Melanie Susan Gustafson examines women's partisan history as part of the larger history of women's political culture. Contesting the accepted notion that women were uninvolved in political parties before they formally got the vote, Gustafson reveals the length and depth of women's partisan activism between the founding of the Republican party, whose abolitionist agenda captured the loyalty of many women, and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Women and the Republican Party, 1854-1924 presents the complex interplay of partisan and nonpartisan activity, the fierce debates among women about the best way to make their influence felt, and the ebb and flow of enthusiasm for women's participation within the Republican party. Gustafson documents the emergence of third parties--in particular the Progressive party, which split off from the Republican party in 1912--that fused the civic world of reform organizations with the electoral world of voting and legislation. She also profiles the leading women Republicans and activists, both familiar (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Addams, Mary Church Terrell) and less well known (Anna Dickinson, Victoria Woodhull, Judith Ellen Foster, Mary Ann Shadd Cary).
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Women and the Republican Party, 18541924
By MELANIE SUSAN GUSTAFSON
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2001 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Loyal Republican Women, 1854–65
On September 10, 1860, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a group of women from Seneca Falls, New York, presented a banner to the town's Wide-Awake Republicans, a marching club of young men who urged the party to keep "wide-awake" on the slavery question. The Wide-Awakes "caught the spirit of the campaign for freedom" and swept the country like an "electric current" as they marched and rode through towns and cities like tireless regiments, waving torches that symbolized their intelligence and truth. Their uniforms were oilcloth capes made by the "free, fair fingers" of Republican women. Together, these men and women of the Republican party were "the most brilliant and attractive in the history of political organization," and their visible partisan displays were a challenge to a politics dominated by "old settlers, whose political ideas are in a state of paralysis," reported the New York Tribune.
Republicans had chosen Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and Hannibal Hamlin of Maine as their presidential and vice-presidential candidates at the May national convention in Chicago, and a platform had been agreed upon. Nevertheless, only two months before the election the party was tense with friction. Factions vied to promote their issues, and the party was being dragged in different directions. The most divisive issue was slavery.
The Seneca Falls lawyer John B. Murray touched on this dissension in Republican ranks in his thank-you speech to the women of the town. Seeking to encourage demonstrations of their overall party loyalty, Murray called on the women who assembled in this small town in upstate New York to support the Republican party, even "though it may fall short of what you and perhaps many others may feel to be the correct position" on the issues. In these last months of the campaign, the time had come to promote unity and close ranks around the party's candidate for president. This election was critical for the Republican party. Supporters believed that if they did not win this, their second attempt for the White House, the party would surely die. In addition to a platform that would satisfy or appease voters, a dynamic campaign using eye-catching tactics was needed to draw the party's diverse supporters to rallies and the polls. The Wide-Awake clubs were one such strategy. Asking women to lend their influence on the party's behalf was another.
The next evening, the Wide-Awakes marched to the Stanton home to continue the ceremony to honor the women who honored them. Holding aloft lighted torches and playing martial music, they were greeted by the women's rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Stanton's husband, Henry, and friends of the family. Three cheers for all present and short speeches by those being honored were followed by a longer serenade of music, as Elizabeth Stanton and the others "Waltz ed and Polkaed on the piazza" of the Stanton home. It was a grand affair, according to Anthony.
Banner presentations, torchlight parades, and flag raisings were common campaign rituals in the mid-nineteenth century. Political contests were community affairs acted out in the streets, as women and men rallied together to ensure their party's electoral success. In the 1850s and 1860s, Republicans held rallies in regions where there was strong Republican support, like upstate New York, and even in localities where Republican support was minimal, such as Virginia, where only 1 percent of the population was Republican. Just nine days before the Seneca Falls ceremony, thirty-three young women of Martinsville, Virginia, demonstrated their partisan loyalties by presenting a flag to the local Lincoln Club. The women's attire symbolized a nation divided over the issue of slavery; sixteen of the women wore white, another sixteen wore black, and one wore red to represent Bleeding Kansas.
It is hard to estimate how many women supported the Republican party in its early years. Historians have no votes to count where women are concerned, so a statistical analysis of election results is not possible, but newspaper reports, private correspondence, and official records make it clear that women have been active and vigorous Republican supporters since the party's founding in 1854. Drawn to the party for a variety of reasons, women showed a diversity of backgrounds and positions on issues that were as various as men's. Strong beliefs about unfolding political events, loyalties to individual candidates, family or community traditions, and a desire to affect public policy influenced women's partisan loyalties in a world where politics was understood as party politics. As one African-American woman wrote in the weekly Anglo-African, "The colored women are as interested in politics as the colored men of the Republican party."
In newspaper reports, women's presence at Republican party events was reported as routine and unremarkable; many stories are almost perfunctory and simply illustrate women's partisan visibility. Women's attendance at the weekly meetings of the New York City Young Men's Republican Union and at the Republican Central Campaign Club's regular meetings were described as common occurrences. They were noted to be among the visitors who called on Lincoln at his home during the campaign of 1860. In New York City, women occupied the front, reserved seats at the grand mass meetings of the Republicans of Brooklyn, joined in the grand rally of the German Republicans at Cooper Institute, and "crowded" the Palace Gardens to hear candidates speak.
