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She the People
A Graphic History of Uprisings, Breakdowns, Setbacks, Revolts, and Enduring Hope on the Unfinished Road to Women's Equality
Illustrated by Rita Sapunor
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REMEMBER THE LADIES
THE NEWS OF THE DECLARATION spread rapidly. Copies of the document had been printed immediately, and riders distributed them all over the colonies. Embarrassingly, an overly enthusiastic patriot in tiny Worcester, Massachusetts, not yet an industrial powerhouse, intercepted a copy en route to Boston and read it aloud to a private crowd, but the event in Boston on July 18, two weeks after the signing, was still special.
THE DECLARATION was read from the balcony of the Town-House, the seat of the Massachusetts colonial government, overlooking the very spot where, just two years earlier, rioters had been shot and killed by British soldiers in what became known as the BOSTON MASSACRE. The Town-House was where the colonial legislature met, and statues of a lion and a unicorn—symbols of the Crown and reminders to the citizens of Boston of whose royal decree they ultimately lived under—adorned its roof. The building sat atop a hill that rolled gently down to the harbor, just a half mile away. After the REVOLUTION, it would be claimed as the State House, the meeting place of the state legislature.
The crowd was mixed. Sailors from around the world mingled with Black and White residents of the city in the bustling markets surrounding the square, though the recent military occupation of the agitated and rebellious city had reduced their number.
And, of course, many of the people in the square that day were women—women are always in all of these stories whether their presence is noted or not. That day, more women than usual came to witness history happening.
ABIGAIL ADAMS, whose husband would later become president, was in the crowd, and described the scene in a letter to her husband a few days later, using the irregular spelling of the day:
Last Thursday after hearing a very Good Sermon I went with the Multitude into Kings Street to hear the proclamation for independance read and proclamed. Some Field peices with the Train were brought there, the troops appeard under Arms and all the inhabitants assembled there (the small pox prevented many thousand from the Country). When Col. Crafts read from the Belcona of the State House the Proclamation, great attention was given to every word. As soon as he ended, the cry from the Belcona, was God Save our American States and then 3 cheers which rended the air, the Bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and Batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed and every face appeard joyfull.
Of course, we know which words kept the crowd rapt: the opening sentences that broadly and assuredly speak of human events and the dissolution of political bonds. The magnificent list of grievances against the king. The pledging of lives, fortune, and sacred honor. Ringing bells and blasting cannons were the only way to follow the reading.
Bostonians, always looking for a good excuse to riot, climbed onto the roof of the Town-House and tore down the symbols of the Crown, the lion and unicorn. Consent of the governed, indeed.
But it’s the opening of the second paragraph that changed everything. It’s what still rings in our ears more than two centuries later:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The audacity is astounding. We know it now as a promise still unfulfilled, but for the men of the time to declare that they and all other men were equal to a king and were created that way was bold as hell. Most people on the planet lived in societies in which some inbred family claimed some cosmic force had decided they should be in charge, and everyone had to go along with it until the monarchs were beheaded. So, pause for a moment and raise your glass to inalienable rights.
THAT BEING SAID…
The men who wrote the Declaration of Independence didn’t really believe that ALL men were equal. The statement is largely a rhetorical flourish produced by a group that included a fair number of enthusiastic owners of slaves. What they really meant in the Declaration by “all” was landowning White guys like themselves. The “men” part, however, they totally meant.
The colonists spent the next eight years fighting a bloody war of independence against the Crown while debating exactly what this new country would look like. After the initial printing of the Declaration had gone out, the Continental Congress commissioned firebrand Baltimore printer and postmaster MARY KATHERINE GODDARD to create a more compelling edition, this one with the signatures attached, giving it a powerful punch.
This copy spread everywhere, and a radical woman’s name imprinted at the bottom made the Declaration an even hotter topic of discussion around the colonies. While the War of Independence raged on, the citizens of this country-to-be hammered out how to make states out of colonies.
Massachusetts, always the nerdy overachiever, had a constitution drawn up even before the war was over. The first draft in 1778 was widely rejected, in part because it upheld the institution of slavery and limited the rights of Free Blacks. Another version of the state’s constitution that included the words “all men are born free and equal” was introduced, and that one was ratified in 1780.
Constitutions, however, are just symbolic pieces of paper if no one tests them in the courts.
In the early 1780s, ELIZABETH, an enslaved woman also known as MUM BETT, heard the talk around the dinner tables she served of men being born free and equal and of certain inalienable rights. Her owners were enthusiastic supporters of the Revolution. One day, the wife, enraged, struck at Elizabeth’s younger sister with a hot iron. Elizabeth jumped between them to take the blow and suffered severe burns on her upper arm.
