Women’s Suffrage Time Line–1840-1920

Today is the 100th Anniversary of when women in the United States won the right to vote.  They fought hard and for many years to gain this basic right.  Though I would like to be writing more about this very special date, I am borrowing this timeline to share it with you instead.  Let it be a handy reference.  Its source was The Smokey Mountain News. Though the names Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are the names that are most well-known and associated with this cause, many, many women and prominent men as well were part of this movement. Matilda Joslyn Gage, you know by now, was deeply involved–even though you won’t find her name as often as it should be mentioned. Other’s names, belonging to both black and white suffragists, were part of this essential endeavor.  Think about these many forebears as you vote in the upcoming election, which is one of the most important in the history of our country.  I–and many others–fear that our democracy will be lost and The United States will be a failed experiment.  As I write this, Susan Rice is talking to Stephen Colbert about this very topic.  “Our allies don’t know what to make of us. People may not appreciate just how much we have lost.  We are incompetent….  It’s just nuts!  Everything is upside down.  If we have four more years of this, we would not be an America that anyone would recognize. The situation would be unsalvagable.  Our reputation in the world will be irreparably damaged…”  In contrast, it was so inspiring to hear words of compassion and empathy and care for our people that those who sang and spoke tonight expressed with sincerity.

  • 1840 — Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are barred from attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London, which prompts them to hold a Women’s Convention in the U.S.
  • 1848 — Seneca Falls, New York is the location for the first Women’s Rights Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes “The Declaration of Sentiments” creating the agenda of women’s activism for decades to come.
  • 1849 — The first state constitution in California extends property rights to women.
  • 1850 — Worcester, Massachusetts, is the site of the first National Women’s Rights Convention. Frederick Douglass, Paulina Wright Davis, Abby Kelley Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth are in attendance. A strong alliance is formed with the Abolitionist Movement.
  • 1851 — At a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth, a former slave, delivers her now memorable speech, “Ain’t I a woman?”
  • 1852 — The issue of women’s property rights is presented to the Vermont Senate by Clara Howard Nichols. This is a major issue for the Suffragists. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is published and quickly becomes a bestseller.
  • 1853 — Women delegates, Antoinette Brown and Susan B. Anthony, are not allowed to speak at The World’s Temperance Convention held in New York City.
  • 1861-1865 — During the Civil War, efforts for the suffrage movement comes to a halt. Women put their energies toward the war effort.
  • 1866 — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony form the American Equal Rights Association, an organization dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all regardless of gender or race.
  • 1868 — Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Parker Pillsbury publish the first edition of The Revolution. This periodical carries the motto “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less!”
  • 1868 — In Vineland, New Jersey, 172 women cast ballots in a separate box during the presidential election.
  • 1868 — Senator S.C. Pomeroy of Kansas introduces the federal Women’s Suffrage amendment in Congress.
  • 1868 — The Fourteenth Amendment is ratified. “Citizens” and “voters” are defined exclusively as male.
  • 1869 — The American Equal Rights Association is wrecked by disagreements over the Fourteenth Amendment and the question of whether to support the proposed Fifteenth Amendment, which would enfranchise Black American males while avoiding the question of Women’s Suffrage entirely.
  • 1869 — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), a more radical institution, to achieve the vote through a Constitutional amendment as well as push for other women’s rights issues.
  • 1869 — Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, Julia Ward Howe and other more conservative activists form the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA) to work for Women’s Suffrage through amending individual state constitutions.
  • 1870 — The Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote. NWSA refused to work for its ratification and instead the members advocate for a Sixteenth Amendment that would dictate universal suffrage. Frederick Douglass broke with Stanton and Anthony over the position of NWSA.
  • 1870 — The Woman’s Journal is founded and edited by Mary Livermore, Lucy Stone, and Henry Blackwell.
  • 1871 — Victoria Woodhull addresses the House Judiciary Committee, arguing women’s rights to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment.  The Anti-Suffrage Party is founded.
  • 1872 — Susan B. Anthony casts her ballot for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election and is arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York. Fifteen other women are arrested for illegally voting. Sojourner Truth appears at a polling booth in Battle Creek, Michigan, demanding a ballot to vote; she is turned away.
  • 1872 — Abigail Scott Duniway convinces Oregon lawmakers to pass laws granting a married woman’s rights such as starting and operating her own business, controlling the money she earns, and the right to protect her property if her husband leaves.
  • 1874 — The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is founded by Annie Wittenmyer. With Frances Willard at its head (1876), the WCTU became an important proponent in the fight for women’s suffrage. As a result, one of the strongest opponents to women’s enfranchisement was the liquor lobby, which feared women might use their vote to prohibit the sale of liquor.
  • 1876 — Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage disrupt the official Centennial program at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, presenting a “Declaration of Rights for Women” to the Vice President.
