Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought, at the San Francisco Public Library

I just finished this book about Frederick Douglass by scholar Leigh Fought. I’m at the library right now, about to turn it back in, and have that feeling of afterglow which follows reading a fascinating story while gaining much deeper understanding of a subject that’s long inspired me.

Not only did I get to know the character and work of Douglass much better, his struggles, triumphs, mistakes, virtues, flaws, and motivations, I learned about the ways in which women shaped his life and ideas and made his work possible. I had uncovered pieces of this larger story when following his life and ideas last year, but Fought’s work tells this larger story fully and compellingly and then some. This not only a book about these personalities and how they met, fell in love, collaborated, clashed, helped, betrayed, and so on, but it’s about the real human side behind the various social movements Douglass and the women in his life were a part of. And for many, still a part of, through their memory and influence. It’s about the antislavery movement, the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movements, the worker’s rights movement, the Civil War, the formation of the Republican Party as a free soil, pro-Union party and its after-war (what I consider) devolution into the economy-above-all party, and many other potent movements shaping and reshaping American society.

I very highly recommend this book, and think you’ll love it as I do.

Enjoy!

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The “Woman’s Rights” Man: A New Book on Women in Frederick Douglass’s World, by Ibram X. Kendi

Left: Leigh Fought, image Le Moyne College; right, Anna Douglass, image Library of Congress

The author of Women in the World of Frederick Douglass is Leigh Fought. Professor Fought is an associate professor of history at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She was an associate editor on the first volume of Frederick Douglass’s correspondence at the Frederick Douglass Papers, published by Yale University Press in 2009. Her previous books includes Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa McCord (University of Missouri Press, 2003) and Mystic, Connecticut: From Pequot Village to Tourist Town (History Press, 2006). Professor Fought earned her Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Houston and a Master of Library Science degree from Simmons College in Boston.

In his extensive writings, Frederick Douglass revealed little about his private life. His famous autobiographies present him overcoming unimaginable trials to gain his freedom and establish his identity—all in service to his public role as an abolitionist. But in both the public and domestic spheres, Douglass relied on a complicated array of relationships with women: white and black, slave-mistresses and family, political collaborators and intellectual companions, wives and daughters. The great man needed them throughout a turbulent life that was never so linear and self-made as he often wished to portray it.In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, Leigh Fought illuminates the life of the famed abolitionist off the public stage. She begins with the women he knew during his life as a slave: his mother, from whom he was separated; his grandmother, who raised him; his slave mistresses, including the one who taught him how to read; and his first wife, Anna Murray, a free woman who helped him escape to freedom and managed the household that allowed him to build his career. Fought examines Douglass’s varied relationships with white women—including Maria Weston Chapman, Julia Griffiths, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ottilie Assing—who were crucial to the success of his newspapers, were active in the antislavery and women’s movements, and promoted his work nationally and internationally. She also considers Douglass’s relationship with his daughter Rosetta, who symbolized her parents’ middle class prominence but was caught navigating between their public and private worlds. Late in life, Douglass remarried to a white woman, Helen Pitts, who preserved his papers, home, and legacy for history.

By examining the circle of women around Frederick Douglass, this work brings these figures into sharper focus and reveals a fuller and more complex image of the self-proclaimed “woman’s rights man.”

In this well-researched and richly textured book, Leigh Fought gives us a fascinating new view into the life and times of one our most famous and revered figures: Frederick Douglass. As he freely acknowledged, women helped make Douglass the man he became. So we, too, are in debt to the women whose stories come so vividly alive in these pages.”—Annette Gordon-Reed, author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Ibram X. Kendi: What are the principle findings or arguments of the book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

Leigh Fought: Frederick Douglass would not have become one of the greatest black activists of the nineteenth century without the work of women. This was not the cliché “behind every great man is a woman.” Women played a central role in his intellectual development, his independence as a man and activist, his economic well-being, his challenge to racial stereotypes and prohibitions, and the persistence of his place in history.

When I started this project, I was simply interested in finding more about all of these women who seemed as fascinated by Douglass as I was, except that they actually knew him. I also thought that the project would be synthetic. As it turned out, others had expressed little curiosity about most of the women themselves, with the exception of those women who merited their own biographies. Then, as I began to reconstruct the lives of the women from original research in order to explain their interaction with Douglass, I began to see a feminine space around him, much like the concept of a “negative space” in art. That feminine space, like most feminine spaces, was where the real action took place. If you want to know about a life, that is the place you have to investigate.

In Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, readers will meet a host of fascinating, resourceful women, some of whom might otherwise remain footnotes. The women featured in this book had the most dramatic influence on Douglass’s life, but they also had their own agendas and contexts that explain the ebb and flow of their relationships with Douglass, as well as his respect for or sympathy with them. The abuse suffered by slave women and the capitulation of white women to the institution of slavery shaped his childhood, laying the foundation for the man he became. In his adulthood, each woman at some point formed a partnership with Douglass to advance a cause against racism that extended beyond abolition and the end of slavery. His relationships with all of these women exposed the variety of ways that gender and race were employed as tools of oppression. At the same time, he and they mobilized their resistance along those very same lines. While the story of women in Douglass’s world does not preclude other actors or influences in his life, by bringing them into focus their biographies add nuance and deeper understanding to his.

This piece was originally published at Black Perspectives, the blog of the AAIHS, on May 1st, 2017, the release date of Ms. Fought’s book

Ibram X. Kendi is the associate editor of Black Perspectives. He is the author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation, 2016), which won the 2016 National Book Award for Nonfiction. In August, Kendi begins a new position as Professor of History and International Relations and the Founding Director of the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. Follow him on Twitter @DrIbram.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites

Women's Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Women’s Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Eleventh day, Tuesday March 30th

It’s a beautiful, clear sunny day, and the chill of the morning gives way to a balmy afternoon. I drive about an hour east and slightly to the south, through the lovely Finger Lakes region of New York to Seneca Falls.

I’m here to visit what’s now the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which is headquartered at 136 Fall Street in Seneca Falls. I begin with the reconstructed Wesleyan Church next door at Fall and Mynderse Streets, the site of that momentous occasion which brings me here. I’ve long wanted to visit this place and had hoped to do so during my history of ideas travel series about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but didn’t have enough time during that trip to make the journey, about a five hour drive from New York City one-way. But here I am at long last…. Read the written account here:

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites

Women's Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Women’s Rights National Historical Park headquarters, Seneca Falls NY

Eleventh day, Tuesday March 30th

It’s a beautiful, clear sunny day, and the chill of the morning gives way to a balmy afternoon. I drive about an hour east and slightly to the south, through the lovely Finger Lakes region of New York to Seneca Falls.

I’m here to visit what’s now the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which is headquartered at 136 Fall Street in Seneca Falls. I begin with the reconstructed Wesleyan Church next door at Fall and Mynderse Streets, the site of that momentous occasion which brings me here. I’ve long wanted to visit this place and had hoped to do so during my history of ideas travel series about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but didn’t have enough time during that trip to make the journey, about a five hour drive from New York City one-way. But here I am at long last.

Wesleyan Chapel, site of 1st Women's Rights Convention, Seneca Falls NY, 2016 A Cools

Wesleyan Chapel, the site of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848

Interior of the rebuilt and restored Wesleyan Church. It went through several remodels and incarnations as various businesses, but much of the original brickwork remained, including some of the original plaster underneath layers of paint and later interior walls

Interior of the rebuilt and restored Wesleyan Church where the Convention was held. It went through several remodels and incarnations as various businesses, but much of the original brickwork remained, including some of the original plaster underneath layers of paint and later interior walls, now preserved beneath sheets of plexiglass

On July 19th and 20th of 1848, Frederick Douglass attended the Women’s Rights Convention here, the first women’s rights convention in the United States. This convention grew out of the abolitionist cause, directly and indirectly, to which Douglass had dedicated his life.

1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention commemorative plaque in the Wesleyan Chapel

1848 Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention commemorative plaque in the Wesleyan Chapel, placed here on the 60th anniversary of the Convention in 1908

Directly, Stanton and her fellow abolitionist Lucretia Mott were incensed that they were forced to sit in a segregated balcony at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, along with all of the other female attendees. To make matters worse, women were not allowed to speak during the proceedings at all. Stanton and Mott planned to do something about the injustice that pervaded even this supposed haven of enlightened humanity. At Seneca Falls, they did, though Stanton’s activist efforts had been delayed, as would continue to be the case for many years, by frequent childbearing and resulting family responsibilities, to Susan B. Anthony’s dismay.