The "ubiquitous fair sex" was well represented at the "grand Wide-Awake carnival" in Paterson, New Jersey, in October 1860, a New York Tribune reporter wrote; the women were "encouraging by their presence the champions of Freedom." Their voices, however, seemed striking. When the women "attempted a feminine cheer on occasion," this reporter wrote, it was not "a failure; but it sounded, to use a mild term, peculiar, and was eminently touching." That the sound of partisan women's voices sounded peculiar (to some) had less to do with numbers or frequency than with people's understandings of the gendered parameters of politics.
In 1860 no American women could vote in national elections, although some had what was called "partial" or "limited" suffrage, granting them the right to vote in specific local elections. Disfranchisement, as well as property laws and interpretations of citizenship, erased women's independent legal and political status, but it did not prevent them from participating in partisan politics. Women's presence was encouraged by a set of deeply rooted ideas about women as mothers, wives, and daughters who could have influence in the civic world by representing virtue, principles, and civility. As John B. Murray told the women of Seneca Falls, "there are no mothers, no wives, no daughters throughout the land who have not at least some feeling as to the result of this canvass [campaign]," and it is "proper" for them to publicly express their sentiments "in behalf of our candidates ... of Freedom."
The emergence of the Republican party marks a new chapter in the political history of the United States. The efforts of abolitionists and women's rights leaders—the labor as well as a language essential for political operations—benefited the party immensely. Abolitionists and women's rights leaders, two groups that often overlapped, helped the Republican party evolve from a fusion effort into the dominant party of the nation. As a result, new dynamics were introduced into partisan politics. But the political conditions of partisan politics in the antebellum and Civil War years that encouraged women's partisan activism existed within larger social and political contexts that placed unique limitations on that participation. Again and again, as the history of Republican women for the next seventy years would demonstrate, rewards did not necessarily follow displays of partisan loyalty.
The Creation of the Virtuous Political Woman
Women have been active in partisan politics since parties were first created in the United States. Both Federalists and Democrats, but mainly the Federalists, welcomed women at party events because women were associated with private virtues that were seen as necessary for the survival of the republic. The political culture of late-eighteenth-century republicanism, specifically what historians call Republican motherhood, regarded women as embodiments of virtue with an obligation to use their status as wives and mothers to help a new generation of virtuous citizens flourish. People believed that women's influence should be focused not only on their own families but also on their communities and the nation. With the encouragement of men, women demonstrated their virtue through party loyalty.
The appearance of women at party meetings was greeted with cheers and praise because women served the needs of parties and partisan men. Politics in the early national period was infused with antiparty sentiment, and party leaders needed to create ways to suggest that their party was better and nobler than the opposition. Women's presence allowed partisan men to present themselves, as well as party politics itself, as proper for the political order; partisan men sought the positive reflection of women's virtuous representation. By opening up politics to virtuous women, partisanship became legitimate, and party loyalty, the essence of partisanship, became a responsible political act.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the growing cultural emphasis on the importance of motherhood melded with the expanding sentimentalization of American culture and strengthened the notion that women "personalized the nation" through their actions. Viewed and admired as "the emotive center of the nation," women linked the private and public spheres of life with their political presence and virtuous and principled actions. A primary duty of a virtuous and moral woman was to lend her influence for the good of the country, demonstrate the best of American values, and support the best men. Rendering this influence over one's own family and lending one's influence for a larger cause became key tenets outlining the proprietary boundaries around women's public actions. Where men were seen as driven into the passionate factionalism of politics by personal ambitions and steered by their willingness to use coercion to enhance their own position, women's natural inducement to influence was seen as flowing from a disinterested compassion and guided by a desire to create social harmony. As the political culture of the nineteenth century became concerned with corruption of all sorts, women's moral and housekeeping qualities became even more valuable in politics. If men could not purify politics, then maybe women's presence could.
By the time political parties became the essential structure or system for defining and organizing politics in the 1830s, "principles" had replaced "virtue" as the key word justifying political engagement, and women took on the representative role of not only instilling virtue but also sustaining principles. By then, as one historian has observed, more Americans had come to embrace parties and to "develop partisan commitments and loyalties of tremendous strength, intensity, and vitality because parties expressed their deepest values, beliefs, and preferences. Parties became communities of loyalists with shared values, emotive memories, symbols, and commitments." The parties that people joined in the nineteenth century were private associations unregulated by the state, loose coalitions of like-minded people interested in common goals that were most important at the local or state levels. Membership was not determined by enrollment but by participation in the rituals of the party and demonstrations of party loyalty. The Whigs followed the Federalists' lead and systematically encouraged women to demonstrate their partisan loyalties at rallies, parades, and other public celebrations. The Whigs went one step further by also supporting women who established political clubs.