  • 1878 — A Women’s Suffrage Amendment is proposed in the U.S. Congress. When the 19th Amendment passes 41 years later, it is worded exactly the same as this 1878 Amendment.
  • 1887 — The first vote on Women’s Suffrage is taken in the Senate and is defeated.
  • 1888 — The National Council of Women in the United States is established to promote the advancement of women in society.
  • 1890 — NWSA and AWSA merge and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association is formed. Stanton is the first president. The Movement focuses efforts on securing suffrage at the state level.
  • 1890 — Wyoming is admitted to the Union with a state constitution granting Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1890 — The American Federation of Labor declares support for Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1890 — The South Dakota campaign for Women’s Suffrage loses.
  • 1890-1925 — The Progressive Era begins. Women from all classes and backgrounds enter public life. Women’s roles expand and result in an increasing politicization of women. Consequently the issue of Women’s Suffrage becomes part of mainstream politics.
  • 1892 — Olympia Brown founds the Federal Suffrage Association to campaign for women’s suffrage.
  • 1893 — Colorado adopts Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1894 — 600,000 signatures are presented to the New York State Constitutional Convention in a failed effort to bring a Women’s Suffrage amendment to the voters.
  • 1895 — Elizabeth Cady Stanton publishes The Woman’s Bible. After its publication, NAWSA moves to distance itself from Stanton because many conservative suffragists considered her to be too radical and, thus, potentially damaging to the suffrage campaign.
  • 1896 — Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Frances E.W. Harper among others found the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
  • 1896 — Utah joins the Union with full suffrage for women.
  • 1896 — Idaho adopts Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1903 — Mary Dreier, Rheta Childe Dorr, Leonora O’Reilly, and others form the Women’s Trade Union League of New York, an organization of middle- and working-class women dedicated to unionization for working women and to Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1910 — Washington State adopts Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1910 — The Women’s Political Union organizes the first suffrage parade in New York City.
  • 1911 — The National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOWS) is organized. Led by Mrs. Arthur Dodge, its members included wealthy, influential women, some Catholic clergymen, distillers and brewers, urban political machines, Southern congressmen, and corporate capitalists.
  • 1911 — The elaborate California suffrage campaign succeeds by a small margin.
  • 1912 — Women’s Suffrage is supported for the first time at the national level by a major political party, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party.
  • 1912 — 20,000 suffrage supporters join a New York City suffrage parade.
  • 1912 — Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona adopt Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1913 — In 1913, suffragists organized a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The parade was the first major suffrage spectacle organized by the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
  • 1913 — The two women then organized the Congressional Union, later known at the National Women’s Party (1916). They borrowed strategies from the radical Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in England.
  • 1914 — Nevada and Montana adopt Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1914 — The National Federation of Women’s Clubs, which had over two million women members throughout the U.S., formally endorses the suffrage campaign.
  • 1915 — Mabel Vernon and Sara Bard Field are involved in a transcontinental tour which gathers over a half-million signatures on petitions to Congress.
  • 1915 — 40,000 march in a NYC suffrage parade. Many women are dressed in white and carry placards with the names of the states they represent.
  • 1915 — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts continue to reject Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1916 — Jeannette Rankin of Montana is the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. Woodrow Wilson states that the Democratic Party platform will support suffrage.
  • 1917 — New York women gain suffrage. Arkansas women are allowed to vote in primary elections.
  • 1917 — National Woman’s Party picketers appear in front of the White House holding two banners, “Mr. President, What Will You Do For Women’s Suffrage?” and “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”
  • 1917 — Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress, is formally seated in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • 1917 — Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party, was put in solitary confinement in the mental ward of the prison as a way to “break” her will and to undermine her credibility with the public.
  • 1917 — In June, arrests of the National Woman’s party picketers begin on charges of obstructing sidewalk traffic. Subsequent picketers are sentenced to up to six months in jail. In November, the government unconditionally releases the picketers in response to public outcry and an inability to stop National Woman’s Party picketers’ hunger strike.
  • 1918 — Representative Rankin opens debate on a suffrage amendment in the House. The amendment passes. The amendment fails to win the required two thirds majority in the Senate.
  • 1918 — Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma adopt Women’s Suffrage.
  • 1918 — President Wilson states his support for a federal Women’s Suffrage amendment. Wilson addresses the Senate about adopting Women’s Suffrage at the end of World War I.
  • 1919 — The Senate finally passes the Nineteenth Amendment and the ratification process begins.
  • Aug. 18, 1920 — Tennessee adopts Women’s Suffrage.
  • Aug. 26, 1920 — Three quarters of the state legislatures ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. American women win full voting rights.

