In 1879, advocates for women's right to vote -- suffragists -- presented the first constitutional amendment that would give women the right to participate in public elections. It was roundly rejected by Congress, but the fight for women's right to vote would continue well into the 20th century. Although equal rights between genders is still hotly debated, women in 1879 faced grave problems that inhibited their access to some of even the most basic human rights.
Lack of Civic Rights
Women were not granted the right to vote on a national level until 1920. Although certain cities and states began granting women the right to vote in municipal elections through the latter half of the 1800s, women had no effective voice in government, and therefore no means to advocate their own issues and opinions. The Fourteenth Amendment, passed at the end of the Civil War in 1866, legally defined citizenship and voting rights as the sole domain of men. Attempting to vote was a criminal act for women, as demonstrated by the arrest of suffrage worker Susan B. Anthony in 1872 for attempting to vote in a presidential election. Women in 1879 were not regarded as serious political and civic entities, a perception that would continue for over forty years.
Limited Access to Education
Although Vassar and Smith colleges welcomed all-female student bodies by 1879, women's access to education was extremely limited. Women were not admitted to state-run universities until 1855, and even then they were subjected to prejudice, assault and harassment by students and professors. When the first student graduated from the Quaker-run Female Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1851, a police escort was required to protect her from angry throngs. By 1879 more women were entering the academic world, but they were still the exception rather than the rule. Without education, women lacked equal access to knowledge and skills that would enable them to effectively debate against male counterparts. Barring women from higher academia also denied them the chance to network with powerful political and social entities, closing potential avenues of influence to them.
Women in the American work force have historically been paid bless than men, and 1879 was no different. Although little data exists to give hard numbers on the wage gap between men and women, writings by pioneering suffragist and abolitionist Sarah Grimke describe the dire situation facing women who worked for a wage. While a male tailor might command a handsome fee for his services, a woman of equal skill would earn one third to half his rate, simply because she was a woman. This lack of economic independence left women in the thrall of their families or husbands for any support. For women who did work, the hours were arduous and the pay scant, leaving little time for political activism.
The Cult of True Womanhood
Between 1820 and 1860, an image of the ideal women rose to prominence among religious and political figures, continuing well through the end of the 19th century. This "Cult of True Womanhood" perpetuated a stereotype of women as pious, submissive and pure creatures dedicated to home life. These were the parameters that all women were expected to fit, and this ideal woman was too fragile and pure to participate in the rough and dirty male political realm. Women were regarded as domestic creatures bound to the private household, while men were the participants of the civic, public sphere. These "separate spheres," coupled with the Cult of True Womanhood, were used both to justify denying women the right to vote and to keep them in an enforced state of ignorance that made advocating for these rights difficult.
- Middle Tennessee State University: American Women Through Time 1860-1879
- Ibiblio.org: The Path of the Women's Rights Movement
- "Closing the Gap: Exploring the History of Gender Relations," Stikker, Allerd; 2002; pg. 200
- "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman," Grimke, Sarah; 1838
- College of Staten Island at CUNY: The Cult of Domesticity and True Womanhood