
  2. Judging from the cartoons, what is Keppler’s position on woman’s rights?
  3. How did Keppler make his views known? Why might he have chosen this approach?
  4. Find examples of people using a similar approach today.
Document HS II-14: “Looking Backward,” Illustration by Laura E. Foster, Published in Life, August 1912.

Document HS II-14: “Looking Backward,” Illustration by Laura E. Foster, Published in Life, August 1912.


  1. What appears to be Laura Foster’s goal in creating this image?
  2. What does each “step” represent?
  3. What did she present as the pivotal steps most women take in their lives? What did she predict the consequences would be of taking each step?
  4. Aside from the words on the “steps,” how did Laura Foster illustrate her points?
Document HS II-15: The Anti’s Say No: Excerpts from “Why We Do Not Approve,” 1914.

Document HS II-15: The Anti’s Say No: Excerpts from “Why We Do Not Approve,” 1914.

Why We Do Not Approve Of WOMAN SUFFRAGE

Because: We feel that the ballot makes absolutely no difference in the economic status of woman. Whether she votes or not, her charities, great and small, will continue, professions will extend diplomas to her intelligence, and trade will grant recompense to her ability. As for the protection of the ballot to working women, it will protect them no farther than it protects men who, in spite of their voting power, find themselves unable to cope with labor conditions by legislation and form themselves into unions outside of law and law making.

Because: Our hospital Boards, our social and civic service work, our child welfare committees and countless other clubs and industries for the general welfare and uplift need women who can give nonpartisan and unselfish service, the worth of which service would be greatly lessened by political affiliations.

Because: Behind law there must always be force to make it effective. If legislation was shaped by a majority of women over men we should soon have, not government, but chaos.

Because: It is an attested fact that politics degrade women more than women purify politics.

Because: We believe the interests of all women are as safe in the hands of men as in those of other women.

Because: Thorough investigation of the laws of suffrage states shows that non-suffrage states have by far the better and more humane laws, and that all laws are more strictly enforced than in suffrage states.

Because: Women make little use of suffrage when it is given them. school suffrage has been a lamentable failure, the women vote averaging scarcely two per cent in any state.

Because: The energies of women are engrossed by their present duties and interests, from which men cannot relieve them, and there is great need of better performance of their present work rather than diversion to new fields of activity.

Because: The suffrage movement develops sex hatred which is a menace to society.

Anti-Suffrage Leaflet, c. 1914, from the collection of Denison Library, Scripps College.


  1. List the Anti’s arguments using your own words.
  2. Which arguments are most persuasive? Why?
  3. Choose one that you strongly disagree with and explain why.
  4. Choose one that you believe has merit and explain why.
Document HS II-16: The Struggle for Suffrage: Excerpts from Florence Luscomb’s Oral History.

Document HS II-16: The Struggle for Suffrage: Excerpts from Florence Luscomb’s Oral History.

In the late 1960s, two historians interviewed Florence Luscomb about her activities in the campaign to gain the right for women to vote.

In 1915, we had a referendum in Massachusetts for an amendment to the state constitution. By that time, we had organizations in all the big cities and the important towns. But in the small towns we didn't have any contacts. So we got two little automobiles of four workers in each one, and between them, they covered the state spending a day in each community. We'd go there in the morning, and we'd canvass the whole town with leaflets, talking to any of the men that we could catch. If there was a farmer in the field, we'd run out and talk to him, or if he wasn't home, we'd talk to his wife, and leave leaflets for him. We had all these leaflets: "Why the mother needs to vote so she can control the conditions of the education and health that affect her children." "Why the working woman needs to vote so that she can have something to say about the laws."... If there was a little local industry in town, perhaps a little sawmill or something, we'd go there at noon and hand out leaflets.... If there was an East Podunck and a West Podunck, we'd have one meeting at seven and the other at eight. I was in charge of one of those little automobile parties….

We had a young man who was hired as the chauffeur for our party. Here I was spending all these weeks driving around over the backroads of the state, so when we were going from one town to another, he showed me how to drive. I learned to drive over the worst roads, and the result was I had perfect control of the car. And at that time the only thing you had to do was to send in a sworn statement that you had driven one hundred miles. So I drove one hundred miles, and I sent it in, and I got my driving license.

Two of the most effective bits of propaganda of the referendum campaign were the two great parades held in Boston in 1914 and '15. We made a great effort to have a contingent in the parade of working women. My own special job was to get women laundry workers as one section in that parade… I visited practically all the women's laundries in Boston at noontime, and spoke to the women, and urged them to come out and march in this suffrage parade… We had a working woman's section in our parade. Just why seeing women walk down the street in parade should convince men to vote for suffrage is a mystery, but they did so by the thousands. Probably because it gave them visual proof that the women who wanted the suffrage were ordinary representative women – homemakers, mothers, daughters, teachers, working women – and not the unsexed freaks the antis declared they were.

Quoted in Moving the Mountain: Women Working for Social Change, ed. by Ellen Cantarow (Feminist Press, 1969).


  1. What strategies did Florence Luscomb think would be most effective in winning votes for women? Do you agree with her assessment? Why or why not?
  2. Why did Luscomb think it was so important to include working women?
  3. How does Luscomb explain the effectiveness of parades? Do you agree? Why or why not?
    1. Have parades and marches been effective in bringing about change?
    2. What issues in US history since 1920 have prompted people to join marches? What were the results?

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