Source: National Women’s History Museum

Honoring Nurses: Florence Nightengale

This week our country is honoring nurses.  Today is National Nurses Day. This year is obviously even more special due to the coronavirus pandemic. As my mother was a nurse and one of my daughters is a physical therapist,  it seems abundantly appropriate to write this blog about  Florence  Nightingale.  It is also a connection to  Matilda  Joslyn  Gage,  as she volunteered in hospital wards near her home during the  Civil  War rolling bandages and nursing wounded and ill soldiers.  Just as we are enduring the horrors of an extremely contagious disease, Nightengale battled Cholera during the  Crimean  War.  In  1854, British troops invaded the  Russian-held  Crimean Peninsula in response to aggressive moves by Czar Nicholas I to expand his territory  This scenario should sound quite familiar to us,  as  Putin put some of the same moves on the  Ukraine Crimea with the struggle over the Crimea.   Next week,  on May 12th,  Britain is also celebrating  Florence Nightingale’s 200th  birthday.  They will lay a wreath at Waterloo Place, a special version of the annual Procession of the Lamp at Westminster Abbey, a two-day conference on nursing and global health sponsored by the Florence Nightingale Foundation, and tours of her summer home in Derbyshire.

My painting of the Back Sea in Turkey
My painting of the Black Sea in Turkey near Georgia.

About a dozen years ago when I visited Turkey for the first time, I crossed by ferry across the Bosporus Strait from the Eastern side of Istanbul (ancient Constantinople) to the Western side.  My companion Aziz, whose father had been a famous Breast Cancer surgeon, pointed to a large building, the Barrack Hospital at Scutari.  He informed me that this was the very building where Florence Nightingale toiled among thousands of wounded and sick British troops who had been transported across the Black Sea aboard filthy ships.  She had 38 nurses under her command while she ministered to troops packed in squalid wards, many of them wracked by frostbite, gangrene, dysentery, and cholera.

Scutari Hospital today, crossing the Bosporus

Nightingale was a nurse for only three years.  But her pioneering work as a statistician and as an early advocate for the modern idea that health care is a human right–just ask Bernie Sanders–and her insistence on being a tireless caregiver despite the objections of the British officers.  (Misogyny, do ya think?)  Nursing in those days was regarded as disreputable and suitable only for lower-class women.  But Florence’s father, a wealthy heir living in a manor house, tutored had tutored her in mathematics and the classics.  This is very similar to the instruction that Matilda got from her physician father.  Also, just like Matilda, Florence grew up surrounded by intellectuals who were enlightened aristocrats who campaigned for outlawing the slave trade and other reforms. You may recall that Hezekiah, Matilda’s father, also maintained a house on the Underground Railroad. Thus, Florence “craved for some regular occupation, for something worth doing instead of frittering away time on useless trifles.”  Despite the opposition of her parents and ridicule of her sister Parthenope, she was convinced her destiny was to do God’s work.  To master her profession, she spent time at a highly regarded nursing school, Kaiserwerth in Germany.  She served as superintendent there for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen, a hospital for governesses  She also cared for prostitutes during a cholera epidemic in 1853. At Scutari, she would often go over the heads of her superior to order supplies from their stores.  They also felt that she was too ambitious and always struggling for power.   

