The Woman's National Liberal Union Convention

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The following Note addresses the Woman's National Liberal Union Convention, including reactions to it, and the key individuals who attended it.


General Sources

Main sources on the Woman's National Liberal Union Convention are Matilda Joslyn Gage, WOMEN’S NATIONAL LIBERAL UNION REPORT OF THE CONVENTION FOR ORGANIZATION (1890) [hereafter GAGE REPORT], The Liberal Thinker in Syracuse, N.Y. (Jan. 1890), and the newsletter-magazine describing the convention and attendance. In addition to Foltz, "The Call" to the convention is signed by three other women lawyers: Laura Gordon, Marilla Ricker, and Lelia Robinson. Also of interest is Mary V. White, Secretary of the San Diego Bellamy Nationalist club, who wrote that though Foltz was new to free thought, she would prove to be “a powerhouse.”

Matilda Gage, Woman’s National Liberal Union, FREETHINKERS’ MAG., 262-65 (May 1890), summed up the accomplishments and purposes of the convention. Other accounts of the Gage convention and the aftermath are in the biographies and memoirs of some of the participants: OLYMPIA BROWN, ACQUAINTANCES: OLD AND NEW AMONG REFORMERS (1911); CHARLOTTE COTE, OLYMPIA BROWN: THE BATTLE FOR EQUALITY 131 (1988); KATHLEEN BARRY, SUSAN B. ANTHONY: A BIOGRAPHY OF A SINGULAR FEMINIST 293-99 (1988); JILL NORGREN, BELVA LOCKWOOD 179-81 (2007).

Matilda Gage, President

For contemporary sources, see MATILDA GAGE, WOMAN, CHURCH AND STATE (Sally Roesch Wagner ed., 2002) (1893); A WOMAN OF THE CENTURY (1893) (Frances E. Willard & Mary A. Livermore eds., 1967) [hereafter WOMAN OF THE CENTURY]; Clara Colby, Matilda Joslyn Gage, WOMAN’S TRIB., Mar. 28, 1888.

There are two published biographies, both sympathetic to Gage, and critical of her treatment by Anthony and other suffrage leaders. SALLY ROESCH WAGNER, SHE WHO HOLDS UP THE SKY (1998) and LEILA R. BRAMMER, EXCLUDED FROM SUFFRAGE HISTORY: MATILDA JOSLYN GAGE, NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN FEMINIST (2000).

The Gage chapter in WOMEN WITHOUT SUPERSTITION, 211-27 (Annie Laurie Gaylor ed., 1997) is also very informative. Two unpublished Ph.D. dissertation are useful on Gage: Lucia Patrick, Religion and Revolution in the Thought of Matilda Joslyn Gage, 1826-1898 (1996); Sandra Brooke Lee, “More Than a Suffragist:” Matilda Joslyn Gage and the Marginalization of Radicalism in the Woman Suffrage Movement in America (1989). Gage’s convention was a provocation especially to Susan Anthony. She lashed out against the proposed liberal union as “ridiculous, absurd, sectarian, bigoted and too horrible for anything,” and forbade her followers from attending the rival convention. Letter, Susan Anthony to Eliza Wright Osbourne, Feb. 5, and Mar. 5, 1890 (Garrison Papers, on file with the Sophia Smith Library, Smith College, cited in SALLY ROESCH WAGNER, SHE WHO HOLDS THE SKY (1998)); IDA HUSTED HARPER, 2 LIFE AND WORK OF SUSAN B. ANTHONY 659 (1969).

Reaction to Foltz’s Remarks

Several months of letters in the Woman’s Tribune responded to Foltz’s suffrage remarks. See e.g., Frances Ellen Burr, An Attack on the Woman Suffragists, WOMEN’S TRIB., Mar. 15, 1890, at 85; Reply to Clara Foltz, WOMEN’S TRIB., May 3, 1890. Amalie Janssen Pfund, A Remonstrance from California, WOMEN’S TRIB., Apr. 12, 1890 was signed “A Farmer’s Wife.” She wrote of the actual conditions of women’s daily work on a farm and concluded bitterly: “By nightfall she has become nervous, irritable and peevish. What chance has she for cultivating lofty and noble thoughts and aspirations?” In Mrs. Foltz Replies to Critics, WOMAN’S TRIB., May 10, 1890, at 146, Foltz was largely unrepentant and continued to claim that men “are ready and willing to grant suffrage,” and that the only real impediment is “the vast majority of women who do not care a single fig for the privilege of voting.” She closed by renewing her own commitment to the cause, and adding that “the personal aggrandizement of a few individuals is not the cause itself.”

Other Notable Attendants

Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky

WOMAN OF THE CENTURY (Blavatsky entry). There are many full-length biographies of Blavatsky, ranging from true-believer accounts to attacks to scholarly examinations. For a balanced look, see SYLVIA CRANSTON, H. P. B. THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE & INFLUENCE OF HELENA BLAVATSKY (1993); WARREN SYLVESTER SMITH, THE LONDON HERETICS 1870-1914, at 140-60 (1967) (“magnetism of the fifty-three year-old prophetess had nothing to do with attractiveness in the usual sense... habitually untidy. She smoked constantly cigarettes which she kept rolling herself from a mixture that probably included hashish… Seldom did a reporter fail to mention the hypnotic power of her azure eyes”); BRUCE F. CAMPBELL, ANCIENT WISDOM REVIVED: A HISTORY OF THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT (1980); ANONYMOUS, THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT 1875-1890 (1951) (written by a believer and relating details about personalities and internecine struggles).

