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Growing Frustration

A woman speaks out about women’s exclusion from Federal era voting rights expansions.

The Rights of Women

“The Rights of Women,” Richmond Enquirer, October 20, 1829. Library of Congress.

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For the Enquirer.

The Rights of Women.

I have consulted for several days your Proceedings of the Legislative Committee, and watched with great anxiety the various projects of its Members. I can no longer forbear to express my astonishment and indignation.

A letter to the Enquirer about the rights of women.

I have been following the news of the Constitutional Convention, and I can’t stay silent anymore.

 
Why is it, that the pretensions of almost every class of society have been duly weighed by this intelligent Committee—that the right of representation has married men to exercise the right of suffrage have been expressly stipulated by one of its chivalric members; that votes are to be given to every free male Citizen of 21 years of age, with a few expectations—and yet, that one half of the Society is to be cut off, at one blow, from all share in the administration of the government? Are we not as free as the Lords of the Creation? Are we not as much affected by the laws which are passed, as the Lords of Creation themselves? What just reasons can be given for this unjust exclusion? Why is the convention going to extend voting rights for men of all social classes, even Black men, but do nothing for women? Aren’t women as free as men? Aren’t we as affected by laws? What possible reason could there be to exclude us?
 
I have waited with some impatience for some other woman to draw the pen upon this occasion. But no accomplished Champion has yet appeared on our behalf. No modern Wollstonecraft has gone forth to vindicate “the Rights of women.”—No Attorney-General has devoted himself to our assistance. The pen, which has defended the rights of Non-freeholders, sleeps quietly over our wrongs But, as for these are men, forsooth; the proud Lords of the Creation, their privileges must be arrayed in all the forces of Eloquence, while we, the innocent, and proscribed Caste of Society, are to be contemptuously put by, as objects unworthy of attention.  I have waited for another woman to speak up, but no one has. No attorney general has taken up our cause. All the people who want to extend the vote to men of lower classes say nothing about women.
 
—So true it is that “the Age of Chivalry is gone, and the glory of (Virginia) really extinguished for ever.”—In the gay, festive scenes of the drawing rooms, in the light amusements of society, we are almost to be worshipped as your idols, and the play things of your idle hours; as the poor creatures of your lordly pleasures, and when the Sultan chooses to visit the immured victims of his Seraglio  So chivalry is dead. Women are supposed to be amusements for men.
 
—But when the great business of Society is to be carried on, and power is to be exercised for the benefit of man, we are to be cast by like the useless furniture of your houses. Is this the liberty of which you boast? This the Equality which you are labouring to establish?  And when it is time to make important decisions about the country, women are to be ignored. Is this the freedom you brag about? Is this the equality you are promising?
 
—If we are to suffer this continued degradation, it shall not be for want of one humble advocate at least. If it were left for me to choose, I would rally every Virginia woman under my banners, and, like the Roman Matrons, would repair in a body to the Senate house, and demand to be heard.—Why are not our claims respected? It is the old story of the Man’s being the Painter—instead of the Lion—Could the Lion wield the brush, you should hear the Rights of the other party painted as they ought to be.—But, as it is left for weak and powerless woman to vindicate her own Rights, will you permit me to offer a few brief considerations to your lordly members of the Convention in favor of her innocent and proscribed sex?  If it were up to me, I would get every woman in Virginia to rise up and demand their rights. Why aren’t men standing up for us? Since they are not, allow me to offer some arguments in support of our rights:
 
Why are we proscribed? Why are we denied the privilege of voting? Why are we eternally to be kept in the bondage of a despotic government? “Have we not eyes? have we not hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,–subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a man is? if you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us,” shall we not, (no, not revenge!) but assert our rights, and expose your gross injustice? Why aren’t you giving us the right to vote? Are we not as human as you?
 
Aye; injustice; gross, flagrant injustice? You are born stronger than we are; and that is the only advantage you have over us. Nature has endowed you with more physical, brute strength; and upon that foundation, you raise up all your boasted pretensions. You can beat us, and therefore you make us your slaves. All your pretended right resolves itself into might. It is the law of tyrants; the triumph of the strong over the weak—and upon this honorable basis, you raise the standard of your power.—Having conquered us, you shut us out of the great means of improvement. You are acting the part of other discreet conquerors. You first subdue us by force; and then by keeping us in ignorance, you attempt to perpetuate your own power, and make us your slaves. This is the history of all despotisms; and upon this wise and noble hint you have justly acted!—Have you any better reasons for your usurped dominion?  This is very unfair. Men are physically stronger than women. That is your only advantage over us. But you use your strength to keep us down, just like all the dictators in history.
 