Yet her first winter at Scutari, 4,077 soldiers died–ten times more from typhus, cholera, typhoid fever, and dysentery than from battle wounds.  Eventually, a sanitary commission was dispatched to Scutari and deaths began to diminish.  The commission cleaned out latrines and cesspits, flushed out sewers and removed a dead horse that was polluting the water supply.  The mortality rate dropped from 42.7% to 2,2%.  But Nightingale’s contribution was disputed in a controversial 1998 biography, Avenging Angel, which contends that Scutari had the highest death rates of any hospital in the Crimea.  It accused her of not grasping the role of sanitation in disease prevention until many thousands had died.  the author, Hugh Small, that she focused instead on giving troops warm clothing and hearty food.  He also surmised that “repressed guilt” over her failures caused her to have a nervous breakdown, which turned her into an invalid for long stretches throughout the rest of her life.  I can’t help but think of the dedicated doctor in New York who tirelessly treated COVID patients–most of whom died–killed herself this week, apparently not being able to take it anymore. But, actually, all Crimean War hospitals were ghastly and the statistics suggest that others had higher death rates than Scutari.  Nightingale blamed the military doctors and administrators, chastising them for “a host of murderess error including sending cholera cases to overcrowded wards” and delaying having the hospital “drained and ventilated. “The sanitation commission investigation confirmed Nightingale’s suspicions about the links between filth and disease. The Crimean War killed 900,000 combatants.  The horrors Florence Nightingale witnessed at Scutari weighed on her the rest of her life.  She later described the words she first encountered as “slaughterhouses.” 

In Balaklava, a fishing port in the Crimea, Nightingale would climb from the harbor to the Castle Hospital, which was just a collection of huts and barracks on a flat patch of ground overlooking the Black Sea.  She had sailed there from Scutari across the Black Sea to inspect medical facilities near the front lines.  The 34-year-old Nightingale drilled borehole wells to improve the water supply and insulated huts with felt to protect wounded soldiers against the winter cold.  She worked to improve their food by regularly making sure the soldiers received meat, not just gristle and bone.  She had fresh bread shipped in daily from Constantinople.  She also braved bullets traveling by carriage, on horseback and on foot to inspect other hospitals.  She even visited the trenches outside Sevastopol, where she was moved by the sight of the troops “mustering & forming at sundown.”  Maybe worse was the resentment of officers and bureaucrats who regarded her as an interloper.  She wrote in her journal,” There is not an official who would not burn me like Joan of Arc if he could, but they know that the War Office cannot turn me out because the country is with me.”  She became ill with what the troops called “Crimean Fever,” an inflammation of the vertebrae that would leave her in pain and bedridden for much of her life.  Despite her illness, she was determined to work until the last British troops had gone home, returning twice during the war.  In a letter she wrote, “I have never been off my horse until 9 or 10 o’clock at night, except when it was too dark to walk home over these crags even with a lantern.  During the greater part of the day I have been without food, except a little brandy and water (you see, I am taking to drinking like my comrades in the army)”

The Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War.  She had spent almost two years in the conflict zone.  A front-page engraving in the Illustrated London News showed her making her rounds with her lamp, looking very heroic. Once back in England, she gathered data from military hospitals in Constantinople that verified what she had long suspected:  Nearly seven times as many British soldiers had died of disease in the Crimean War than in combat, and the deaths dropped dramatically once hospitals at the front were cleaned up.  She also collated data from military hospitals in Great Britain, which were so poorly ventilated, filthy, and overcrowded that their mortality rates far exceeded those at Scutari following the changes implemented by the Sanitary Commission. She shared her graphics with the military convincing them to improve hospitals throughout Great Britain.  Parliament voted to finance the first comprehensive sewage system for London.  In our present day, Italy has started to check the sewers to examine for the coronavirus’ presence, yet another source of this deadly modern-day plague.

