Women’s History

From Woman Lawyer: The Trials of Clara Foltz -- Online Notes For The Book

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Legal Status of Women in Nineteenth Century

For a discussion of important scholarship on the changing rights of women as citizens, and as marriage partners, see Chapter Six Note: Women's Rights Movement History.

As Woman Lawyer went to press, Christine Stansell published The Feminist Promise 1792 to the Present (2010) which has a sweeping, engaging and authoritative overview of the historical condition of women, especially in the United States and of the individuals and movements that sought to change it. Women’s quest for full citizenship—to be voters, serve on juries, enter the professions—has been of increasing interest to scholars in recent years. Feminists have challenged the use of legal discourses to maintain gendered social hierarchies and discrimination in all areas of life. See, e.g., Sandra Van Burkleo, Belonging to the World: Women's Rights and American Constitutional Culture (2001) (a comprehensive treatment of women’s changing legal status and legal feminist movements from the colonial period to the modern day); Deborah Rhode, Justice and Gender: Sex Discrimination and the Law (1989) (discussing the historical background to modern sex discrimination); Joan Hoff, Law, Gender and Injustice:A Legal History of U.S. Women (1991) (covering over two hundred years of women’s legal history through the lens of radical feminism).

“Feminism” and Women’s Rights: Nomenclature

Early in the twentieth century, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote that “Feminism is a term applied to what was previously known as ‘The Woman’s Movement,’ and still earlier as ‘Women’s Rights.’” Charlotte Perkins Filman, A Non-Fiction Reader 183 (Larry Ceplair ed., 1991). For more on Gilman, see On-Line Bibliographic Note: Bellamy Nationalism. Present day scholars have disputed whether the word “feminist” can be used to describe women’s rights movements before the twentieth century. See generally Karen Offen, Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach, 14 Signs: J. of Women in Culture and Soc'y 119 (1988). Nancy Cott has called on historians to coin “additional new terms in women’s political and intellectual history” to refer to early women’s rights movements prior to the twentieth century and preserve the distinctiveness and historical complexity of the word “feminism.” Nancy F. Cott, Comment on Karen Offen’s “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach, 15 SIGNS 203 (1989); see also, Ellen Carol DuBois, 15 SIGNS 203 (1989) (also commenting on Offen). On the popularization of the word “feminism” in the US, see Nancy F. Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism 11-50 (1987).

In the context of women’s legal history, Mary Jane Mossman raises the question of whether early women lawyers can accurately be described as feminists. Mary Jane Mossman, The First Women Lawyers: A Comparative Study of Gender, Law and the Legal Professions 287-89 (2006). Clara Foltz was very much a practicing feminist — putting woman’s concerns at the center of her work and thought— but I have not found examples of her using the word. So I have largely avoided “feminism” in describing her thought as she was expressing it in the nineteenth century. Using the terms “women’s rights” before 1900, “feminism” afterwards is the practice noted by Christine Stansell in the Feminist Promise, 1792- the Present (2010), at p. xiv.

While she may not have used the word “feminist” Foltz did refer repeatedly to woman’s “sphere” and its limitations in her speeches and writing. See Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835, at 197-206 (2d ed. 1977) (describing how separate spheres ideology could be used by women to serve their own purposes); Dubois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Woman's Movement in America, 1848-1869, at 1-40 (1978) (describing separate spheres ideology as a historical phenomenon that shaped women's rights activism and the cultural conditions from which it grew); Linda K. Kerber, Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Women's History, in Toward an Intellectual History of Women 159, 171 (1997) (explaining that separate spheres constituted at once a culture imposed on and created by women and defending its intellectual usefulness). Rosalind Rosenberg tells how early women academics opposed the idea that women’s difference from men should limit their opportunities. Rosalind Rosenberg, Beyond Separate Spheres: Intellectual Roots of Modern Feminism (1982).

I address the connection between women lawyers and women’s rights in the concluding thoughts of my article Women’s Rights, Public Defense, and the Chicago World’s Fair. Specifically, I argue for more emphasis on the connection between the women’s rights movement and women lawyers. During the lifetime of early women lawyers, women were excluded from activities that were judged to fall outside the “woman’s sphere,” including becoming lawyers, voting, and serving on juries. The opposition to women lawyers’ demands for political equality and suffrage were so powerful that “connection to a cause greater than their personal ambition was a practical necessity.” In response to criticisms that the term feminism could not be attached to these women because the term was not used until the early twentieth century, I agree that I am making a historical judgment instead of focusing on the terminology used in the nineteenth century. However, while some argue that the early women lawyers fail under the third element of feminism—identification with women—because early women lawyers identified, instead, with professional standards of merit, the evidence that the “ideological divorce between women lawyers and the women’s rights movement actually started in the 1880s and 1890s is very thin.” Foltz as well as other women lawyers put the condition of women at the center of their thoughts and activities and “[t]hat is the heart of feminism whatever it is called.”

Another kind of nomenclature issue has to do with the use of possessives and plurals (e.g. woman’s movement, women’s movement, woman movement, women’s rights movement, etc.). The same type of issue arises with the Woman Lawyer’s Bill and the word used to precede “suffrage.” Foltz seems most often to have used the singular and the possessive for both, so I will largely follow her example.