Indirectly, the women’s rights movement had, for many, come to be identified with the abolitionist movement, as many realized that many of the same and similar arguments for the liberation of black people applied to the liberation of women. If all human beings were equal in that they shared the same basic human nature and dignity (which according to many, was bestowed by God), they were entitled to the same political rights as any other person and had the same moral claim to just and kind treatment by their fellow human beings. If this were true for black people and for people of other races, how could this not be true for women? Women’s consciousness of their subjugated status had been growing for a long time, but it was the reform era of Stanton and Douglass that saw the first serious efforts to enact more substantial, comprehensive laws to protect and establish the political and social rights of women.

Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton sculptures at the Women's Rights National Historical Park museum, part of the 'First Wave' sculpture group by Lloyd Lillie

Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton sculptures at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park museum, part of the ‘First Wave’ sculpture group by Lloyd Lillie

It was here that Douglass met Stanton in 1848, and they became lifelong friends, though their relationship was deeply strained at times by the same disagreements and racist rhetoric over the 14th and 15th Amendments that had marred his friendship with Susan B. Anthony. (You may remember the story of Stanton’s bad behavior in my earlier account of visiting other New York sites.) I like to imagine the tiny 5′ 3″ Stanton and the over 6′ tall Douglass, both indomitable, both intellectually gifted, sometimes deep in conversation, and sometimes delivering speeches in their very different yet forceful and convincing rhetorical styles. Douglass was the only black person in attendance at the Convention, and not only was he the only man who stood in favor of Stanton’s initial motion for a resolution calling for women’s suffrage, he was the only one to do so at first. It was initially too controversial even for most of the attendees, who were calling for better property and child custody rights. He delivered one of his trademark eloquent speeches in favor of Stanton’s motion, and it was so convincing that it passed by a narrow majority, though unfortunately, the resulting storm of media criticism caused many to withdraw their names afterwards.

Douglass’ feminism was inspired by gratitude as well as his sense of justice and intellectual commitment to logical consistency. As he wrote in his Life and Times ‘Observing woman’s agency, devotion, and efficacy in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “woman’s rights” and caused me to be denominated a women’s-rights man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing …moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws…’ (Autobiographies 906-07).

Soujourner Truth statue and plaque at the Women's Rights National Historical Park, and 'The Truth Sings' quilt by Alice Gant, on temporary display

Soujourner Truth statue and plaque at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, and ‘The Truth Sings’ quilt by Alice Gant on temporary display

Among the varied and fascinating exhibits I see at the museum, I find two of Sojourner Truth: one a statue with a plaque telling of her momentous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech, and another a quilt, which warms my heart because as you may already know, I’m a quilter myself. Douglass referred to Sojourner Truth as his ‘good old friend’ and like Douglass, though she hoped for a peaceful end to slavery, she came to believe that war would be necessary. In an instance that he relates in his Life and Times, Truth asked him: ‘Frederick, is God dead?’ He answered: ‘No, and because God is not dead slavery can only end in blood.’ Douglass’ answer reflects sentiments found in Thomas Jefferson’s remark on slavery ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just’ and in Abraham Lincoln’s words from his Second Inaugural Address: ‘Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue …until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, ….so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.

Gerit Smith, Theodosia Smith, and Frederick Douglass share an antislavery podium. This photo reproduction is on display at the Seneca Fall WRNHP

Gerit Smith, Theodosia Smith, and Frederick Douglass share an antislavery podium. This photo reproduction is on display at the Seneca Fall WRNHP

An interesting fact I learned at the Seneca Falls museum: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gerit Smith, Douglass’ great friend, mentor, and political ally, were cousins, and she met her future husband at Smith’s house. Smith was a philanthropist, radical politician, reformer, and activist, and a profound influence on Douglass, whose shift in views on the role of politics in reform and the correct interpretation of the Constitution brought them in closely in line with Smith’s own. Smith provided financial and moral support for Douglass’ North Star and rallied his friends to do the same, and Douglass threw his support behind Smith’s successful run for Congress in 1852, though not his unsuccessful run as a Radical Abolitionist presidential candidate against Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Douglass’ pragmatism ruled in this instance, and he supported the candidacy of the latter.

Smith was also a supporter of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, a story which we’ll return to in my next travel account.

Gerit and Ann Smith, photos from the Hutchinson family scrapbook at the Lynn Museum and Historical Society

Gerit and Ann Smith, photos from the Hutchinson family scrapbook at the Lynn Museum and Historical Society

Elizabeth Cady Stanton's house in Seneca Falls, NY

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house in Seneca Falls, NY

An interior view of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's House, Seneca Falls

An interior view of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s House, Seneca Falls

After a thorough tour of the exhibits, I continue to Stanton’s house. Though it’s on the other side of the river, it’s officially part of the park, which includes other locations of significance in the women’s rights movement here in Seneca Falls and one in neighboring Waterloo. It appears now a very simple clapboard affair, though I learn from the Park Service historical sign that it had been about twice the size that it is now and the Stantons had a lot of work done to make it a comfortable and lovely home, naming it ‘Grassmere’ after poet William Wordsworth’s place. But Stanton was restless here, missing the busy social life she had enjoyed in Boston and bored with full-time housekeeping and child-rearing. The convention revived her spirits, as did traveling to speak at subsequent women’s rights conventions in Rochester and elsewhere, and her collaboration with Anthony, which lasted for the rest of her life. They met here in Seneca Falls three years after the 1848 convention, introduced to each other by Amelia Bloomer, for whom the early-feminist long-puffy-pants were named and which Stanton and Anthony could not be persuaded to adopt. They wanted to be taken seriously and felt the strange pants would distract from the message of their cause. They were right.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton house historical marker, with the Seneca River in the background

Elizabeth Cady Stanton house historical marker, with the Seneca River in the background

Main St, Canandaiga, NY

Main St, Canandaigua, NY

Canandaigua Courthouse, site of Susan B. Anthony Trial

Canandaigua Courthouse, site of Susan B. Anthony Trial

 Canandaiga's City Hall, NY

Canandaiga’s City Hall, NY

I continue my travels east toward my next destination via Canandaigua, a town which had come up in my discussion with Douglass scholar David Anderson and my visit to the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester.

I find myself first at the Ontario County Courthouse on Main St at Ontario, where Susan B. Anthony was put on trial for voting in 1873. As I speculated in the account of my second day in Rochester, Douglass must have been proud.

Douglass was a keynote speaker at the August 4th, 1857 celebration here, of the West Indies Emancipation of August 1st, 1834, when the approxomately 750,000 slaves of the British West Indies were freed, at least formally. Douglass addressed his remarks to ‘Mr. President’, by whom he meant Austin Steward. Steward was a friend and important influence on Douglass, and according to David Anderson, the Douglass scholar I talked with yesterday, he asked, if Britain can separate from slavery, why not the United States?

Steward fled slavery and gained his freedom in 1813. He become a successful Rochester businessman, a writer of one of the great slavery narratives Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, and was President of the Board of Managers for the Wilberforce colony in Canada, founded as a haven for black people fleeing oppressive laws in Ohio.

Excerpt from speech at Canandaigua, NY, 1857 on Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester

Excerpt from speech at Canandaigua NY in 1857, on the pedestal of the Frederick Douglass monument / statue in Rochester’s Highland Park

I haven’t been able to uncover the exact location where Douglass gave his famed speech here, the speech that yielded one of his most famous quotes: ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’. According to the sources I do find, there were parades. I’m guessing they would have happened on Main Street, perhaps beginning or ending at City Hall as many public celebrations of civic events do.

Austin Steward is buried in here in Canandaigua. I’m rapidly running out of time for the day and I still have several places to visit and many miles to drive, so I press on and don’t seek his burial site today, as much as I wish to. But if you have the chance to visit, he was buried at West Avenue Cemetery in 1860. Please pay my respects for me until and if I have the opportunity to do so myself.

I continue east, a lovely drive of one hour on Highway 20A to where it turns into West Main St in Honeoye. My destination is the Pitts mansion, located just west of Church St which t-bones northward off W. Main. On the north side of the street, there’s a two-story white house with a pointy roofed little front door porch, and a prominent historical marker out front.