By the mid-nineteenth century, most Americans saw politics as party politics; to be political was to be partisan. While not all people were necessarily involved in politics, political parties were seen as an inevitable feature of the workings of governance and were often the political lifeblood of communities. Loyalty to a political party, or partisanship, had become by the end of the century the "common language of public life" and a "lens through which to view the world." Antiparty sentiment still held power in some pockets of public life and appeared with regularity even in party circles as a means of reproach or promotion, but, overall, parties became more central to politics as the electorate was enlarged with changing suffrage laws and presidential contests became more vigorous.
At the same time that women engaged in partisan activities, they also created a network of benevolent and charity organizations to provide services and help to individuals and communities challenged, confused, or harmed by the rapid changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The evangelical religious associations and voluntary reform associations that sprang up during the era of the Second Great Awakening allowed women to participate in civic life and contributed to a stronger identification of women as moral-standard bearers for their families, communities, and the nation, even as that definition expanded with the increase in women's public activities. By the mid-nineteenth century, as one historian has written, women "strode in and out of legislative halls—places where, in theory, females were not welcome. There they lobbied for new laws, sought appropriations for their organizations, and argued for changes in status—in short, they worked hard to influence the leadership of local, state and national governments."
Lobbying was a political skill Emma Willard learned when she moved from Middlebury, Vermont, to Troy, New York, to found one of the nation's first women's academies. Willard wrote that she was determined "'to inform myself, and to increase my personal influence and fame as a teacher, calculating that, in this way I might be sought for in other places, where influential men would carry my project before some Legislature, for the sake of obtaining a good school.'" The governor, DeWitt Clinton, and the New York legislature did not fund her school, but four thousand dollars raised by the Troy Common Council allowed her to open her doors to women students in 1821. With these early women's academies, Republican motherhood entered a new stage, as women teachers provided another example of women's "devotion and service to others, selflessness, sacrifice." Over time, education also became an avenue to political influence in local communities, as women were appointed or elected to school boards and positions as superintendents.
While pursuing individual agendas, women often emphasized that their public roles complemented men's, and they sought to cooperate with men in ways that further advanced their own opportunities and expanded their expectations. The cooperation between women and men, as well as women's challenges to men over the distribution of community resources and power, worked differently for white women than it did for African-American women. Free black women spoke and wrote about political issues throughout the nineteenth century, but they did so from a conditional freedom, and their efforts were primarily directed inward toward their communities. Racial discrimination, a lack of access to state resources, and their exclusion from almost all formal partisan and electoral politics contributed to a worldview that emphasized community commitments. Black women's partisan activism was grounded in an ideal of mutuality rather than a belief in women's virtuous nature or moral superiority. This difference, complicated by regional distinctions, would lead white and black women on separate political trajectories. What they shared was a willingness and desire to pursue their goals through the framework of partisan politics.
Whether women acted as the icon of Liberty in a parade organized by a party club or wrote campaign literature for a third party that attacked established parties as corrupt, women's partisan activism was legitimate and necessary. Local, regional, and national political structures and ideas determined the extent of that legitimacy, but women had their place. Even if the outcome of the partisan rallies, conventions, and parades was voting in an election, and thus formally excluded women, partisan politics itself did not. Like the partisanship and partisan activism of propertyless men before the 1840s, women's partisanship before 1920 did not require the right of the vote. Disfranchisement shaped the formal parameters of women's participation in electoral politics, but it did not determine their providence in partisan politics.
Women's disfranchisement, however, was important in that it coexisted with women's early partisan activism, and thus women's political experiences were shaped differently than men's. For men, the culmination of the campaign season was voting. For women, it was watching men vote. For some women, this state of relations prompted a better understanding of voting as a male privilege that influenced not only the activities of election day but also public activism before and after the campaign season. Women's recognition that disfranchisement could relegate them to the periphery of politics and make their stands on issues less important to the candidates, voters, or policy makers contributed to the growth of a woman suffrage movement that emphasized equal rights in addition to a cooperation based on gender difference. Thus the dual nature of being included in and excluded from party rituals encouraged women to fight for formal political recognition. Women's partisanship, as much as women's work in benevolent and reform organizations, contributed to the development of the women's rights movement.
The Abolitionist Prelude
Whigs and Democrats dominated the political culture of the 1840s and early 1850s, but they were challenged by numerous third parties that developed because the two national parties were unable to deal with or resolve the most controversial issue of the day, the growing sectional crisis over slavery. Among the most influential third parties of the mid-nineteenth century were those created by antislavery advocates: the Liberty party, founded in 1839; the Free Soil party, formed in 1848; and the Republican party, established in 1854. Together, these parties created a dynamic political culture in which every issue was seen as "a struggle in which the very existence of the republic was at stake." These third parties were broad entities that fused the civic world of benevolent and reform organizations with the electoral world of voting and legislating. As such, they provided women with a new path into partisan politics, as antislavery activism moved from moral suasion to practical politics.
Excerpted from Women and the Republican Party, 1854â?"1924 by MELANIE SUSAN GUSTAFSON. Copyright © 2001 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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