You say, we have not intellect enough to vote, and assist in the government. Where are the proofs of your superiority? You keep us in ignorance—and then you boast of your superior attainments. You make us embroider for you; thrum upon the guitar or piano; draw sketches of your lordly faces; convert us into spinsters and seamstresses, to make your garments; but you exclude us from your best schools. You prevent us from cultivating science, studying politics, improving our understandings; and then you insist upon our ignorance as the evidence of our mental incapacity—forgetting, that we rank among our sex the De Staels and Daciers of France, and the Moores and Edgeworths of England and Ireland. You say we aren’t smart enough to vote, but where is your proof? You don’t let us have a good education, and then you claim to be smarter. You only let us do housework, and then claim it is all we are capable of.
—Think you, that we have not as much native strength of mind to give our votes properly, as more than half of your sovereign sex? And that with a little advantage of education, we could select fit officers, as well as you can? Do you really think we aren’t smart enough? Do you really think that we couldn’t vote wisely if you gave us the chance to get educated?
 
You boast too, of your superior independence of mind—You say, that you alone can exercise the right of suffrage, firmly and freely. Indeed! and what say the disfranchised non-freeholders to this arrogant assumption—and what ought we to say to it?—That it is not founded in truth—that if we enjoyed greater opportunities of improvement, we too, who know how to make you Lords of the Creation tremble at our feet, could think, and feel and act for ourselves, in matters of government, with as much independence, as you do—Make us feel our consequence more, and we shall know better how to value and assert it. You brag that you are more free-thinking than we are and that you won’t just follow the crowd. But if we had the same privileges of education that you have, we would be just as free-thinking as you.
We call upon the Convention, then, in the name of Justice and of Truth, to listen to our Claims, and secure our rights. This is the day of Reform. While so many others are recovering their long-lost Rights, why should we alone be excluded from the benefits of the Convention?—We call upon that wise and honourable body, to listen to the just language of our complaint—and admit us to a participation of their power. If not to all of our own sex, we claim the right in the name of those, who have arrived at years of discretion—who have property to guard, and no lordly husband to represent it or ourselves.

And this, as in duty bound, we shall ever pray.

Your’s respectfully, (in the name of others.)

Virginia Freewoman.

We ask the Convention to honor the rights of women. Why should women be excluded when so many others are not? Please listen to us and let us have the right to vote. If you don’t want to give it to all women, at least give it to older women who own property and have no husband.

“The Rights of Women,” Richmond Enquirer, October 20, 1829. Library of Congress.

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Background

In the first days of the new nation, only people who owned a certain amount of property could vote. This requirement was based on the common belief that people who owned property had enough independence to take care of the country. Some states allowed any man who met the minimum property requirement to vote regardless of their race. In New Jersey, even women property owners could vote in the early days, but that allowance only lasted about 30 years.

Over time, many people began to resent the property requirement rule. They argued that if all men were created equal, then all men should have the right to vote regardless of whether they have property or not. Throughout the Federal period, supporters of this idea led a state-by-state campaign to eliminate property requirements. By the late 1820s, the right to vote had been extended to white men of every social class in most states. But women were still excluded.

About the Resources

This letter published in the Richmond Enquirer captures the growing frustrations experienced by women who wanted states to grant women the right to vote. It was written by an anonymous Virginia woman during Virginia’s 1829 constitutional convention. She was outraged that the convention expanded the vote for white men but did not even consider women. She explained why excluding women does not make sense. Her arguments echo those laid out by Judith Sargent Murray nearly 40 years earlier.

It is important to acknowledge that this anonymous Virginia woman hints that the possibility of Black men getting the right to vote before white women is particularly outrageous. Her words foreshadow the blatant racism that would become a huge problem in the women’s suffrage movement after the American Civil War.

Vocabulary

  • constitutional convention: A meeting where elected representatives write a new constitution or revise an existing constitution.
  • Federal period: The early years of the United States, usually defined as 1790–1830.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the main argument of this opinion piece? How does the author support her points?
  • Why do you think the author published this piece anonymously?
  • What does this article reveal about the state of women’s political rights in the late 1820s?
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Suggested Activities

  • Ask students to create a broadside or poster that sums up the arguments in this document.
  • Teach this document together with the sources from On the Capabilities of Women to help students grasp the social context that this anonymous author was up against.
  • Ask students to read New Jersey’s Suffrage Experiment to learn about an early Federal period trial in true universal suffrage, and then consider how this history changes our understanding of this op-ed.
  • To understand why women wanted the right to vote in the early Federal period, read Benevolent Societies.
  • Include this document in any lesson about the history of the women’s suffrage fight in the United States to help students understand that the debates started long before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

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