[Miss Susan B. Anthony is] a jolly old maid of 50 . . . who had never been beholden one iota to these horrid men.
Sarah Burger Stearns on Susan B. Anthony’s birthday
In 1868, after Kansas, Susan B. Anthony struck out to build new alliances for women’s suffrage. Democrats had been one group, but they were, as many knew they would be, not just odd political bedfellows but on the whole unreliable. How long could the movement, founded on the principle of universal equality, rely on a political class of men who remained unapologetically racist? Though it was true that Anthony and Stanton had at times allowed their passions to carry them away in rhetoric that played to the prejudices of white people, they never lost sight of what was critical—every citizen of the United States deserved the right to vote. In law, to date, only half of the adult citizen population could do so. Women were still without the franchise. Anthony’s focus logically shifted to women who labored outside the home. In September of that year, she and a group of wage-earning women formed the Working Women’s Association.
In 1870 approximately 1,300,000 wage-earning women did nonagricultural work, of whom 70 percent were domestic servants and another 24 percent were in textile, clothing, and shoe factories. The women who joined Anthony to create the Working Women’s Association came from the smallest, most skilled trade available to women: typesetting. A survey of New York City revealed female typesetters earned more than any other group, except professionals and the self-employed. “Much like the profession of medicine in the same period, the trade of printing had a strong attraction for women who aspired to a more profitable and honorable field for their labor.” As skilled as they were, female typesetters did not earn as much as male counterparts. For them, equal pay and job security were of paramount importance, and men had kept them in an inferior status. Anthony insisted that equality could only be secured with the ballot.
Although the visions of Anthony and those of the association’s members overlapped, they differed in some regards. From the beginning, they disagreed over the priority of suffrage in the agenda of the Working Women’s Association and the degree to which it would be identified as a suffrage organization. In fact, women’s suffrage, one of the most controversial notions of the day, was in the minds of many Americans synonymous with such disparaging labels as “strong-mindedness,” “short hair,” “promiscuous,” and “bloomers.” Even the outspoken Minnesota journalist and feminist Jane Grey Swisshelm was frequently at odds with the suffragists, whom she disparagingly called “bloomers.” Nonetheless, for the time being, they worked together, agreeing that women needed both the franchise to be politically equal to men and employment out of the home so that women could earn their own money and thus attain economic independence. The prospect of gaining the ballot, and all the benefits it assured them, however, was too abstract for many working-class women. Of more immediate benefit to them was the elevation of women and the value of their labor. To gain this they needed to be unionized, which the men’s union of typesetters had always resisted. Suddenly the prospect of a shop cooperatively operated by women attracted both suffragists and typesetters, and the suffragists knew how to organize. The men’s National Typographical Union took notice, for it was now faced with a competing union whose members employers were inclined to hire because of their lower rates. If the women worked with the men’s union, they would get the same remuneration as the men, promised Alexander Troup, secretary of Local 6. Anthony saw this as success.
The suffragists believed other workingwomen could be organized, and laborers in the needle trade appeared to be ready. But though they wanted higher wages and steady work, nothing in their present situation made the control of all profits of their own industry seem a reasonable goal, or attracted them to the suffragists’ vision of opening up more trades and professions to women. Moreover, unlike the female typesetters, who gained support from their male counterparts, no such male trade union had interest in them. The suffragists turned to publicizing the dire circumstances in which those workingwomen labored.
In December, Anthony and Stanton’s newspaper, the Revolution, established with funds from George Francis Train, published “The Case of Hester Vaughn.” Vaughn was a young English immigrant accused of infanticide. She was a domestic servant who had been seduced by her employer, became pregnant, and was dismissed from her position. She gave birth unattended and was found three days later with her dead infant by her side. She was tried, found guilty of infanticide, and sentenced to death. When the presiding judge passed sentence, he said the crime of infanticide had become so prevalent that “some woman must be made an example of.”