Gideon Pitts House, Honeoye, NY, home of the father of Helen Pitts Douglass

Gideon Pitts House, Honeoye, NY, home of the father of Helen Pitts Douglass

Near the end of January in 1884, the newly married widower Douglass and his wife Helen Pitts Douglass traveled to Honeoye to visit her father and his old acquaintance and fellow abolitionist, Gideon Pitts. They had known each other since the 1840’s, and Helen may even have met Douglass when she was a child. Despite his abolitionist beliefs and old ties to Douglass, Pitts did not allow Douglass to enter the house. Pitts was far from the only one of Douglass’ friends and colleagues to disapprove of their marriage; interracial marriage was widely seen as a step too far even by many of the most committed abolitionists. But some stood by him, as you may remember from my earlier accounts. This was Stanton’s opportunity to stand by him as he had stood by her 36 years ago at Seneca Falls, and she did so by writing him a letter of congratulations, which was kept out of the press only at the urging of Susan B. Anthony, always on the defense against anything that might hurt the women’s suffrage cause. Stanton had become more radical and nonconformist by this time, and had discarded the racist rhetoric and attitudes she had adopted in the fight over the 14th and 15th Amendments.

Anthony Family Farm photo, Susan B. Anthony House Museum, Rochester NY

Anthony Family Farm photo reproduction in an exhibit at Susan B. Anthony House Museum, Rochester NY. The photo is flipped from the original digitized on the University of Rochester website, see links below.

Brooks Ave and Thurston Rd, near Anthony farm site in Rochester NY

Brooks Ave and Thurston Rd near Anthony farm site in Rochester NY

Looking down a private road toward the Anthony family lands and farm site, Thurston, Genessee Park and Brooks, Rochester, 2016 A Cools

Looking south from Brooks Ave down a private road, between Thurston Rd and Genessee Park Blvd, toward the Anthony family farm and general direction of the house site

I return to Rochester by continuing east on 20A, then the 390 north, to the easterly outskirts of town near the airport where the Anthony family land and farmhouse used to be. The house stood on a rise not far from Brooks Ave, somewhere between Genessee Park Blvd and Thurston Rd, on an elevation south of Brooks. Susan B. Anthony lived here until 1862; she moved into the house I visited on my second day in Rochester in 1865, with her sister Mary and her mother Lucy.

Douglass was a regular visitor at this house around 1850, where friends and fellow reformers would gather. Anthony ran the farm at this time while her father was away working in Syracuse, and took care of her ailing mother; the next year, she would meet Stanton and they would begin their lifetime partnership as women’s rights activists, which took her away from home for long periods. Daniel and Lucy Anthony, Susan’s parents, were progressive Hicksite Quakers like Douglass’ close friends Amy and Isaac Post, and like the Posts, were proponents of women’s rights and ardent abolitionists. Their farmhouse here, then in the town of Gates, and Susan’s cousin Asa’s house not far away at 446 Post Ave (I don’t make it to this house today), were stops on the Underground Railroad. Douglass told of one occasion around this time of a warning that they received about a slave catcher pursuing three escapees, one of whom was sheltering at the Douglasses’, one at Asa Anthony’s farm, and another in Farmington 18 miles away. The Rochester abolitionists helped spirit the men away to freedom in Canada via Lake Ontario, as they helped so many others escaping through here.

Mt Hope Cemetery Gate, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Entrance to Mt. Hope Cemetery

My last destination of the day, and the last Douglass site I’ll visit in Rochester, is Mt Hope Cemetery just a couple miles west of here off Mt Hope Avenue. It’s lovely, warm, gently breezy, and just a little cloudy when I arrive at the cemetery. I park in front of the administrative offices at the Mt Hope entrance, which is the southernmost entrance on Mt Hope Ave north of Elmwood Ave, between Stewart and Langslow Streets. Heading east into the cemetery, I take the first little road to the right, called Fifth Ave, passing two crossroads and a pond to the left. I come to a little gravel path on my right marked with a historical marker, and take that path to a tall obelisk gravestone on the left (the kind that looks like the Washington Monument). There’s another little gravel path at that corner that turns left, helpfully marked with a pointer sign. The path ends at the Douglass family plot. When I arrive, I’m alone, and it’s peaceful.

Historical marker en route to gravesites of Frederick Douglass and his family at Mt Hope Cemetery in Rochester NY

Historical marker en route to gravesites of Frederick Douglass and his family at Mt Hope Cemetery in Rochester NY

Douglass’ own large central gravestone is prominently marked with brass letters and two rosettes that have weathered to a bright pale green. The taller stone monument behind reads, on the front: ‘To the Memory of Frederick Douglass, 1817 – 1895, erected by his sons Lewis H. and Charles R….’. These are the two sons that fought with the Union Army which their father was so instrumental in integrating. Douglass’ other son, Frederick Jr, had died about two and a half years before Douglass, on August 4th, 1892. On the left side, the monument reads: ‘Anna, Wife of Frederick Douglass, Died 1882’ and on the right, ‘Annie Douglass, Daughter, Died 1860′. She died nine days before her 11th birthday, while Douglass was in Glasgow following his flight from possible arrest in connection with the John Brown case, which we’ll return to in my next account. Douglass hurriedly returned, and he and Anna grieved together.

The return of Anna’s remains to Rochester to be buried next to Annie and her husband is a fascinating story which is generally left out or told incorrectly in Douglass biographies; to hear the story, please listen to my interview with Douglass scholar Leigh Fought.

Gravestones and burial monument of Frederick and Anna, Douglass and their children, and of second wife Helen Pitts Douglass

Gravestones and burial monument of Frederick and Anna, Douglass and their children, and of second wife Helen Pitts Douglass

His second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, is buried to his left. On her stone, under her name, is engraved ‘…Widow of orator and statesman Frederick Douglass. Through her vision his greatness was memorialized at Cedar Hill in Washington D.C., Mrs. Douglass was the founder of the Frederick Douglass Historical and Memorial Association.’ For the next eight years of her life, following Douglass’ death on February 20th of 1895, she made it her life’s work to preserve and promote his memory and those of his family.

I linger here awhile, to reflect and to rest, I don’t know for how long. After some time, I rouse myself: the cemetery is only open for a little while longer and I have a little more seeking to do.

Historical marker en route to Susan B. Anthony's gravesite

Historical marker en route to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite

Susan B. and Mary S. Anthony headstones, with Daniel and Lucy Anthony family monument behind and to the right

Susan B. and Mary S. Anthony headstones, with Daniel and Lucy Anthony family monument behind and to the right

His friend Susan B Anthony is also buried here. I return to the main path and wind my way up north and to the left. The path continues to curve around, going up to a rise above a chapel-like structure. A little ways down, just past a tall stone monument on the right crowned with a figure of a young woman holding two tablets propped on her lap, there’s another historical marker and a pointer sign directing you down a gravel path that soon turns right. I follow it where it leads back down parallel to the way I came. A little ways before you see another tall obelisk to the left, there’s a modest little white gravestone on the same side of the path with a rounded top. It’s engraved, simply, ‘Susan B. Anthony, February 15, 1820, March 13, 1906’. Next to her stone is that of her sister Mary, who lived with her in the Rochester house I visited yesterday on Madison St. She was a teacher and in many other ways a wonderful and fascinating woman in her own right. For example, she insisted on equal pay to accept a school principle’s job and stood her ground, refusing to take the job until they agreed, making her the first female teacher to receive a salary equal to a man’s in the state of New York. The Anthony sisters are buried next to their parents, Daniel and Lucy, who instilled the Quaker belief in their daughters that women and men are equal in moral worth and insisted on their receiving the full education generally only given to men. Many other members of the Anthony family are buried here too.

 Amy and Isaac Post headstones at Mt Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY

Amy and Isaac Post headstones at Mt Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY

Amy and Isaac Post sign at site of their house, now the Hochstein School, 2016 A Cools

Amy and Isaac Post sign at site of their house, which is now occupied by the Hochstein School, Rochester NY

While walking back toward the front gate in hopes of finding one last burial place, the security officer driving by tells me it’s just past six, and the cemetery is closed. The time had flown so fast! He’s kind and lets me stay a little longer, since there’s a car broken down in the cemetery waiting for a tow anyway and he has to wait to close up. So I hurry on. I return to the split road entrance to the cemetery from the parking lot at the Mt. Hope entrance, and this time, take it left for just a bit, then take the first right turn onto Evergreen. I pass Second Ave and go about halfway down the next plot to my left. I wander a little and get a little lost, but I’ll skip that part and tell you where I find the easy route: looking to the left from (south of) Evergreen into area 2, you can see a very tall pillar topped with a robed figure pointing to the sky, and just beyond that, what looks like a little stone house. Head straight between the two into the rows of stones, and pretty much directly east of the little stone house, you’ll find a taller, older stone marked just ‘Post’ and one row to the east of that, two stones side by side reading ‘Isaac Post, 1800-1872’ and ‘Amy Kirby Post, 1803-1889’. As you may remember from my account of my first day in Rochester, Douglass and progressive reformers Amy and Isaac Post were very close friends, from the mid 1840’s until their deaths. I was touched the other day when I read this quote from a letter Douglass wrote in April  of 1846, posted on the wall of the Hochstein school at the former site of the Posts’ home:  ‘Amy your family was always dear — very dear to me, you loved me and treated me as a brother before the world knew me as it now does’. It is a rare and precious thing to find such friends.