Though often bedridden, she continued to gather data on every aspect of medical care.  She sent questionnaires, collected and analyzed results, wrote reports, and established investigative commissions.  Nightingale came to believe that Using statistics to understand how the world worked was to understand the mind of God. She founded the country’s first nurses’ training school.  for her, it was a moral crusade intended “to promote the honest employment, the decent maintenance, and provision, to protect and restrain, to elevate in purifying…a number…of poor and virtuous women.”   Like Matilda, she criticized the Poor Laws, prodding Parliament to improve the workhouses (shelters for the indigent and used trained nurses.  A radical–like Matilda–she had “a non-judgmental, non-moralistic view of the poor.”  She also wrote prolifically about crime, labor and the social causes of madness.  She also originated the concept that soldiers injured in war should be considered “neutral” and that they and their caregivers should be accorded protection on the battlefield.  That ethic became central to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was founded in Geneva in 1863.

Think about what our nurses around the world have been through since the beginning of our current epidemic.  Think about the couple of dozen nurses from Syracuse who volunteered to go to the heart of NYC for two weeks to attend to severe cases.  Think about all the death and trauma they experienced throughout exhausting days and nights.  It makes me want to stand up and applaud like the citizens of New York City do from inside their apartments every night at 7:00 pm.  Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap…

Unitarian-Universalist Women Ministers

Matilda Joslyn Gage researched ancient goddess religions.  She knew that in the distant past goddesses were divine and the head of their religion.  Vestal virgins were the important acolytes.  I was scheduled to be one of four panelists at a Women Transcending Boundaries Event.  Our program consisted of sharing information about the role of women in the various religions represented.  I was eager to participate, as I knew that Unitarian-Universalists had the very first female ordained minister in America.  As our event had to be canceled/postponed because of the coronavirus situation, I am sharing my part of the program with you.  Besides, it is still March–Women’s History Month!– and I haven’t written anything in quite a while.  I think you will find this blog interesting as you are introduced to some amazing women.

Some of the first women ordained in the United States were Universalist or Unitarian. And now at the turn of the 21st century, a majority of Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. However, the path for women ministers in our faith tradition has not been easy. Of those early women who achieved ordination, few were allowed to serve in full-time ministries. Others were relegated to small, struggling parishes or assistant positions alongside their clergy husbands.



Olympia Brown
Olympia Brown

Nevertheless, one of the very first American female ministers ordained was Olympia Brown, a Unitarian, in 1863. She was a minister and a social reformer, an active campaigner for woman suffrage and one of the first American women to be sanctioned by a full denomination.  Yet it was a struggle.  Brown was refused admission to the University of Michigan because of her sex.  Instead, she attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and then Antioch, in Ohio, where fellow students and faculty wives objected to her presence. She graduated in 1860 and three years later, having been inspired by Antoinette Blackwell, she graduated from the theological school of St. Lawrence University, making her the first woman to graduate from a theological school, as well as becoming the first full-time ordained minister. But she had to persuade the president of St. Lawrence to admit her, though he told her that he did not think women were called to the ministry.  But the positive reception she received when she preached at local churches swayed the opinions of many of the ministers in her favor.  Mr. Fisher, the president of the university, had so far overcome his feelings that he took part in the ordination exercises. She went on to pastor at Weymouth, Massachusetts, Bridgeport, Connecticut and most successfully in Racine, Wisconsin.  The Universalist Church in Racine was in an unfortunate condition when she agreed to take it on.  She worked to rejuvenate the church and established it as a center of learning and culture and a forum for the discussion of social issues of the time, including women’s suffrage.  She invited Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to air their views from the pulpit.  Under her ministry, the women began to vote and hold offices in the church.  Due to Brown’s strong speaking skills and beliefs, Susan B. Anthony continually sought the involvement of Brown.  With the encouragement of Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Blackwell, Olympia Brown decided to travel to Kansas in order to speak on women’s rights.  Over the course of one summer, Brown delivered more than 300 speeches despite facing many hardships.Juliet Ward-Howe





Despite the lack of encouragement, at the end of the 19th century, a group of extraordinary women claimed their role as ordained ministers. Following the Women’s Ministerial Conference organized by Julia Ward Howe in 1875, 21 Unitarian women founded the Iowa Sisterhood to serve churches throughout the Great Plains. Life was hard in the Plains states, with little glory to be earned by bringing liberal religion to the settlers of the area. Few male scholars from the seminaries of the East were attracted to the life. But if the Plains were beyond the recognition of an Eastern religious hierarchy, they were also remote from that hierarchy’s rules and control. It was a place where women were accepted for their willingness to step in and serve, for their tenacity in the face of hardship, and for their ministry.

