Nineteenth Century: The Woman Question
“The Woman Question” “The Woman Question”
was being reconsidered. In the 1840s through 1890s slavery and women’s rights issues gained
momentum. In 1848, the most famous of the women’s rights conventions was held in Seneca
Falls, NY, and organizers Stanton and Anthony spoke as did many men. In 1851, the conversations
and conventions continued, but the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, OH, became a pivotal
moment for the voices of women and black women. Francis Gage, President of the Convention,
published her account of the speech in The Anti-Slavery Bugle (The Sojourner Truth Memorial
Committee). After several white men and pastors dominated the conference and the women sat
back and listened to the men argue about their rights, emancipated slave Sojourner Truth
stood and walked on stage to the gasp of many. Some who were arguing behind the scenes were
upset that blacks were present, partially because they did not want the abolition and
women’s rights issues clouded and partially because of prejudice. Truth delivered a momentum-turning
speech, called “Ain’t I a Woman” (510-1), which hushed the men and those who were letting
race cloud the issue: She left the stage to applause and was lauded in the newspapers.
As seen in the examples above and in the selections for the course, women in this period increased
their voice through writing, and some such as Fuller and Eliot were making professional
pay and supporting themselves off of their work. As issues such as temperance, abolition,
and suffrage became major topics, pro- and anti- sides emerged strongly in public. The
modern woman was being formed–one who sought an education, considered if that also could
have a profession to support herself, considered how marriage and children worked into the
equation and how a profession worked into marriage, wanted the right to own property,
vote, and have the rights men held. However, long-held beliefs about a woman’s role being
dedicated to a domestic life, taking care of the parents until married and turning her
attention to husband and children grounded the position of the anti-feminist groups.
Many believed women to be pure, innocent, and unscathed by politics and the horrors
of the world, and becoming part of public life through voting rights and having a profession
outside of the home were concerning. –If women received the same education as men,
then could they understand the information, and would it corrupt them?
–How would life’s issues harm women and the ideas they teach their children?
–How would women react to the horrors of war and reality of political argument?
–Some of work and political meetings happened in places where respectable women should not
be, so how would they be viewed in society after being in the streets of an impoverished
neighborhood, a pub, or battlefield with the wounded?
–How would having a profession negatively impact domestic life?
–Would women ignore their wifely and motherly duties?
–Would some women not want to have a husband, family, or children when exposed to so many
challenging ideas? -What would happen to society?
Since the 1840s, women sought to hold property, and included in that property was the right
to their children and own earnings. The meaning of Mrs. was mistress–belonging to the Mister
or the Master–meaning wife. When a woman married, everything became the husband’s property,
including the dowry, property if any, and all belongings. He owned her property, therefore,
he owned her and their children, too. From the 1840s through the first decade of the
Twentieth Century, England and America passed similar series of laws. In England, the first
of the Married Women’s Property Acts passed in 1870 who were allowed women to own their
own earnings and to inherit property, and the 1882 law expanded those rights to control
their own property and extended the law to all of Great Britain. In the United States,
small strides were made in several states–first in 1848 in New York–and spread to the federal
level in the Homestead Act of 1862, where women were allowed to write wills, keep their
own earnings and were “grant[ed] feme sole status to abandoned women” (Craig). Custody
battles favored men prior to the Revolutionary War in America, but after the war, young children
and female children could stay with the mother. The woman had the right to divorce in some
states in the cases of adultery, even when adultery happened with slaves and masters,
but in England, men could divorce, but women could not, and women were not entitled to
marital property, including children, until the passage of these laws.