The cemetery is closed, and I must leave. But my journey is not over…

*Listen to the podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Austin Steward‘. Find a Grave website

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Douglass, Frederick. ‘Two Speeches, one on the West India Emancipation, the other on the Dred Scott Decision.‘, published in 1857 by C.P. Dewey, Rochester NY, digitized by the Central Library of Rochester

DuBois, Ellen. ‘Reconstruction and the Battle for Woman Suffrage‘. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Fought, Leigh. ‘Honeoye, Part 2‘. Frederick Douglass’s Women: in Progress blog

The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, ed Julius E. Thompson, James L. Conyers Jr., Nancy J. Dawson. Greenwood Press.

Frederick Douglass Project Writings: West India Emancipation.’ From the University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project, River Campus Libraries website

Gerrit Smith‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Heritage Documentation Programs: Wesleyan Chapel‘. National Park Service website

Jaschik, Sue. ‘Lucy Read Anthony and Daniel Anthony‘. Epitaph, by the Friends of the Mount Hope Cemetery, Vol 26 No. 1, Winter 2006, found the University of Rochester website

Lewis, David. ‘Steward, Austin (1793-1869)‘. Blackpast.org

Morry, Emily. ‘Susan B. Anthony’s Rural Roots‘. Local History Rocs! blog by Rochester’s Public Library Local History and Genealogy Division

Muller, John. ‘Death Knocked on the Door of the Frederick Douglass Family Too Often…’ Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog

Pierce, Preston E. ‘Main Street Guided History Walk: Special Walking Tour of Lower North Main Street Cannadaigua.’ Ontario County website

Pitts Mansion – Honeoye, NY‘. Waymarking.com

Schmitt, Victoria Sandwick. ‘Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Part One‘ and ‘Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Part Two‘. Rochester History journal, Vol. LXVII Summer 2005 No. 3 and Vol. LXVII Fall 2005 No. 4. McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Seneca Falls Convention‘. In The Encyclopedia of New York State (from selected entries published online)

Truth, Sojourner. ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ Delivered 1851, Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio.  National Park Service website

Wellman, Judith. ‘The Seneca Falls Convention: Setting the National Stage for Women’s Suffrage.’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website

The West Indian Colonies and Emancipation‘. From the Living Heritage: Parliament and Empire series, at Parliament.uk

The Trial of Susan B. Anthony: A Short Narrative‘. History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center website

Women’s Rights National Historical Park website, National Park Service

Frederick Douglass Albany, Troy, and Syracuse NY Sites

A view of Albany, NY, 2016 by Amy Cools

A view of downtown Albany, New York, looking west

Eighth Day, Sunday March 27th

I get up very early and leave Cambridge (where I’ve been staying while visiting Boston and Lynn) and this time, instead of heading north, I head west across upstate New York. I’ve never visited this part of the country before. My friend who I’ll be staying with in Rochester laments that I’m visiting at the least advantageous time of year for beauty’s sake: the snow is gone, and having scrubbed the trees bare, leaves the trash it’s been concealing exposed, and there’s not a hint of green nor bloom yet on the branches. But I still think it’s lovely, with a sort of stark gray beauty, and enjoy the day’s drive of about 325 miles.

A view down State Street looking toward the Hudson River, Albany NY

A view down State Street looking toward the Hudson River, Albany NY

My first stop is Albany, a city on a hill with beautiful architecture. There were some ardent abolitionists here, and it had one of the main stations on the Underground Railroad on the route Frederick Douglass was connected to. Douglass named Stephen MyersLydia and Abigail Mott (who he entrusted with the education of his daughter Rosetta for a time) and William Topp in his autobiographies as some of the key figures here in the cause of the liberation of black people. But Douglass had some very unflattering things to say about Albany too: as he wrote in 1847, he observed a lot of racism here, especially in the wealthier families enriched directly or indirectly from slaveholding, and in the press. He was warmly welcomed by the congregation of the Baptist Church on State Street, but as of this time I can’t confirm its location: the current Baptist Church on State Street, Emmanuel, didn’t move there until 1869, and the Baptist church I found dating from his time was not on State St.

Tweddle Hall, inscribed 1754 Old Tweddle Hall, from Albany Institute of History & Art Library

Tweddle Hall, inscribed ‘1754 Old Tweddle Hall’, from Albany Institute of History & Art Library

I wander the downtown area for a little while, glad to stretch my legs, admiring the grand city center buildings, soaring churches (mostly built in the mid to late 1880’s), old stone and brick row houses, and the lovely view east where the hill slopes down to the Hudson River. Then I head to my main destination, the site where Frederick Douglass spoke at the American Equal Rights Convention at Tweddle Hall, held November 20th and 21st, 1866. Tweddle Hall once stood at the northeast corner of State and Pearl, and originally built in 1860, it burned down, was rebuilt once in 1883, then replaced in 1927 by the Bank Building which now stands here.

Douglass had long been an ardent champion of the women’s rights movement; he had been the first to back Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s call for women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 (more on this story in an upcoming account).

But here in Albany, a serious split in the women’s rights movement began with the debate over the 15th Amendment. The American Equal Rights Association had formed earlier that year, on May 10th in New York City. The Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention reformed itself as the AERA, dedicated equally to black and female suffrage following the 14th Amendment, which for the first time specifically linked the word ‘male’ to the right to vote. While the 14th Amendment didn’t specifically guarantee the right to vote to all males, it did limit representation according to the number of adult males allowed to vote, overturning the hated 3/5ths compromise clause of the Constitution which granted representation, albeit reduced, to non-voting ‘persons bound to service for a number of years’, in other words, slaves.

Bank Building at NE corner of State and Pearl, site of old Tweddle Hall, 2016 Amy Cools

Bank Building at northeast corner of State and S. Pearl, site of old Tweddle Hall

The proposed 15th Amendment, as written and as it was eventually passed, would guarantee the right to vote to all citizens regardless of ‘race, color, or previous condition of servitude’, leaving the ‘male’ link to voting from the 14th Amendment intact. Douglass’ biographer Phillip S. Foner describes Douglass’ position on the 15th Amendment as: ‘to women the ballot was desirable, to the Negro it was a matter of life and death.’ Douglass thought it was absolutely imperative that black people get the right to vote even if it meant putting aside other great political causes for the moment. Adding women’s right to vote to the 15th Amendment would make it so much more controversial that it surely wouldn’t pass. After all, it wasn’t only black men who were still suffering great oppression and failing to enjoy the rights the Civil War victory was supposed to have won them; black women suffered worst of all because they had no legally protected voters to represent them. To many in the women’s rights movement, this was an unpardonable breach of loyalty from the man who had been their dedicated champion from the beginning. But Douglass still supported the AERA, joined in their petitions, and even acted as a representative and as a Vice President over the years.

Unfortunately, as the political struggle for racial suffrage gained more traction than woman suffrage, some of the feminist political rhetoric took on a racist character, saying, for example, that suffrage for educated, civilized white women should take precedent over suffrage for uneducated, ‘degraded’ black people. Sadly, even his old friends and allies Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stooped to this rhetoric, though in later years Stanton redeemed herself somewhat by warmly, and wittily, congratulating Douglass and Helen Pitts on their January 24th, 1884 marriage: ‘After all the terrible battles and political upheavals we have had in expurgating our constitutions of that odious adjective ‘white’ it is really remarkable that you of all men should have stooped to do it honor.’ Perhaps his good example of loyalty to her in later years, despite her earlier racist comments, helped her overcome the worst in her character that angry disappointment can tend to bring out even in the best of us.

Liberty St at Franklin, Troy NY, two blocks east of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church site

Liberty St at Franklin, Troy NY, two blocks east of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church historical marker site

I return to my car and drive about 15 minutes north along the Hudson River to Troy, another northern New York State former industrial town which has clearly suffered a long and steady decline. But it’s full of lovely old buildings and has an interesting history; for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended Troy Female Seminary. It’s also a college town; when I stop for coffee and to do some research, I find myself among many college age students spending late Easter morning studying (though I suppose they’re on spring break, what good students!) and hanging out.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, Collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY 2

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in a later incarnation as a laundry. This only known surviving photo is in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY

I’m headed for the site of Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, which Albany’s Times Union newspaper reports was on the corner of Liberty and Franklin Streets – which may not actually be the right street corner, as I discover when fact-checking and doing extended research for this account, more on that in a moment. The Liberty Street Church used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad, ran by pastor Henry Highland Garner from 1838 to 1848.

