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Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York

Untidy Origins: A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York

by Lori D. Ginzberg

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On a summer day in 1846--two years before the Seneca Falls convention that launched the movement for woman's rights in the United States--six women in rural upstate New York sat down to write a petition to their state's constitutional convention, demanding "equal, and civil and political rights with men." Refusing to invoke the traditional language of deference,


On a summer day in 1846--two years before the Seneca Falls convention that launched the movement for woman's rights in the United States--six women in rural upstate New York sat down to write a petition to their state's constitutional convention, demanding "equal, and civil and political rights with men." Refusing to invoke the traditional language of deference, motherhood, or Christianity as they made their claim, the women even declined to defend their position, asserting that "a self evident truth is sufficiently plain without argument." Who were these women, Lori Ginzberg asks, and how might their story change the collective memory of the struggle for woman's rights?

Very few clues remain about the petitioners, but Ginzberg pieces together information from census records, deeds, wills, and newspapers to explore why, at a time when the notion of women as full citizens was declared unthinkable and considered too dangerous to discuss, six ordinary women embraced it as common sense. By weaving their radical local action into the broader narrative of antebellum intellectual life and political identity, Ginzberg brings new light to the story of woman's rights and of some women's sense of themselves as full members of the nation.

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"Offers the opportunity to expand historians' comprehension of the complex flow of ideas in a given time and place, even when those ideas may have been considered too dangerous or indecorous to be heard."
The Historian

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The University of North Carolina Press
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Untidy Origins

A Story of Woman's Rights in Antebellum New York
By Lori D. Ginzberg

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8078-5608-8

Chapter One


The Female Portion of Community

Every event in history is a beginning, a middle, and an end; it just depends on where you pick up the thread and what story you choose to tell. In studying the history of an idea, we might ask how it changed from being considered unthinkable to merely outrageous, from radical to common sense, and thus how transformations in beliefs and ideologies occur. In social history, too, changes that span lifetimes affect individuals at different points, and seemingly abstract events (the "industrial revolution" or the "panic of 1837") bump into and alter a person, a family, a community, or a state in very different ways. We can understand the ideas and identities that drive people's politics, religious beliefs, and actions as products of the individual mind, but also of the interactions that take place daily among people living amidst wars, migrations, elections, newspapers, sermons, and friends. I want here to underscore the histories of ideas as they emerge from the experiences (personal, local, and national) of actual people. And I want, further, to show how those ideas enter wider conversations-all of which contribute to the complex story of people's political identities and of political and intellectual change. To put it another way, this is a story that describes how people, shaped by their particular communities, time, and place, have an idea, chew it over, say it aloud, and prod it onto the path of debate and action.

This book explores nineteenth-century women's political identities by addressing two disparate but simple notions. First, it shows how, in myriad and often oblique ways, people argued that the idea of women as full citizens was unthinkable, too dangerous even to contemplate. It does this, in part, by offering a framework for rethinking how people's full membership in their state or nation is shaped not only by formal mechanisms, the literal "rules" of legal status, but by rhetorics of religion, sexuality, and respectability. Second, it shows that some women embraced the idea-and insisted on the significance-of women's full citizenship notwithstanding their formal exclusion, and it tries to explain why. Much of this is speculation, not to say fiction, and I offer few definite conclusions. But I hope that this book suggests one model for rethinking how we put ideas back into the context of people's lives where they originated. It argues vehemently that in living that everyday life, and in the conviction of people that they had the right to make claims on those in power, ideas matter. It demands that we attend pointedly to the local, to the specificity of people's daily intellectual lives, in order to make claims about the national and the abstraction we call political identity. In a larger sense, it offers a few tiny shards from the past that may shift our assumptions about women's sense of themselves as Americans, as full members of the nation itself.

Some ideas are proclaimed too shocking to mention, too threatening to entertain. Throughout much of American history, racial intermarriage, open homosexuality, and women's sexual autonomy have been on that short list. So has the idea of women's full equality as citizens. It was not so long ago that the notion of a Catholic president held a spot on that inventory; the idea of an openly atheist president still does, as does the notion of granting children a vote. As Foucault has shown us in his work on Victorian sexuality, we are convinced that these ideas were unspeakable because those who dominated public speech-ministers, writers, politicians, lawyers, social reformers, and others-kept insisting that they were. Foucault's unspeakable opposite must be imagined, of course, in order to be declared unimaginable. It constitutes the notions that define a boundary around appropriate stances, acceptable behavior, and possible change. To argue that women should be, simply and unapologetically, as free and equal citizens as men was described as blasphemous and unrespectable; it was thus more easily dismissed than discussed.