Hester Vaughn became a symbol of the horrors to which workingwomen were subjected. Stanton wrote, “What a holocaust of women and children we offer annually to the barbarous customs of our present type of civilization, to the unjust laws that make crimes for women that are not crimes for men.” The association made this its cause and lobbied the governor of Pennsylvania to pardon Vaughn. She was released and deported six months later to England. This was a different type of gender struggle. Unlike the issues confronting female typesetters, the Vaughn case reflected the kind of obstacles that faced the majority of workingwomen—unskilled in a trade, unprotected by a union, and therefore expendable.
Anthony had envisioned the association as an organization for women to defend themselves. But this was a period of transition, for the women who were credited in doing the most to save Vaughn from the gallows were not the same women whom Vaughn personified. That class of woman—Vaughn’s class—instead, became the object of benevolence. Though many of the women who attended meetings to free Vaughn, contributed money, and supported the petition to the governor, were working class, Stanton was most impressed with the “importance [of] women of wealth, education, and leisure study[ing] the laws under which they live, that they may defend the unfortunate of their sex in our courts of justice.” Domestic workers—indeed, most working-class women—did not have the time or training to mount sophisticated actions, and the fact that employers could easily replace them made them less willing to take controversial stances. Moreover, the typesetters who had begun the association came from a tiny stratum of skilled workers who were the elite among the working-class, wage-earning women. “Instead of growing beyond the typesetters to include the unskilled workers who dominated the female labor force,” Dubois writes, “the association developed outside the working class among a group that might be called middle-class working women.”
These were usually women in occupations that involved professional training rather than manual labor and conditions that gave them more control over their work. Frequently they were self-employed or entrepreneurs. Freelance writers, independent businesswomen, and female professionals, they responded to the association’s vision. “Because the kind of work they did was socially respectable and relatively well paid, it provided them with a sense of autonomy and individual achievement and some degree of economic independence. They worked out of choice as much as out of necessity.” They ultimately, more than the domestic workers, more even than the typesetters, came to be the group who best exemplified the feminist vision of the self-made, self-sufficient woman who embodied their notion of sexual emancipation, and to whom the suffragists best related. Indeed, they moved within the same circles and shared the same values, tastes, and associations, and more fundamentally, a sense of how change must occur. “Suffragists inclined to believe that social changes . . . they wanted to see in woman’s sphere and woman’s image, came from the top down in society, rather than from the bottom up. . . . Given this framework,” Ellen Dubois writes, “suffragists considered middle-class working women strategically important as well as socially desirable, and a critical constituency to attract.” It would be this class—the upper middle class—on whom Stearns focused her effort to organize Minnesota women, and in this sense, mirrored Anthony’s organization.
Anthony’s organization was at a different stage that sought to organize women skilled laborers. By spring 1869, the influx of middle-class women began replacing laboring-class women in the Working Women’s Association, so that the regular membership was entirely middle class. In New York, the meetings, which had been held in places where working-class women could attend, were moved to an uptown mansion. Dues were raised from ten cents to twenty-five cents a month, despite the outcry from working-class members that the increase was prohibitive. Anthony, in noting the enthusiasm of the middle-class women who were joining the association, supported both changes. Increasingly, the association took on such activities as providing benevolent programs for “their downtrodden sisters,” hosting literary and intellectual activities on self-improvement, or indulging in philosophical debates, and as such, grew out of touch with the bread-and-butter matters that working-class women faced daily. This was especially so when class, gender, and union politics collided.