I’m looking for this site today because the 1847 National Colored Convention was held here, where the ultimately unsuccessful movement to start a national, unified Negro League movement began. According to John Cromwell in his 1914 book The Negro in American History‘…the very first article in the first number of [Douglass’ paper] the North Star published January, 1848, is an extended notice of the National Colored Convention held at the Liberty Street Church, Troy, New York, October 9th, 1847′. Nathan Johnson, who the Douglasses made their first home with in New Bedford, was president of the convention. Frederick Douglass was one of the Massachusetts delegates to this convention. He still espoused Garrisonian principles at the time (he changed his mind later), which, among other things, held that moral suasion and non-violent boycotting of politics were the most effective ways to end slavery. He called on his fellow black people everywhere to leave their churches if they were segregated or supportive of slavery in any way, and stressed the importance of education and self-improvement to stand as living testaments against the prejudices of white people. However, for a variety of reasons, it proved too difficult to unite the scattered, disenfranchised black community together into one unified movement. Those who were free shared the tactical and philosophical disagreements of white members of the abolitionist movement; those who were still enslaved or suffering the worst hardships of poverty, illiteracy, and other innumerable forms of intimidation and oppression found it difficult or impossible to participate.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Site (according to historical marker), photo by Howard C. Ohlhous 2016

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Site with historical marker, photo by Howard C. Ohlhous 2016

So why might I be at the wrong street corner here at Liberty and Franklin? Because my additional research for this account prior to publication pulled up two locations for the old church, rather than the one I had initially pulled up. A couple of secondary and tertiary sources, which I find first and which guide my day’s search here, list the location as Liberty at Franklin: the newspaper, and this booklet for a historical project from 2008. I don’t yet have enough evidence now to prove definitively which is correct, though I believe one much is more likely. The crossing of Liberty and Franklin Streets is unmarked; Franklin is a narrow little street that runs between 2nd and 3rd, between the three story brick building and the two story white board one with the bay window. It’s a rather shabby little street corner now, the buildings here now don’t appear to be all that old.

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Marker at Liberty and Church Streets, photo by Howard C Ohlhous

Liberty Street Presbyterian Church Marker at Liberty and Church Streets, photo by Howard C Ohlhous

Yet the historical marker for the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church is placed at Liberty and Church Streets, two blocks east of here. Oddly enough, the creators of the Spectres of Liberty project describe the site in their booklet as located on Liberty at Franklin, yet they hold their ‘Raising the Ghost of the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church‘, a super cool historical art event, at the marker site. Could it be that the street names have been changed or reassigned? A city map / atlas from 1845 reveals that the street names and locations are the same here today as they were then.

In case the historical marker is placed incorrectly (update: the Rensselaer County Historical Society assures me that the marker is at the correct site) and this does turn out to be the correct site, which corner of Liberty and Franklin could it have been on? Comparing the photo to the streets now, there’s one clue that might help me: the fire hydrant shown in the photo. There is no fire hydrant now, but there is a capped water supply pipe which could have supplied it; unless it’s torn up and moved, this would remain a permanent fixture. It’s in the sidewalk in front of the three story red brick apartment building on the northwest corner of the street. If this is the same water supply, that would place the church on that corner with its narrower pointy side facing on Franklin and its long side facing Liberty. However, when I look more closely at the photo I’m referring to (the only known surviving one, it’s in the Rensselaer Historical Society collection), the site where the historical marker is located, two blocks east at Liberty and Church looks more like the correct location, if the placement of the fire hydrant and the street pole are the same today.

So why include my story of possibly looking in the wrong place (which, as it turns out, I do)? Well, this travel series is the story of a journey, and journeys often include wrong turns, misreading of signs, incorrect maps, bad directions, and so forth. Each of these is a learning experience, and I hope you don’t mind that I take you along with me as I learn. As we’ve just seen, there are conflicting sources of information out there, and the lesson I learn here: triple-check all sources!

Wieting Hall Site, Syracuse NY,

Wieting Hall Site,  111-119 W. Water St at S. Salina off Clinton Square, Syracuse NY

Wieting Opera House on Clinton Square in Syracuse, New York, 1898

Wieting Opera House on Clinton Square in Syracuse, New York, 1898

My last destination of the day is the site of Wieting Hall, at 111-119 W. Water Street in Syracuse, NY. The hall, which was first built in 1851, burned down in 1856 and was rebuilt as an opera house in 1857, burned and rebuilt yet again in 1881. Its builder and public-spirited owner Dr. John Wieting was a stoic yet tenacious man, responsible for its every incarnation. As you can see, what stands here now is not nearly so inspiring, in looks or in history.

On Nov 14th, 1861, Douglass was scheduled to deliver a speech on the Civil War and why the slaves needed to be freed en masse for the Union to win, one of his many appearances in Syracuse. Syracuse was another important stop on the underground railroad. However, as we’ve seen throughout this travel series, just because New York and other Northern states were free did not mean that all people here wanted black people to be armed, to enjoy civil rights, or even to be emancipated. Many in Syracuse were abolitionists and many others were not; racism was endemic in both of these groups.

According to Foner’s biography, an angry protest was planned: many townspeople were prepared to drive him and the other abolitionist speakers from the city. However, to his great credit, mayor Charles Andrews and Dr. Wieting refused to be intimidated, insisting that the talk take place as planned. They believed (as I agree all Americans should) that even unpopular speech should be protected speech, and their Syracuse was not to be a place where free speech could be squelched by threats. So 50 – 100 police were stationed (depending on the source) along with armed members of the Second Onondaga Regiment. When Douglass spoke, the crowd was well-behaved and respectful, be it because they actually did respect him and his right to speak, or because they were not allowed to be otherwise.

Clinton Square and Jerry Rescue Monument, Syracuse NY

Clinton Square and Jerry Rescue Monument, at S. Clinton and W. Water Streets, Syracuse NY, with Wieting Hall site in the background

Jerry Rescue Monument, Syracuse NY, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsAs I have plenty of daylight left, I wander through lovely Clinton Square, clearly a site in the process of restoration. The large rectangular concrete center used to be a part of the Erie Canal, a waterway route to the center of the city, and a place to ice skate when frozen over in winter (part if it is still filled with water and turned into a wintertime outdoor skating rink today!)

I discover a monument near the southwest corner of the square, erected in 2001 and dedicated to the October 1st, 1851 rescue of William ‘Jerry’ Henry. An escaped slave from Missouri, he was arrested as part of the effort to enforce the much-hated Fugitive Slave Act, enacted on September 18th, 1850. Many Northerners, abolitionist or not, thought it an intolerable intrusion on the legal autonomy of states and on freedom of conscience. Though the orator and statesman Daniel Webster (who, as you may remember from the second of my Lynn accounts, supported it as an acceptable compromise for preserving the Union) warned that the Fugitive Slave Act would be rigorously enforced here in Syracuse, it was vigorously defied on that October day. Attendees of the Liberty Party state convention (the party of Gerrit Smith, Douglass’ friend and mentor who we’ll learn more about soon) broke into the jail and freed Jerry, hid him in town for a few days, and smuggled him to Canada. This event would be long celebrated by abolitionists and champions of human rights, Douglass among them, as a triumph over oppression and in thanks to those who risked themselves to help a fellow human being in need.

Jerry Rescue Monument Plaque, Syracuse NY, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Jerry Rescue Monument Plaque in Clinton Square, Syracuse NY

Yellow house I stay at in Syracuse, NY, photo 2016 by Amy CoolsSo ends my tale of today’s adventures. I’m going to spend the night in a rented room in an old yellow house near beautiful Syracuse University, the most charming place I stay throughout the trip, with the exception of my new friends’ house near Baltimore and my old friends’ house in Rochester. Stay tuned for my continuing adventures following the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass!

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Amendment XIV: Citizenship Rights, Equal Protection, Apportionment, Civil War Debt‘, Constitution Center website

Amendment XV: Right to Vote Not Denied by Race‘, Constitution Center website

American Equal Rights Association‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Beauchamp, William Martin. Past and Present of Syracuse and Onondaga County, New York: From Prehistoric Times to the Beginning of 1908 (Volume 2). SJ Clarke Publishing Co: New York, 1908.

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, and The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 2: Autobiographical Writings. 3 volumes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999 (including a letter to Sydney H. Gay, dated Oct 4th 1847)

‘Courtesy of the Rensselaer County Historical Society: Rev. Henry Highland Garnet’. The Amistad CommissionNew York Department of State website

Cromwell, John Wesley. The Negro in American History: Men and Women Eminent in the Evolution of the American of African Descent. J.F. Tapley Co: New York, 1914

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.