Women’s Biographies

Feminism has revolutionized the genre of biography by bringing women into the forefront of history and highlighting gender as a central dimension of life experience. In a penetrating essay, Alice Kessler-Harris discusses the traditional historian’s view of biography as too limited and tied to the needs of narrative. She urges that an “individual life might help us to see not only into particular events but into the larger cultural and social and even political processes of a moment in time.” Kessler-Harris, Why Biography?, Am. Hist. Rev. 625, 626 (2009). An outstanding example of feminist biography writing is Estelle B. Freedman, Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition (1996). Van Waters was in Los Angeles in the early part of her career as a prison reformer and could have overlapped with Foltz in her concerns for juvenile justice. But she was in the mode of the college educated Progressive reformer, among whom Foltz had some friends and allies, but whose concerns were more for social than legal reform. Another important work of feminist biography is Kathryn Kish Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation's Work: The Rise of Women's Political Culture, 1830-1900 (1995). Though Kelley was a lawyer, this work does not cover the part of her life in which she practiced; a second volume is projected.

At the same time feminist biographers have enlivened and enriched the field, they have faced issues about the relationship between subject and author and the role of subjectivity in biographical writing. These have been fruitfully explored by some of the most prominent of the field’s practitioners. In The Challenge of Feminist Biography: Writing the Lives of Modern American Women (Sara Alpern, Joyce Antler, Elisabeth Israels Perry & Ingrid Winther Scobie eds., 1992) noted women biographers discuss how they negotiated methodological challenges in their craft—using sparse historical records, choosing subjects carefully, and keeping appropriate emotional distance. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing A Woman's Life (1989) is a classic work on the suppression of women’s lives and experiences within the traditionally male-dominated genre of biography. Bell Gale Chevigny writes about the “feminist fallacy” that may result from too much projection of our own “actual, latent, or ideal experience onto the subject.”

The essays in Between Women: Biographers, Novelists, Critics, Teachers and Artists Write About Their Work On Women, 375-76 (Carol Ascher, Louise DeSalvo & Sara Ruddick eds., 1984) are very illuminating; see also Phyllis Rose, Introduction, in The Norton Book of Women's Lives (Phyllis Rose ed. 1993); Linda Wagner Martin, Telling Women's Lives: The New Biography (1994); Nell Irvin Painter, Writing Biographies of Women, 2 J. Women's Hist. (1997); Diane Wood Middlebrook, Postmodernism and the Biographer, in Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender (Susan G. Bell & Marilyn Yalom eds., 1990); Joyce Antler, Was She a Good Mother? Some Thoughts on a New Issue for Feminist Biography, in Women and the Structure of Society, 53, 65 (Barbara J. Harris & JoAnn K. McNamara eds., 1984); Jacqueline Dowd Hall, Second Thoughts: On Writing a Feminist Biography, 13 Feminist Stud. 19 (1987); Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Friendship Between Women: The Act of Feminist Biography, 11 Feminist Stud. 287 (1985) (on the “relationship between women writers and the women they study”); Kathleen Barry, The New Historical Syntheses: Women’s Biography, 1 J. Women's Hist. 75 (1990). In the postscript to her biography of Susan B. Anthony in Susan B. Anthony: Biography of a Singular Feminist, (1988), Barry writes of the revolutionary possibilities of women’s biography, “which can challenge the very structure and categories of the history men have jealously guarded as their own.”

National Suffrage Movement Biographies

There is a vast biographical literature on the major figures in the national suffrage movement, especially Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. On Anthony, the works I found most usefule were:

  • Judith E. Harper, Susan B. Anthony: A Biographical Companion
  • Lynn Sherr, Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony In Her Own Words (1995)
  • Alma Lutz, Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian (1959)
  • Iris Noble, Susan B. Anthony (J. Messner ed., 1975)
  • Katharine Anthony, Susan B. Anthony: Her Personal History and Her Era (1954)
  • G. Thomas Edwards, Sowing Good Seeds: The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony (1990)
  • Geoffrey Ward, Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)

Stanton's thought and personality continue to draw scholarly attention in the twenty-first century. Lori D. Ginzburg, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life (2009) is an example. Sue Davis, The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Women's Rights and the American Political Traditions (2008) is an especially useful work for understanding Stanton's contributions as a "thinker." Davis makes a compelling case for Stanton as an important 19th century public intellectual, and places Stanton's work in a framework of multiple and sometimes conficting traditions, including natural rights liberalism republicanism and "ascriptive" traditions (ascribing superior traits and rights to people on the basis of sex, race, etc.)

Other biographies of Stanton which I used are:

  • Alma Lutz, Created Equal: A Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1940)
  • Elisabeth Griffith, In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1984)
  • Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton's Bible (2001)
  • Mary Ann B. Oakley, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1972)
  • Lois Banner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical For Woman's Rights (1980)
  • Vivian Gornick, The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton (2005).

Finally, Jean Baker, Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists (2005), is an outstanding collective biography of Lucy Stone, Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Francis Willard, and Alice Paul.

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