In January 1869, suffragists and typesetters, the original partners in forming the association, found themselves on opposing sides. Local No. 6 in San Francisco declared a strike against printing companies to raise wages to union scale. The female typesetters supported the men. Previously, employers hired female typesetters to replace striking men; but when the women stood with the men, the union was able to prevail. In return for their help, the National Typographical Union admitted the Women’s Typographical Union as its first all-female local. In addition, the national constitution was amended to permit the chartering of other such locals, provided that women did not work below union scale and had the support of local union men. This was a major victory for women, who could now expect equal wages as well as job security. They were now inside the fraternity and Anthony misunderstood what this meant. Seeing the advantages that female typesetters gained by earning union-scale wages, she wanted more women to be trained so that they too could benefit. “Her actions revealed her essential ignorance of trade union principles as well as the dangers inherent in her middle-class approach to working women’s problems.”
Early in the strike Anthony appealed to the employers’ association to establish a training school for women to set type, appealing on behalf of the working-class women who came to the Working Women’s Association as a means to gaining better employment. It was convenient for the employers, for Anthony, not they, was proposing a scheme to train strikebreakers. Within a few days, the employers announced that they would indeed train women to set type and place them in shops. The pro-business press applauded “the ladies of the Revolution” in “this practical side of the woman’s question.” Labor, on the other hand, criticized Anthony for siding with the employers. Though she tried to make amends to the union, claiming that she supported unionism and a woman’s right to equal pay, her statements conveyed that she never really understood how her actions weakened the union’s position. Indeed, she did not understand the union perspective: it was about protecting the members’ jobs from all outsiders. A spokesman for Local No. 6 said, “If a girl is a member of our union, we will give her work . . . but we do not go outside of our organization. You might as well ask why we don’t send for the colored men or the Chinese to learn the trade. There are too many in it now.”
The National Typographical Union’s decision to affiliate with the Women’s Typographical Union most decidedly was not the same as a commitment to increase the number of women in the trade. And because strikebreakers threatened their jobs, many of the female members reluctantly agreed. Suddenly the dream of an all-female union that secured union-scale wages for its members could only be realized if it kept additional female workers. The National Labor Congress expelled Anthony as a delegate. In the years to follow, without the vocal advocacy of Susan Anthony, prejudice within the union job placement system led to the bypassing of female members. In time, female membership within the union decreased. In 1878 the National Typographical Union revoked its affiliation with the Women’s Typographical Union. By the end of the century the position of women compositors was essentially what it had been in 1867, before women were unionized in the trade. All of the progress made in 1868 was reversed by 1869.
It was at this time that suffragists found a new constituency of middle-class women. “Such women, organized in behalf of their own emancipation and not the uplift of their less fortunate sisters, were the people around whom an independent feminist movement would be built.” Even before Anthony’s expulsion from the Labor Congress, she and Stanton had expressly begun to organize middle-class women when they formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. Unlike the Equal Rights Association and the Working Women’s Association—two groups whose divergent membership inevitably compromised the suffrage movement—the new organization could be completely made in their image, setting its own agenda, its own priorities, and defining its own success. With this new organization, the suffragists returned to their primary purpose.
Throughout 1869 the Fifteenth Amendment circulated through the states for approval. Anthony and Stanton were determined that a country ready to extend voting rights to black men could be receptive to enfranchising some of the most respectable members of American society. The so-called Negro’s hour could be transformed into the “universal hour” with a lot of work; but the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which excluded women, was all but a certainty. Their rivals within the American Woman Suffrage Association advocated that any such effort should be directed at legislatures, for competing amendments would threaten approval of the Fifteenth Amendment. The national association’s response was to proceed now with a campaign for a sixteenth amendment designed specifically to enfranchise women.
Charging forth from their New York base, Stanton began a nationwide tour to organize state and local suffrage societies. “North, South, East, West, Pacific coast, too!” declared the Revolution. “Have you heard the call, and are you heeding it, to organize at once in behalf of the great cause of women’s enfranchisement?” In November Stanton toured midwestern states to lecture and organize local suffragists into the national association. State and local affiliates formed in the wake of her visit. Stanton returned to the Midwest later that winter. In late March “Mrs. Cady Stanton delivered a private lecture to ladies at the St. Paul Opera House,” and later spoke in St. Cloud on the twenty-eighth of March. At some point, she met with two of the leading figures of the Minnesota suffrage movement—Sarah Stearns and Mary Colburn. It was at this time that Stearns took on the banner of Revolution: accordingly, the Minnesotans would shift their campaign from pressuring the legislature to petitioning Congress, in conformance with the agenda of the national association.