Books on Nationalism include studies of Theosophy and its connections. See especially, ARTHUR LIPOW, AUTHORITARIAN SOCIALISM: EDWARD BELLAMY AND THE NATIONALIST MOVEMENT 225-39 (1982) (full account of the doctrinal connections between Theosophy and Nationalism); MARY JO BUHLE, WOMEN AND AMERICAN SOCIALISM, 1870-1920, at 60-66, 78 (1981) (on the WCTU and suffrage); see also ARTHUR MORGAN, EDWARD BELLAMY 260-75 (1944); SYLVIA BOWMAN, EDWARD BELLAMY ABROAD 385-99 (1962); ANN BRAUDE, RADICAL SPIRITS 177-89 (2001) is especially good on the connection of theosophy with suffrage and spiritualism. For more on Besant, see ROGER MANVELL, THE TRIAL OF ANNIE BESANT AND CHARLES BRADLOUGH (1976); ARTHUR NETHERCOT, THE FIRST FIVE LIVES OF ANNIE BESANT (1960). For Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s impressions of Besant and disappointment at her conversion to Theosophy, see ELIZABETH CADY STANTON AS REVEALED IN HER LETTERS, DIARY AND REMINISCENCES (Theodore Stanton & Harriot Stanton Blatch eds., 1912). There are several related On-Line Bibliographic Notes: Bellamy Nationalism; The Women’s Movement, Free Love and Spiritualism, at WLH Website.

William Aldrich and Josephine Cables

William Farrington Aldrich (1853-1925) won a seat in the House of Representatives as a Republican from Alabama three times, each time by contesting the award of the election to his opponent. He served from 1896-1900. See BIOGRAPHICAL DIRECTORY OF THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS 519 (1989) (giving a brief history of Aldrich); SHELDON HACKNEY, POPULISM TO PROGRESSIVISM IN ALABAMA 67 (1969) (providing an account of the arcane politics of Alabama in this period and generally of the relationship of 19th and 20th century reform and mentioning Aldrich as a Republican “endorsed by the Populists”); TWENTIETH CENTURY BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF NOTABLE AMERICANS (Rossiter Johnson ed., 1904) (giving a brief overview of Aldrich’s life).

For the local lore about Aldrich and his Alabama Utopia, see HENRY EMFINGER, MY HOME TOWN: ALDRICH ALABAMA (1959). A similar account of the town is in the Aldrich entry, THE NATIONAL CYCLOPAEDIA OF AMERICAN BIOGRAPHY 65-66 (1897). Published before his Congressional service, this article lists his occupation as “philanthropist” and says: “With his tenderhearted and sympathetic wife, he was the originator and first to advocate the creation of a new office in the courts, that of public defender, to have all the privileges and be clothed with the same rights before the grand jury and the court [as the public prosecutor], his duty being the defense of the poor and unfortunate who have no means of employing the best legal talent.”

Josephine Cables Aldrich entry follows his in the NATIONAL CYCLOPAEDIA, at 66, mentioning her support of the public defender and officership in the Woman’s National Liberal Union. WOMAN OF THE CENTURY, at 16, also mentions her interest in public defense through her husband.

Elliott and Emily Coues

Professor Elliott Coues was a well-known naturalist, Theosophist (who in 1890 had recently broken with Madame Blavatsky), and freethinker. PAUL RUSSELL CUTRIGHT, MICHAEL J. BRODHEAD, ELLIOT COUES: NATURALIST AND FRONTIER HISTORIAN (2001). His wife, Emily, was a wealthy woman as well as a serious Spiritualist and Theosophist. WOMAN OF THE CENTURY (Coues entry). The couple was active at the Convention, serving with Foltz on the Resolutions committee and accepting election as officers of the Liberal Union.

Charlotte Smith

Charlotte Smith was an organizer of women government workers, one of the first women in the Knights of Labor, and editor of Working Women. She was a well-known reformer in the late nineteenth century but has been largely forgotten until recently. AUTUMN STANLEY, RAISING MORE HELL AND FEWER DAHLIAS: THE PUBLIC LIFE OF CHARLOTTE SMITH, 1840-1917 (2009); see also, PHILIP S. FONER, WOMEN AND THE AMERICAN LABOR MOVEMENT 189, 214-15 (1979) on Smith’s contributions. Olympia Brown, The Two Conventions, WISC. CITIZEN (Mar. 1890), wrote that there was “no more stirring, sensible or eloquent” speech at either of the two suffrage conventions than Smith’s. “For years,” Smith said, “I have been a spectator of the Woman Suffrage Movement, and I ask—what have you done for the wage woman?” A rousing orator, Smith called out her statistics for the Nation’s Capitol: 500 churches, 125 houses of assignation, 2000 saloons, millions spent on public monuments to men—and with each statistic, the refrain: “yet not one place of refuge, not one resting place, for working women.” Smith disagreed that most men were ready to give women suffrage and blasted the “weak, effeminate [sic] little-brained men that fear women’s competition.” On the other hand, she agreed with Foltz that the suffrage movement had failed due largely to narrow self-concern. GAGE REPORT, at 80-81.

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