The Iowa Sisterhood was a group of women ministers who organized eighteen Unitarian societies in several Midwestern states in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Mary Augusta-Safford
Mary Augusta-Safford
Mary Augusta-Safford
Eleanor Gordon
Eleanor Gordon

Between 1880 and 1930, these women changed the course of Unitarianism. The Iowa Sisterhood was led primarily by Mary Augusta Safford.  Mary had the crazy dream of one day becoming a minister. Mary and her friend Eleanor Gordon decided to start their own Unitarian congregation right in their town of Hamilton, Illinois.  To everyone’s amazement, it was a success. Mary Safford was a terrific preacher. And that caught the attention of Unitarians elsewhere, who recruited Mary to become the minister of a new church in Humbolt, Iowa.  Meanwhile, Eleanor got a job as the principal of the local school.  In 1880, Eleanor got her own chance to preach. Eleanor wrote, “there had been growing in my own mind a great discontent. While I loved to teach, I felt the need of a lesson to teach greater than found in a school textbook.” It had become her ambition to “win a place in the larger school, the church.” When Mary was called to be the minister at the Unitarian Church in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1885, Eleanor went with her and became her assistant. They were playing professional roles that were still unheard of for women. Most people thought they were some kind of weird novelty, but no one could deny how bold and effective they were. They recruited other young women into the ministry and organized a network of support. They trained these women. They mentored them and often helped them financially. When they were equipped for ministry, they fanned out across the Midwest and the United States. Eleanor preached that a woman “must rid herself of the notion that she is a peculiar creature, and as such must have peculiar treatment. She must know that there is no feminine road to excellence, no woman’s way to success. … She must believe herself a human mind with only the limitations of a human mind, a part of the universal mind, with all possibilities of growth and development.” Even among Unitarians, it wasn’t easy being a female minister. Male colleagues dismissed them and accused their movement of being a distraction. But they kept it up and they did not limit their energies to the church, but engaged in politics, especially Women’s suffrage. By 1907, she had become President of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. They were the first to push open doors that had previously been thought to forever be closed because of gender. But the pendulum swung backward after the first world war.   In 1937, Eleanor wrote an open letter to the President of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, deploring a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians whose appeal for ministers made it “very plain that no woman need apply.”  Eleanor observed and deplored a new anti-feminist tendency, even among Unitarians. “Since the world war,” she wrote, “there has been a distinct trend in both the professional and industrial worlds against woman’s  place in both.”

Few male scholars from the seminaries of the East were attracted to the life of the Plains states. But if the Plains were beyond the recognition of an Eastern religious hierarchy, they were also remote from that hierarchy’s rules and control. It was a place where women were accepted for their willingness to step in and serve, for their tenacity in the face of hardship, and for their ministry.

Perhaps, one reason for the success of the Iowa Sisterhood was the non-academic, pastoral approach these women brought to their churches. They sought to make their churches extensions of the domestic hearth, thereby expanding the traditional role of women beyond the home and into the church. The Sisterhood brought family matters into the church not only on Sundays but seven days a week, with social events and classes on domestic arts.

I would also like to point out that it was in some of these Great Plains states that women had the right to vote long before the rest of the nation.  The Wyoming territory was the first to give women the right to vote in 1869, followed by Utah and Washington State.

Unfortunately, the grassroots Western success of these women and their churches did not translate into wider denominational acceptance. The women were seen as an embarrassment among the clergy back in Boston. By the turn of the 20th century, society, in general, experienced a reassertion of male authority. Unitarianism’s leaders began a concerted return to a more manly ministry in order to revitalize the denomination. The move of rural populations to the cities further undermined the Sisterhood’s efforts and congregations.

Most of the women ministers were rushed into retirement. Others left to pursue work in peace, suffrage, and social work movements. Yet they remained vocal to the end about the rights of women and the place of the church in society. It was not a large movement, nor was it long-lasting. The Iowa Sisterhood did not radically alter the possibilities for women in the Unitarian ministry. But in its time and place, it was a shining vision of women called to minister and men called to support their work.