As Michel-Rolph Trouillot has so brilliantly shown in an entirely different context, this silencing of possibility, of reasonable thought, has serious implications for historians' treatment of events. "The Haitian Revolution," he writes, "thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened." The questions Trouillot raises about the historical and historiographical importance of this silencing resound in the far smaller story that this book tells: "How," he asks, "does one write a history of the impossible?" Brilliantly detailing what he calls "failures of narration," Trouillot suggests that under some circumstances, "worldview wins over the facts" and so the story is written to reinforce historical silence.

The virulence of those who insisted that women's political equality lay outside the boundaries of Americans' worldview indicates that consideration of woman's rights very much existed in public thought and private conversation. A great deal of noisy, self-righteous, and exaggerated defensiveness during the 1820s and increasingly through the 1840s over any mention of the subject suggests that some folks were worried. By the late 1830s nearly everyone in the reading or sermon-hearing public must have been aware of the attacks against outspoken or radical women. No doubt many women, disinclined to be labeled obnoxious, agreed that women should occupy a more limited citizenship based on a special moral duty. Although many women must have noticed their unequal status, few complained openly of its unfairness.

But some did. Tucked between the lines of ponderous debates among men are hints of what suffragist Inez Irwin called "little lights ... small knots of men, circles of women, [who] dared to look the idea in the face." On a Saturday morning in August 1846, Alpheus S. Greene, a Democrat from Watertown, New York, presented a petition to the state constitutional convention from "six ladies in Jefferson county." The petition asserted "that the present government of this state has widely departed from the true democratic principles upon which all just governments must be based by denying the female portion of community the right of suffrage and any participation in forming the government and laws under which they live." The women, Eleanor Vincent, Susan Ormsby, Amy Ormsby, Anna Bishop, Lydia A. Williams, and Lydia Osborn, firmly demanded "equal, and civil and political rights with men."

There are several things that are odd about this petition, not least that the women wrote it at all. Women's public demand for suffrage, we have long assumed, burst upon the world two summers later, when several hundred people, under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other longtime antislavery activists, launched the woman's rights movement in Seneca Falls, New York. This 1846 document and other petitions that are being, and likely will be, discovered add another challenge to the legend of the origin of the nineteenth-century feminist movement by demonstrating that there were both private conversations and public appeals for women's political rights years earlier. Even the oft-repeated story that, faced with the "popular voice" against them, "most of the ladies who had attended the [Seneca Falls] convention and signed the declaration [of sentiments], one by one, withdrew their names and influence and joined our persecutors" seems increasingly far-fetched. Indeed, there is no evidence, aside from Stanton's recollection, that this retreat occurred, that a group of seasoned antislavery activists recoiled in horror and amazement when the mainstream press belittled their demand for woman suffrage. I make no claim here that support for woman suffrage was ubiquitous; how widespread these women's views were remains an open question, although I suspect they were more commonly entertained than we have assumed. Nor do I mean to imply that the events at Seneca Falls were insignificant. And certainly Stanton was neither the first nor the last advocate of social change who helped, inadvertently or not, distort historical recollections of a movement she led. Clearly, however, the celebration (by Stanton as well as by historians) of this watershed is complicated by the story of several ordinary women's brazen demand for their rights.

The petition and its creators offer additional mysteries as well. First, that it was printed in the constitutional convention debates was peculiar. Virtually every other petition to the convention was simply noted as having been presented and referred to the appropriate committee, with no mention made of the numbers who signed or the specifics of their demands. Indeed, that is how the Jefferson County petition appears in the Albany Argus's version of the proceedings, and I have been unable to discover why William Bishop and William Attree, the editors of the competing Albany Atlas, published this and no other appeal. Bishop and Attree's decision to describe the petition as one "for the extension of the elective franchise to women," rather than by the often derogatory term "woman's rights," may hint at their greater sympathy, but I cannot say for certain. As it happens, the likelihood that anyone would ever see these petitions was dramatically reduced in 1911 when a fire in the old state capitol building in Albany destroyed the originals. It is pure good luck that we have the Jefferson County text and its attached names and its hint of what the other petitions might have said.

Published is not, of course, the same as publicized, and the petition's virtual disappearance from the story of woman's rights offers further mysteries. Major newspapers in Albany and New York City duly mentioned the petition, but nothing more. Only the convention correspondent for the New-York Daily Tribune scoffed, at the end of his report, that "it would have been unpardonable had I forgotten to mention that Dr. Greene, a worthy bachelor Delegate from Jefferson County, took the opportunity ... to present the memorial of six lovely ladies in Jefferson County." In what would become a familiar tone he added, "What a time for courting, love matches, etc., an election will be when that petition succeeds. It is said to be grounded on the fact that men have managed badly, and that women might do better but could not do worse." Here he anticipated, albeit sarcastically, an argument to be made in the future by some suffragists, but not one made in the petition itself.