Frederick Douglass Escapes Slavery, Becomes Leading Abolitionist‘, Onondaga Historical Association website

Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.

Garrison, William Lloyd. The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Volume IV: From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850-1860. Edited by Louis Ruchames

Hallaron, Amy. ‘Artist’s magic lives on in Troy‘, Times Union, Albany, Monday, January 16, 2012

Jerry Rescue‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Jerry Rescue Monument‘, #44, Freethought Trail website

‘Liberty Street Presbyterian Church (African)’, Historical Marker Database (source of marker photos)

Lydia and Abigail Mott‘, Underground Railroad History website

McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Proceedings of the National Convention of Colored People and Their Friends; held in Troy, NY; on the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th of October, 1847.’ Colored Conventions website, University of Delaware

Rittner, Don. Albany, Then & NowArcadia: Charleston SC, 2002

Robinson, Olivia, Josh MacPhee, and Dara Greenwald. Spectres of Liberty: The Raising of the Ghost of the Liberty Street Church. Websitebooklet and video

Stephen Myers‘, Underground Railroad History website

Susan B. Anthony Boldly Writes the Speaker of the House Asking for a Public Endorsement of Women’s Suffrage‘, pamphlet for 1866 Convention and signed letter, RAAB collection website

Troy, N.Y., from actual survey‘ (map / atlas) by S.A. Beers, civl. engineer. Depicts: 1845

Upstate New York and the Women’s Rights Movement‘, University of Rochester / River Campus Libraries website

Wieting Opera House‘, #51, Freethought Trail website

Is Feminism Passe? No! Cries A Distinct Lack of Statuary

Many say that the idea of ‘feminism’ is outmoded: it smacks of reverse sexism, and the women’s rights movement has pretty much accomplished its goals anyway, at least in the free world.

Why flog a dead horse, ladies?

In my last travel blog series, following in the footsteps of great thinkers who changed the world, I explored New York City. I found statue after statue, monument after monument, portrait after portrait, of important men in American history: there were Lincolns, Jeffersons, Clintons, and Hamiltons galore, and speaking of horses, a multitude of Washingtons, often astride one. Yet search as I might, in this city that birthed and nurtured so many of the greatest American intellectual and reform movements, I was hard pressed to find such tributes to their female counterparts. Wait! there’s one: Eleanor Roosevelt, great humanitarian… and oh yes, wife and cousin to two American presidents.

Of course, Eleanor should be honored with this beautiful monument for the great things she did. But would she have been if it weren’t for the famous men in her life? Hmmm. It’s not that statues, monuments, and other public works of honorary art are necessary to show how important anyone’s achievements are, so long as we remember them and pass on their ideas. But they do provide a window into the values and interests of the people. Initiatives, petitions, and referendums are submitted, committees form, public collections are taken up, and wealthy people grant commissions to create these public works.

In short, these monuments go up when enough people care enough to publicly show how much they care.

So how can it be that great women like Mary Wollstonecraft, Ernestine Rose, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Margaret Sanger are commemorated so modestly or so seldom? (A little plaque or a sign on a street corner here, a dusty little cabinet display there.) When their efforts, arguably, liberated more people than anyone else? After all, women make up more than half of the human race, and prior to their life’s work, most women in the world lived almost completely under the subjugation of men, most with restricted education, all denied the full range of rights and opportunities accorded to men.

I feel a free woman, myself, in most ways. I read, think, work, play, procreate (or not!), travel, dress, and so forth, as I decide for myself. Thanks, brilliant, fearless, principled women of history! But their work is not done so long as great women are not honored equally as great men, and working women as much as working men, and women who need health care as much as men need health care, and so on.

Is feminism over? I’ll believe it when I see it. In marble, granite, brass… or in the office of the President of the United States. Maybe then.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes

Philosophy and Early Feminist Thought

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two founders of modern feminism, are the subjects of my recent traveling philosophy series. While their advocacy for women’s rights, abolition of slavery, religious liberty, and other human rights issues was so important, wasn’t their work more about politics than anything else?

Why write about feminist activists for a philosophy blog?

It’s true, their focus was on achieving political goals: to establish laws protecting and empowering women and other classes of human beings in their property, their person, their range of opportunities, and their enfranchisement. But to accomplish this, they needed ideas: not only of their own, personal beliefs about the world and the way it should be, informed by facts and supported by reason; they needed to convince others that their ideas were not only interesting and desirable to themselves but good, true, and conducive to flourishing for all human beings.

The laws of their time, which barred most women from owning any property, which subjugated them and their children to husbands, fathers, and male relatives, and which failed to protect women as they sought to engage in traditionally ‘unwomanly’ activities such as voting, receiving a full education, pursuing any occupation other than housekeeping or teaching, speaking in public, taking leadership roles, and so on, were based on certain widely held ideas and beliefs about the nature and proper roles of women. 

Women in some states, especially married women, had few political rights in the era when Rose and Stanton began to agitate for them. In fact, many women in the United States, legally, had as few rights as many slaves did, which may surprise many of us today; I know it surprised me as I did my research. Not to suggest that slaves were better off: far from it. Cultural expectations required better behavior toward and treatment of (non-slave) women. Most husbands, then as now, treat their wives with respect and try to make them happy, and they had a degree of power and influence in the home in her position as mother and keeper of the house. Many states had laws protecting women in cases of abuse, and some had laws requiring men to provide for their wives in a ‘decent’ manner. And adult single women legally enjoyed a degree of personal liberty a slave could only dream of. But it was extremely difficult for any woman to earn a decent wage or find an interesting, full-filling, non-menial job, and women were generally denied access to a full education. 

While some states offered better protections for women than others with fairly liberal laws (for the standards of that time, not necessarily ours) concerning divorce, remarriage, and a woman’s right to some control of property she brought into a marriage, in many other states, women lost their individual identity upon marriage under coverture. The legal doctrine of coverture meant that a women’s identity was absorbed into, or ‘covered by’, that of her husband, and her rights were subsumed under those of her husband. In other words, they disappeared. As a result of coverture and other laws, if a married woman felt the desire or need to leave her husband for any reason, including abuse, cruelty, neglect, etc, she had no right whatsoever to her children, to any of her property besides the clothing she wore and utensils to cook with, or to keep any wages she would earn. Not only that, if she was apprehended, she could legally be forced to return, echoing the cruelty of the Fugitive Slave Law (Mistress of Herself, p 93-94, 185-86). It’s no wonder, then, that the early feminist movement rose out of, and in partnership with, the abolitionist movement, since many of the arguments in favor of emancipation of slaves applied to the liberation of women as well. Rose and Stanton’s sister feminists identified with their enslaved fellow women in this: married women had no identity as individual persons under the law, and all women were barred from choosing their own professions, fulfilling their intellectual and other capacities, and subject to laws to which they could not consent because they were not full citizens, or citizens at all.

And nowhere were women of any status permitted to vote. So how could they better their situation?

Rose, Stanton, and other human rights activists and reformers of their era recognized that laws and practices of their time that oppressed women, blacks and other racial minorities, religious dissenters, and immigrants, were all there, more or less, because of the same ideas. So to change the law, they had to change minds, not only with logical, well-supported, eloquent arguments, but with passion, which revealed the conviction behind the words. Their ideas inspired them, and in turn, inspired others. That’s where their philosophy comes in.

So what were these old ideas they wished to supplant? Why did they wish to supplant them? And with what?

Here are some of the most important ideas that underlie Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s work; not comprehensive, to be sure, but central to their goals of attaining legal and cultural liberty and equality, and to their beliefs about human nature and what constitutes the good:

~ The nature of rights, and where they come from

Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both have similar, though not identical, views on the nature of human rights. Stanton believes in a divine creator*, and that all human beings are created with certain endowments and dignities, so to transgress against human nature was to transgress the divine will. Rose doesn’t believe in a divine creator, and doesn’t think it an important question in matters of ethics, law, or everyday life, as it would involve understanding a reality incomprehensible to the human mind. Since we can only comprehend this world, we are only responsible for life within it, and we must put all of our effort in making this life the best we can. For Rose, human nature is a product of nature, no supernatural explanation useful or necessary. To both of these thinkers, however, human rights are indissolubly linked to human nature, and one could no more be legitimately denied than the other, by the simple fact of the existence of human beings whose qualities and aspirations are clearly discernible to anyone. And both think that reason is all we need to describe these rights and put them into law. As Stanton says, ‘…Viewed as a woman, an equal factor in civilization, her rights and duties are still the same; individual happiness and development. ‘(Solitude Of Self)

Whether Rose and Stanton think human nature is primary and human rights are derived from it, or whether they think both exist equally as qualities or attributes of a human person, I haven’t been able to discern. For myself, I think human nature is primary, and rights are derived from it; that’s why we must formulate, fight for, and protect human rights, not merely observe them as facts of nature. Either view is consistent with Rose and Stanton’s writings, yet I suspect they perhaps would agree with me, or at least see my point, if we ever had a chance to sit down and thrash it out. What a delightful and invigorating afternoon that would be!