Fannie Barrier Williams

Frances “Fannie” Barrier Williams was a black American educator and political and women’s rights activist. She was born shortly before the Civil War.  She became one of the most prominent educated African American women of her generation. Aspiring to become a teacher, Barrier was the first African American to graduate from the Brockport State Normal School (now SUNY Brockport) in 1870.  She was 15 at the time of her graduation.

Later, when she and her husband moved to Chicago, Illinois, where Samuel Williams started a successful law practice, the couple joined All Souls (Unitarian)  Church in Chicago. Fannie and her husband joined All Souls (Unitarian) Church in Chicago. They may have first been attracted by the Abraham Lincoln Center, a reform settlement which the church-sponsored. The minister was Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a free-thinker, pacifist, activist for women and blacks’ civil rights, and a founder of the World’s Parliament of Religions. Fannie’s friend, the Unitarian minister, Celia Parker Wooley, was a member.

There, she joined forces with black and predominantly white women’s clubs, the Unitarian church, and various other interracial social justice organizations to become a prominent spokesperson for Progressive economic, racial, and gender reforms during the transformative period of industrialization. UU’s are known for their social activism and Barrier Williams—better known as Fannie,  helped found the National League of Colored Women in 1893 and its successor, the  National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. She was also among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to create the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1895. Barrier Williams addressed the World Congress of Representative Women and disputed the notion that slavery had rendered black American women incapable of the same moral and intellectual levels as other women. She called on all women to unite to claim their inalienable rights. She carried this new awareness to Chicago, where she joined forces with black and predominantly white women’s clubs, the Unitarian church, and various other interracial social justice organizations to become a prominent spokesperson for Progressive economic, racial, and gender reforms during the transformative period of industrialization.

Francis "Fannie" Williams
Francis “Fannie” Barrier Williams

She stated that a humane religion can impact their daily lives in positive, practical ways. She also called it a “monstrous thing” that so many Evangelical churches closed their doors to African Americans. “It should be the province of religion,” Williams said, “to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines.” In the audience sat the charismatic, 75-year-old Frederick Douglass. Moved by her address, he rose and praised the remarks of this “refined, educated colored lady,” saying that “a new heaven is dawning upon us.” After the success of these orations, she became a nationally-known writer and lecturer, who sometimes included a piano concert as part of her program.


Alice Paul vs. Woodrow Wilson: A Thanksgiving Story


Matilda Joslyn Gage worked many decades through the 1800s to gain suffrage for women; Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists finally accomplished the deed in the early years of the 1900s.  President Woodrow Wilson needed plenty of persuasion, however, before the 19th Amendment became a reality. It granted American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage, and was ratified on August 18, 1920, ending almost a century of protest.


I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s new book, The Soul of America:  The Battle for Our Better Angels. He begins chapter four with a “A NEW AND GOOD THING IN THE WORLD.”  His reference is to “The Triumph of Women’s Suffrage.”  He opens with this quote from Susan B. Anthony, said while arguing for the equality of women before the law in 1873:  “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”

In this blog, I intend to convey this important landmark in history in mostly Meacham’s own words.  He begins by mentioning that “Like many American men, [Wilson] had hardly been an enthusiastic supporter of the decades-long struggle for a constitutional amendment on women’s suffrage, but, in the middle of a world war, Wilson had changed his mind and was now, in the early autumn of 1918, ready to take the case to the Senate.  After generations of activism—of appeals in the press, of marches and rallies, of vigils and hunger strikes—supporters of extending voting rights to women had at last convinced the most powerful man in the nation to stand up for them.

Meacham describes this momentous setting: “On Monday, September 30, 1918, Wilson went to Capitol Hill to deliver the speech he had composed on his typewriter.  His mission:  to urge lawmakers to approve the proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting women the vote.  The war against the European imperial powers, Wilson told the Senate, was also a war for a more inclusive and enlightened era.  The people of the world…were ‘looking to the great, powerful, famous Democracy of the West to lead them to the new day for which they have so long waited; and they think…that democracy means that women shall play their part in affairs alongside men and upon an equal footing with them.’ Women had answered the call to service in war; they would soon be essential to the peace.  ‘Without their counsellings,’ Wilson said, ‘we shall be only half wise.”