By 1870 the relative isolation of the Minnesota movement ended as the work of the suffragists of the Revolution began appearing more frequently in the Post and other friendly newspapers. In late February, for example, the Post announced the semicentenary of Miss Susan B. Anthony, “a jolly old maid of 50 . . . who had never been beholden one iota to these horrid men.” In March Stearns reported that Mrs. Myra Bradwell, having applied to the Illinois Supreme Court for a license to practice law, was “denied solely on the grounds the disabilities of her married condition rendered it impossible that she should be bound by her obligation as an attorney.” Since its inception, the Rochester Woman Suffrage Society held weekly meetings filled with debates and lectures on the virtues of women’s suffrage. The franchise was not only about emancipating the woman but also having the power to do good works. “We believe,” Stearns wrote, “that every woman ought to be free to do a part of her work for God and humanity in this way. This is a part of both our religious and political creed.” And it was always about high-mindedness and intellectual self-improvement. The programs the association sponsored featured speakers who were for and against suffrage. In one instance the group sponsored one such lecture that “was crowded on Wednesday night, with an audience, chiefly ladies,” to listen to Mr. H. H. Young, who spoke against women’s suffrage. Stearns’s assessment of the lecture was generous: “On the whole, the lecture was more interesting, than profitable or convincing.”
In the wake of Stanton’s Minnesota lecture tour, Stearns expanded the suffrage organization to prepare for the congressional petition campaign to come, expanding her base of operations from being an association for the ladies of Rochester to a countywide organization, naming it the Olmsted County Woman Suffrage Association. From there, she communicated with editors and other leading citizens around the southern region of the state in hopes that they would print circulars and notices on suffrage activities. Her inquiries were not always well received. “Among others, [she] also sent her circular to Christos of the Lanesboro Herald, who publishes it with an answer telling her he is very sorry, but that he is not the man for her business.” But it did not slow the work. Just as Stanton and Anthony had discovered the strength of middle-class women—the professional and affluent “working women” of the closing years of the association in New York, women Stearns knew very well—Stearns enlisted them in active service, principally bringing the heart of Minnesota’s movement to the state’s political and economic center—the metropolitan area.
Stearns convened what would later be called the Organization of the Woman Suffrage Club of Minneapolis, at the home of Martha Angle Dorsett, a New Yorker by birth, who graduated from the University of Iowa College of Law, the first public university in the United States to admit men and women on an equal basis. She would become the state’s first woman to be admitted to the Minnesota Bar Association. Her husband, Charles William Dorsett, who joined his wife in lobbying the legislature to change the statute in 1877 that had barred his wife, would unsuccessfully run twice for governor on the Prohibition ticket. Charlotte Ouisconsin Van Cleve wrote a book on her early years growing up at Fort Snelling where her father was an officer, during the period of preterritorial Minnesota; later, in 1875, she would be one of the first women to be elected to the Minneapolis School Board. Her husband, Horatio Van Cleve, was a Civil War general and adjutant general for Minnesota until appointed by Governor Austin to be warden of the state prison at Stillwater, “one of the best acts of Governor Austin’s administration.” Other women whom Stearns included in her circle were Dr. Addie Ballou, who would be appointed vice president of the National Woman Suffrage Association; Charlotte Winchell, who also served as one of the first school board members in Minneapolis; Mahala Pillsbury, a leader in charitable work in Minneapolis and wife of Governor John Pillsbury; and Harriet Bishop, the first teacher of Minnesota, founder of First Baptist Church of St. Paul, civic leader and namesake of Lake Harriet of Minneapolis and Harriet Island in St. Paul, who would become president of the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association.