The petition has not fared much better with historians. Charles Z. Lincoln, in his five-volume Constitutional History of New York, first mentions woman suffrage with the comment that "in 1855 a petition was presented by [male?] citizens of Rochester for an amendment extending the elective franchise to women." The 1846 petition and its signers do not appear in most accounts of the emergence of woman's rights in America, in part because of the extraordinary ability of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to shape the history of the movement they led. Although their six-volume History of Woman Suffrage fails to mention the petition, I cannot be convinced that Stanton, who followed that summer's convention proceedings closely, was unaware of it. Only Judith Wellman, in recognizing that "the ideas expressed at Seneca Falls did not burst full-grown upon the scene," quotes from the petition that the Jefferson County women wrote. Also peculiar is the petition's absence from Franklin Hough's exhaustive History of Jefferson County, published in 1854, for which the author visited every town and gathered anecdotes from numerous inhabitants. Hough eagerly sought and wrote about indications of either scandalous or unusual behavior; apparently the women's petition was not noteworthy as either.

But the petition itself is stunning. The "memorial of six ladies in Jefferson county" is not the deferential and tentative plea that is often associated with petitioning by the disfranchised. These women did not adopt the stance of supplicants or quasi-citizens or, for that matter, "ladies." (It was either Greene or, more likely, the convention's reporters who, intending respect, called them that.) Nor did they fortify their plea for full citizenship with the rhetorical arsenal of motherhood, as those familiar with the language of antebellum activism might expect. They did not use the honorifics "Mrs." or "Miss," as was customary for non-Quakers. On the contrary, they simply confronted their exclusion as full citizens and objected to it. Strangest of all, given that woman suffrage had not yet received serious consideration, the six women declared that they were forgoing the opportunity to offer arguments for their position, confident that "a self evident truth is sufficiently plain without argument."

There are so many ways we can read these words, so many stories of which they are part. The petition itself floats in time as a "source" that can teach students about rhetoric, about Madisonian concepts of political authority, and about woman's rights in these particular women's time and place. From the point of view of the rhetoric of petitioning, of rights talk, of constitution making, and of woman suffrage, the petition challenges what we thought we knew about women's political identities before 1848: six women in Jefferson County, New York, did not find the idea of women's full rights unthinkable and said so. There is no evidence that, as a result of their actions, they lost their husbands, abandoned their domestic duties, or went insane, as later opponents of woman's rights would predict (though Alpheus Greene did become "bereft of reason" and die several years later in the State Lunatic Asylum in Utica).

Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the petition can fit into several historiographical discussions. Seeing it as one, though doubtless not the only, beginning of the struggle for woman's rights, we might easily graft it onto the historiography of a feminist tradition. The history of women's political identities, and of their claims to full membership in the nation, thus turns out to be even messier than we have thought. Once, the story seemed both simple and dramatic: the 1848 woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, represented women's first public demand for suffrage, understood as the key marker of membership in the political community, and the movement for woman's rights took off from there. In that tale, the personal revelations of several extraordinary women-Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and Stanton herself-inspired a demand for women's political and legal rights, as well as their right to "a thorough education," "profitable employments," and self-respect.


Excerpted from Untidy Origins by Lori D. Ginzberg Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
[Untidy Origins] is a very readable book for people interested in the state, political culture, reform, and women.--New York Journal of American History

Offers the opportunity to expand historians' comprehension of the complex flow of ideas in a given time and place, even when those ideas may have been considered too dangerous or indecorous to be heard.--The Historian

Inventive and well-written. . . . A considerable tour de force of energetic, local history research-the labor, frustrations, and thrills of which Ginzberg makes visible and illuminating for her readers.--Journal of American History

This is a terrific book. Ginzberg addresses a critical topic--what ideas were possible when--through an intimate examination of a long-hidden petition by six ordinary women demanding the right to vote in New York State in 1846. It is a fascinating story told in a compelling fashion that addresses big issues about politics, identity, and gender.--Nancy A. Hewitt, Rutgers University

Ginzberg's greatest achievement is to be found . . . in her vivid description of the context within which ordinary women in rural American in the antebellum period could and did construct their political identities. . . . This is an engagingly written book. Ginzberg's use of what she calls 'leaps of imagination' allows her to go beyond analysis of the facts to explore the world of possibilities.--American Historical Review

Ginzberg's work has done a great service by complicating the story of feminism's origins and helping to reshape the agenda for future research.--Journal of Social History

[Untidy Origins is] an admirable introduction to the drama of the woman suffrage movement, rich in its evocation of the time and place.--Women's Review of Books

A wonderful book. Lori Ginzberg reconstructs the world of her protagonist petitioners with exceptional skill, imagination, and empathy. Microhistory at its best.--Charles W. McCurdy, University of Virginia

Meet the Author

Lori D. Ginzberg is associate professor of history and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University. She is author of two books, including Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States. A native of New York City, Ginzberg lives in Philadelphia.

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