Five years earlier, when Wilson arrived for his first inauguration, the president-elect “wondered why there were so few well-wishers at Union Station or on the streets.”

Wilson asked, “Where are the people?”

“Oh,” he was told, ‘they are out watching the suffrage parade.”

Meacham then described the scene: “The demonstration that day was enormous—and chaotic.  Angry men taunted the marchers and tried to break their ranks.  The suffragists, the Baltimore American reported, ‘practically fought their way foot by foot up Pennsylvania Avenue, through a surging throng that completely defied Washington police.’ Only the arrival of cavalry troops from Fort Myer, the army base across the Potomac, brought a semblance of order to the day.”

No fan of women’s rights at this point, Wilson met with Alice Paul in the East Room later that month.  Paul was a leading advocate for suffrage.  She and seven of her colleagues tried to reason with Wilson but he “refused to take up their cause.  The fact that the fight for the right to vote had been waged for seven decades—since, really, the founding convention of the movement at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1948—did not impress the president. “I do not care to enter into a discussion of that,” Wilson told his visitors, ending the conversation.”

Though this was not an auspicious beginning, Alice Paul “soon headquartered herself on Lafayette Square and launched a persistent campaign of protest at Wilson’s doorstep.  Born in 1885 to a distinguished Quaker family in New Jersey, Paul had been influenced by the more militant British suffrage movement during a stay in England from 1907 to 1910.”

Perhaps, many of my readers here saw the movie “Suffragette” a few years ago.  It portrayed the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union “women moved from speechmaking to active street protest, including face-to-face challenges to lawmakers.  If arrested, the suffragists…would refuse food in jail, leading to highly publicized force-feedings.  The gruesome details of prison officials jamming tubes carrying milk and much through the protestors’ nostrils to prevent starvation lent moral urgency to the suffragist cause.  ‘The essence of the campaign of the suffragettes,’ Paul told American audiences on her return, ‘is opposition to the government’—and a government that imprisoned and mistreated women for seeking the justice of the franchise was clearly worth opposing.”  She kept the pressure on.  Demonstrators known as “silent sentinels” stood outside the White House every day.  When arrested for interfering with traffic, “they, like their British counterparts, would refuse food in jail, leading to the dreaded force-feedings. During the 1916 State of the Union, suffragists displayed a banner that read MR. WILSON, WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE?  They had employed passive resistance combined with civil disobedience in a direct confrontation with the authority of the president.

They prevailed “when Wilson agreed to endorse the proposed amendment…” When it was ratified, worked many decades through the 1800s to gain suffrage for women; Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists finally accomplished the deed in the early years of the 1900’s.  President Woodrow Wilson needed plenty of persuasion, however, before the 19th Amendment became a reality. It granted American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage, and was ratified on August 18, 1920, ending almost a century of protest.Wilson wrote, “Will you take the opportunity to say to my fellow citizens that I deem it one of the greatest honors of my life that this great event, the ratification of this amendment, should have occurred during the period of my administration” to suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt in the summer of 1920. “Nothing has given me more pleasure than the privilege that has been mine to do what I could to advance the cause of ratification and to hasten the day when the womanhood of America would be recognized by the nation on the equal footing of citizenship that it deserves.”

Catt then wrote a letter to her staff on Thanksgiving Day 1920, a few weeks after women in all forty-eight states had the right to cast ballots for president for the first time. “As I look back, over the years,” she wrote, “I realize that the greatest thing in the long campaign for us was not its crowning victory, but the discipline it gave us all…It was a great crusade, the world has seen none more wonderful…My admiration, love, and reverence go out to that band which fought and won a revolution…with congratulations that we were permitted to establish a new and good thing in the world.”

“Though he was slow to join the side of the angels, Wilson got suffrage right.  The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was a landmark in American life,” according to Jon Meacham (and, I suspect, for most of womankind!)  “Women resisted the suffocating opinion of generations to create new opinion and new law, and a new nation.”

Let’s add this landmark for women to our list of things for which to be thankful this Thanksgiving Day!