In any case, Rose says, one needs only to observe the world to discover the truth of the matter, and the evidence is available to anyone, anywhere, whatever one’s culture or belief system. In fact, one needs no education at all (though it helps!) to recognize what to her is so plain, if only one would put aside their biases for a moment. A young man once challenged Rose during a speech, claiming that divine revelation and authority are in opposition to the Women’s Rights movement platform and supportive of the traditional view of women’s rights and women’s ‘sphere’ in the home. Rose replied: ‘…I will show him the revelation from which we derive our authority, and the nature in which it is written, in living characters. It is true we do not go to revelations written in books… That revelation is no less than the living, breathing, thinking, feeling, acting revelation manifested in the nature of woman…Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are but dead letters’ (MOH, 227)

~ Individual identity

The legal doctrine of coverture, inherited from British law, remained more or less unchallenged in the United States until the early feminists, with Rose and Stanton, agitated for and finally pushed through laws protecting the property rights of married women in the mid-nineteenth century. Rose began the petition to the New York State Assembly in the 1930’s, where she was soon joined by other activists; Stanton’s efforts led to success in 1848, when the first Married Woman’s Property Act was passed into law in New York (MOH, 12). Coverture was widely justified on a Biblical basis: passages such as Ephesians 5:22-5:24 ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church…Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything’ was used to demonstrate divine support for complete control of husbands over their wives. And not only wives: Stanton goes through the Bible line by line, and finds and critiques a multitude of verses in support of the idea that all women should be subjugated to men (The Woman’s Bible).

As we have seen, Rose does not accept the idea that any sort of ‘revelation’ trumps the evidence of nature, so she scorns the idea that a woman’s identity could be absorbed in another’s. ‘From the cradle to the grave she is subject to the power and control of man…At marriage she loses her entire identity, and her being is said to have become merged in her husband. Has nature thus merged it? Has she ceased to exist and feel pleasure and pain?…What an inconsistency, that from the moment she enters that compact, in which she assumes the high responsibility of wife and mother, she ceases legally to exist…’ (MOH, p 93). Since a woman feels her own feelings, thinks her own thoughts, and experiences her own selfhood, she is fully an individual as a man, whatever her relation to him. And since she is an individual person, she should have all the rights of an individual person, to the same extent as a man, and for the same reasons. Stanton concurs: ‘The point I wish plainly to bring before you on this occasion is the individuality of each human soul; our Protestant idea, the right of individual conscience and judgment; our republican idea, individual citizenship’ (SOS)

What drive Rose and Stanton is that same idea that drive all feminists to seek full human rights protections: the inner experience of our own selves as human persons in the fullest sense of the term. The differences between women and men, as they repeatedly point out, are of minor significance compared to the similarities.

~ The intellectual, emotional, and moral equality of women and men

All able human persons, say Rose, Stanton, and their fellow feminists, enjoy and experience an inner life made up of the same components: reason, emotion, and the moral instincts chief among them. While there is some difference in degree and quality from person to person, and some minor differences in tendencies between male and female, women and men are the same kind of being. Rose, again, appeals to the evidence of experience: ‘What has man ever done, that woman, under the same advantages, could not do? …Even now, where her mind has been called out at all, her intellect is as bright, as capacious, and as powerful as his…And do you ask for fortitude, energy, and perseverance? Then look at woman under suffering, reverse of fortune, and affliction…’ (MOH,  99). She recognized, as her fellow reformers did, that the intelligence and ability they found in their own selves contradicted the claims underlying the rigid belief system of her day regarding the ‘proper spheres’ of men and women. 

Instead of thinking of intelligent, ambitious, entrepreneurial, and independent women as ‘unwomanly’ freaks of nature, and women as subservient mother and housewife as ‘natural’, Rose and Stanton think of women as complex and rich in their interior lives as men, and have similar needs. For example, Stanton reveled in motherhood and was one seven times over, but she often felt stifled by the way motherhood, in her day, relegated her to a narrower arena of activity and intellectual stimulation than suited her. She is restless and curious thinker, deeply intelligent and active by nature, and while her family lived in Boston, her busy social life kept her satisfied in mind and body. When her family moved to Seneca Falls, a small town in upstate New York, however, her new life of a full-time homemaker often made her feel trapped (Jacoby, 88). Stanton doesn’t recognize herself as confined to a ‘sphere’, or conforming to the ideal of ‘true womanhood’ of the time. She thinks these ideas are not divinely inspired, but are human creations, derived from men’s need to carry on their legacy and keep the mothers of their children obediently at home under their control (TWB, Jacoby 195). Instead, like Rose, Stanton recognizes in herself and her fellow woman the full human intelligence that needs to be satisfied and developed, and the range of needs, desires, and challenges in life that, like men, can only be addressed by protecting and furthering their chances of pursuing their own goals, in law and cultural practice.

(I felt this very same way, growing up, regarding ideas about women I was brought up to believe. Beginning in my mid- to late teens, the ideal of the ‘proper sphere of women’ of the very traditional, conservative religion I was brought up in, felt alien to me. I just couldn’t believe that most, let along all, women wanted more or less the same things, and though I recognized that lifestyle made many women happy, it was not so for all women. As an adult, I’m much more interested in the experiences, the day-to-day joys and challenges of my friends and family who are mothers, yet I still don’t feel the desire to live that life myself, especially that of a homemaker, and it’s increasingly undesirable to me personally as the years pass. Yet I’m glad that so many women now have a choice: they are not forced into it, or out of it, by the state, and less and less by overbearing families or isolationist, fundamentalist communities.)

~ Women, men, and their capacities

In the period in which Ernestine Rose and Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived, the ‘myth of true womanhood’ held that each woman naturally has a specific and narrow set of capacities and tastes, all of which confine her to the choice of a few roles, the first two being primary: wife, mother, homemaker, and/or teacher (of children and other women, not of men), craftsperson in the ‘daintier’ arts, and nurse. But Rose and Stanton see things differently: while they allow there may be some differences in temperament and ability on the average, especially when it comes to physical strength, as we have seen, men and women are far more alike than they are different (intellectually, emotionally, and morally). Since women and men have similar capacities and aspirations in accordance with their human nature and their individual proclivities, so each individual should have equal opportunity to make the fullest use of them. The first and arguably most important method of developing ones capacity is a quality education, and the goal of their education should be to expand and fulfill the intellectual capacity of each individual person to the utmost.

And all persons should have full and equal access to engage in any occupation that suits their own tastes. As Rose says, in response to an influential lecturer who argues that women’s natural talents were confined to the ornamental arts, housekeeping, and the care and education of children, ‘…the great difficulty is, that …certain taste and adaptation or peculiar faculties are required for proficiency in any art or science…then it would be just as reasonable to expect all men to be painters, sculptors, or chemists, as to ask all women to be scientific cooks [chefs]. If men and women were educated in accordance with their predilections and tastes, it might so happen that some men might have the best capacity for the science of cooking, and some women for the science of government…’ (MOH, 115). In other words, preordaining and then imposing narrowly defined roles is, in fact, unnatural, and systematically wastes human potential.