In her own family, Stearns’s husband, Ozora, would be elected to the United States Senate to finish the term of David Norton, who had suddenly died. In 1872 the family would move to Duluth, and by 1874 Ozora would be elected to be judge on the eleventh judicial district, where he would serve for the next twenty years. But Stearns would remain the chief influence of the movement as she continued to organize clubs around the state. Though she was quite frustrated with the state party establishment she would not follow the lead of Anthony and Stanton in severing ties.
With this community—women who had the time and resources to meet, discuss, and debate, read and write books, petition the legislature, and attend sessions and rallies without the fear of reprisal, joblessness, or violence, bound together by Saxon race, class, and social status, with the added benefit of political access—the Minnesota women’s suffrage movement mobilized to begin the next phase of the struggle for political equality.
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Since her arrival in Minnesota in 1866, Stearns had chronicled the many challenges women faced on Minnesota’s farms and in cities and towns—spousal abuse, rape, abortion, and poverty—but she did not include the experiences uniquely related to women of color. Given the demographics of Rochester during the late 1860s and later Duluth, she likely had no exposure to black women. Although she reprinted a story from a Democratic paper about the rape of a white woman by a black man, she refrained from reprinting a story that appeared in a Republican newspaper about a black mother who had been forced out of her shelter by a white woman; or another story of a landlord who denied shelter to a black woman with children and rent money, solely because of her race; or yet another about a Swedish housekeeper in Goodhue County who forced her employers to release another servant because the woman was black. Sympathy for the African American ended with emancipation. Her story about the black man was a cautionary tale of the inferiority of black men and “proof” of their undeserved status in the political arena; but the racial aspect of the experiences of black women were not of interest to her, other than her abiding faith that the ballot singularly would set them free. However, during the postwar decades to follow, within the increasingly rarefied world of the emergent suffrage leader, clarity of purpose, social connections, and high-mindedness, laced with a cultivated sense of nuance, tended both to shroud and nourish her sense of racial privilege.
It would not be until 1914 that, in St. Paul, a new suffrage group would form. Called the Everywoman Suffrage Club, its motto would be “Every woman for all women and all women for every woman.” Though affiliated with the Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association, the chapter that Stearns helped to organize, ESC would be an organization primarily for “colored women.” Nellie Griswold Francis, its founder and leader, belonged to the upper class of black society and was consequently able to forge connections with the predominantly white women’s social and political clubs that were reluctant to include black women. After a meeting with the ESC, Clara Ueland, leader of the state organization, noted that the members compared favorably with what she termed “ordinary” clubwomen “with one or two exceptionally graceful and charming. But the leader of the club is a star! Mrs. Frances [sic] is petite and what we call a ‘lady,’ but her spirit is a flame!”
But in 1870 no such black woman enjoyed that social and financial stature, and this rendered African American women invisible, or at least, inconsequential. They more typically were like Martha Clark Hall, the black servant who worked for Senator Alexander Ramsey. It was evident that Mrs. Ramsey saw her as a valued member of the household. In February of that year, upon hearing of the death of Martha’s brother, she wrote to her husband that “Martha seems heartbroken and disconsolate” and that nothing seemed able to “soften her grief” or help her “bear her great loss.” The senator quipped, perhaps to lighten the moment over the demise of Martha’s brother, a laborer, “If he made no will, Martha will increase her fortune considerably and be infinitely more attractive than ever to Peter.” Months later, she married Peter. The Press reported the happy affair:
“Martha,” a respected colored woman, who has been attached to the family of Senator Ramsey for over twenty years, was married to a young colored gentleman, a barber of this city, on Tuesday night; but even the bliss of a matrimonial honeymoon could not entice the faithful Martha from her post as Seneschal of the Senator’s family, and next morning she departed with them for Washington, leaving her young husband to pine in solitude till her return in spring.