~ Marriage and relationships between women and men

Rose and Stanton both believe that the traditional hierarchical view of marriage was wrong. It was still generally believed in their time that a marriage could only survive harmoniously if one partner was ultimately the authority figure, and many people in the world still believe that today (as in Paul’s doctrine of men as the ‘head’ of the family, for example, outlined in the Ephesians quote we considered earlier). Rose and Stanton, to the contrary, believe that sort of arrangement to be not only non-conducive to harmony (since it builds resentment, reduces serious consideration of the wishes and solutions to problems of the ‘subject’ partner, and encourages bullying in one and passivity in the other), but a to vow of obedience in marriage is to renege on one’s responsibilities as a moral agent:

Ernestine Rose has much to say about this subject. She was happily married for 57 years to a man who, like her, was radically egalitarian for the time, and also considered marriage a partnership between equals. She says, ‘But I assert that every woman …is bound to maintain her own independence and her own integrity of character; to assert herself, earnestly and firmly, as the equal of man, who is her only peer. This is her first right, her first duty: and if she lives in a country where the law supposes that she is to be subjected to her husband, and she consents to this subjection, I do insist that she consents to degradation: that this is sin…Marriage is a union of equals’ (MOH 275-276). She critiques the idea that blanket submission is a virtue: ‘Blind submission in woman is considered a virtue, while submission to wrong is itself wrong, and resistance to wrong is virtue alike in woman as in man’ (MOH 93). And she considers the vow of obedience in marriage not only wrong, but a lack of civilization:‘…who knows but the time may come when man and woman will be so far civilized as to agree to differ in an amicable and friendly way whenever they should not be able to agree?’ (MOH 119)

Stanton demonstrates her own commitment to the idea of marriage as a full and equal partnership not only in her writing, espousing the same principles as Rose, but likewise through action. She kept her own name upon marriage, adding her husband’s at the end. She thinks that referring to a married woman by ‘Mrs’ tacked onto the husband’s name, while leaving out hers, was a much a symbol of denigration and ownership as it was to refer a bondsperson by the name of their plantation or master. She agrees wholeheartedly that the vow of obedience was retrograde and against the true ideal of marriage as an equal partnership (Eighty Years 72). She lived a life of as much independence as her situation would allow during her years raising dependent children, and reveled in her freedom in later years, becoming more active than ever in her work for women’s rights.

~ The role of reform and progress in morality

Rose and Stanton hold somewhat different views of religion: to Rose, most religions oppressed women for so long, and their holy books contained so many anti-woman passages, that religions, in general, could only be considered more harmful than helpful, and were pretty much all antithetical to the women’s rights movement. Stanton is mildly religious, in the sense that she doesn’t identify with any particular sect of Christianity, and openly criticizes most of them for their support of retrograde laws and practices in respect to women. Yet she admires Jesus Christ himself, as a friend to the poor and oppressed, as a revolutionary, and as a promoter of tolerance (the story of Magdalene’s interrupted stoning, the Good Samaritan parable, and apostleship of the tax collector are some examples.) Both of them, in their day, would have been called freethinkers, and Stanton would also have been called an atheist by many, since that term was often used to refer to anyone who did not agree with orthodox ideas about God.

Many of the major religions go through more or less the same cycle: inspired by one (probably) historical figure 
who was some sort of inspirational radical (Abram, Siddhārtha Gautama, Jesus of Nazareth, Muḥammad ibn `Abd Allāh), evolving oral traditions and hagiography transformed these figures into gods or sacred beings with special moral authority (Abraham, the Buddha, Christ, The Prophet). As well as encouraging good behavior in their believers and often radically changing cultures for the better with their progressive ideas, eventually these belief systems rigidified, and were pressed into political service to enforce power structures which adopted them. Over time, culturally and legally, these religions were transformed from their reformist roots to dogmatic systems which enforced othodoxy of belief and rigidly proscribed behavior, with promises of reward and/or threats of punishment, by the divine and by the state. Sometimes this was beneficial to promoting pro-social behavior and attitudes; sometimes it led to such evils as religious wars, persecution of heretics, witch-hunts, and pogroms. Rose cites the cruel treatment of dissenters as one of her main criticisms of religion (MOH 76-77).

Over time, new reformists would spring up, challenging the more ugly, oppressive, or retrograde beliefs and practices religions had accumulated over time. Dissenters came from the fringes of that tradition (in the West, liberal anti-clerical Protestants such as Stanton, Deists such as Thomases Paine and Jefferson, Quakers such as Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony, and Unitarians* such as William Lloyd Garrison) as well as from the outside (freethinkers, atheists, and agnostics such as Rose, Robert Ingersoll, and Charles Darwin). Time and time again, it would take these reformers, and the moral and rational arguments with which they won over popular opinion, to convince these the old religions to reform themselves, to become more liberal and to adopt more humanistic beliefs and practices, in order to stay relevant. This process has advanced much more with some religions than with others; it’s not hard to recognize which ones, by the standard of living and the human rights protections in those countries in which those religions are most dominant.

Rose and Stanton, despite their differences of opinion of the existence of the divine, think that dogma is antithetical to morality, properly understood. The capacity of a culture or a belief system to be reformed from outside, or better yet, contain within it ideas that generate self-reform, is a sign of its superiority, since it can adapt to solve problems in a changing world. A rigid, ‘eternal’ system, by contrast, is necessarily harmful, since it’s immune to new evidence, and attempts to solve new problems with old ideas that don’t apply. In Rose’s and Stanton’s day, science had made a major breakthrough, illuminating how natural laws can explain the evolution of human nature and in turn, human morality. In Biblical times, for example, a relatively rigid, harsh moral code, centered on sexual dominance, tribal loyalty, and the accumulation of property (be it through farming, herding, dowry, or plunder) evolved to aid the survival of small nomadic tribes in a similarly harsh landscape. In a modern industrial society, such a code no longer appropriate. But aside from the usefulness of a moral code, Rose and Stanton think that morality should be drawn from observations of human nature, and as human nature expands and evolves, so does morality. Religion, they think, has this backward: it codifies some idea about what human nature is and should be in relation to a wider reality, and this rigid system is then imposed upon everyone, regardless of how poorly it’s equipped to deal with any particular circumstance or new problem that arises, or how poorly it fits with the personality, interests, or abilities of particular individuals.

In sum: Rose, Stanton, and the ideas of the early feminists are as relevant and as important today as they ever were, since they so eloquently and convincingly make the case for the equality of legal rights for women, and for a cultural and religious reexamination of the predominant ideas about women in their time. The debate over the ideas that they opposed, and the better ideas with which they convinced most of the Western world, is still raging today. In many parts of the world, women are still subjugated to men, for many of the same reasons as they were in Rose and Stanton’s time, though the holy book these oppressive laws are often based on now is more often a different one.
And in the modern Western world, the rights of women to control their own bodies and their own minds is still under attack from some quarters. For example, traditional views about women still lead many to attack President Obama’s recent remarks on such reform by deliberating misrepresenting his views based on a grammatical unclarity in one sentence of a speech that otherwise promoted the economic rights of mothers. The reforms he was calling for in that speech would ultimately support a women’s right to choose to be a full-time stay at home mother, by limiting the negative economic impact such a choice would have on her future prospects. But the fervor of some traditionalists against the idea that a women’s choice to remain childless, or to be a working mother, or pursue other goals altogether, is a valid one, can lead to blanket opposition to all women’s rights reform, however just such reform appears on its face. Opposition to full rights for women is alive and kicking, as is opposition to full human rights for immigrants, prisoners, atheists, and other minority groups, so it’s important to keep the ideas of Rose, Stanton, and the early feminists alive since they still apply, in essence, to all of these.
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*Note: it’s a little tricky to pin down Stanton’s religious views: she was, from early life, a liberal Protestant Christian, a believer in God and an admirer of Jesus Christ. Yet she was a fierce critic of the mainstream organized religions of her day which opposed rights for women, which were most of them, and did not consider the Bible the ultimate authority on questions of human rights or on morality generally. As she once remarked to Susan B. Anthony, she grew more radical in her opinions over the years, and later in life, may have been closer to a Deist or freethinking Theist than a Protestant (Eighty Years 44, Jacoby 194)

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Sources and inspiration:

The Bible, King James version

Cassidy, Jessie J. ‘The Legal Status of Women’. New York, The National-American Woman Suffrage Association, 1897. Obtained from the Library of Congress website

Dorress-Worters, Paula. Mistress of Herself: Speeches and Letters of Ernestine Rose, Early Women’s Rights Leader.  The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2008

Duke, Selwyn. ‘Just Say No to Stay-At-Home Moms‘. The New American. Nov 2nd, 2014.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘. (2014, November 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Ernestine Rose‘. (2014, July 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Gordon, Ann D. ‘Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘. American Natinal Biography Online.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Married Women’s Property Laws‘, American Memory: American Women. Library of Congress website. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awlaw3/property_law.html

Obama, Barack. ‘On Women and the Economy‘ speech, Oct 30th, 2014. Retrieved from the White House website, Office of the Press Secretary

Salmon, Marylynn. ‘The Legal Status of Women, 1776–1830‘. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (website)

Stanton, Elizabeth et al. Declarations and Sentiments / Proceedings of the First Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, 1848.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 New Jersey: Mershon Company Press, 1897.

Stanton, Elizabeth. ‘Solitude of Self‘. Address Delivered by Mrs. Stanton before the Committee of the Judiciary of the United States Congress, Monday, January 18, 1892.

Stanton, Elizabeth et al. The Woman’s Bible, 1898.