That was it. At the first chance, she walked over to see her neighbor, abolitionist Theodore Sedgewick, and asked him to help her sue for her freedom on the basis of the new Massachusetts constitution. She won her case and gave herself the surname FREEMAN. Her case, along with those of others, helped overturn slavery throughout the state, adding Massachusetts to the growing list of Free States.
Before they were states, each colony had its own specific charter detailing its relationship with the king. Though they ultimately answered to the monarch, colonies made their own laws through their legislatures and town meetings. Most of these laws were modeled on English law, which at that point was split between common law and canon law. Common law governed everyday life, primarily in the public sphere, from murder to theft to contracts. Canon governed in matters the church oversaw, like marriage. Women’s lives were mostly governed by canon law.
Based on interpretations of the BIBLE by Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and others, canon law held very strict distinctions about the roles of women in the world. Women were considered to be pale and imperfect imitations of men, easily corrupted and relentlessly corrupting. As Aquinas put it, “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten.”
Early Christian thinkers, which included numerous well-known women, had frequently described Eve as the hero of the Genesis story. As the male-dominated Catholic Church became more and more powerful, its decisions on which writings to include as official scriptural interpretations and as books of the Bible itself solidified a notion that Eve was not only a villain but also the representation of all women. Women, and women with knowledge in particular, were branded as temptresses who led men into trouble if allowed.
This was used over the centuries to justify keeping women out of political and commercial life, or what was known as the public sphere.
Women instead were given control of the domestic sphere, or their home, but only in a day-to-day sense. The patriarch of the household always had final say.
These strict definitions of spheres only tended to happen in societies with a degree of democracy. In a total monarchy, everyone is ultimately subject to the monarch, so any power to be gained in the public sphere is subject to the monarch’s whim.
Once any degree of democracy becomes the political system, however, roles in public life become more official through codes of law and constitutions. At this point, women’s lives can become more restricted, as the public sphere is more strictly defined. As power expands to wider circles of people, the people who already have more power tend to want to define that circle as something that includes them, and not outsiders who might threaten their power.
In 1781, the former colonies agreed on the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION, making their unification official and swapping out the Crown and Parliament for a fairly weak and barebones federal government that primarily taxed and waged war. The states were otherwise left to govern themselves independently. They hoped to preserve a similar kind of autonomy as they had as colonies under the king, when they didn’t need to answer to the other colonies in making decisions for themselves.
Wars, however, cost money. A lot of money. The colonists were victorious in the Revolution, but the federal government was left in incredible debt. This was a burden for all the states, particularly the poorer states, and pressure built to formally define the relationships and obligations between the states. On May 25, 1787, the CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION kicked off in Philadelphia. Four months later, they had a version ready to present to the states. Never forget that the United States was founded in a series of long, tedious, and occasionally acrimonious meetings. As a result, there were a LOT of compromises, some small and relatively benign, some large and horrifying.
The reality is that people like stability, and need it. Revolutions sound glamorous, but they are chaotic, destructive, and deadly. As the Declaration puts it,
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
The thirteen American colonies were offshoots of England, and less than a century earlier England had gone through a bloody revolution in which the king was beheaded. There was justifiable fear of bringing that sort of violent chaos to American shores. Prudence, indeed.
The Declaration’s epic list of the king’s repeated abuses and usurpations addressed his overstepping his bounds in matters of governance and the judiciary. All thirteen colonies had complained of these issues, and these grievances bonded them in their desire for independence. The king was in breach of contract with his colonies, and all legal avenues of redress had been tried. The colonies had been left only with revolution.
On March 31, 1776, during the war, Abigail Adams had begun writing one of her regular letters to her husband, who was then off in Philadelphia debating with other men of the colonies whether it was time to declare independence from Britain. She spoke of the hardships in occupied Boston and her fears of smallpox. Then, in the middle of the letter, almost as an afterthought, she urged that when he and the other men wrote the code of laws that would be necessary in an independent country they “REMEMBER THE LADIES.” She went on to explain:
Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.
She then put the letter aside and didn’t pick it up again until April 5, explaining that she’d been tending to the sick in town and mourning the dead. She concluded without bringing up the ladies again.
As we now know, particular care and attention was not paid to the ladies in the United States Constitution. In fact, Adams laughed her off in his written reply, referring to a potential “DESPOTISM OF THE PETICOAT.” Abigail complained in a letter to her friend, political satirist MERCY OTIS WARREN, “He is very sausy to me. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress.” Mercy’s reply, likely witty, is lost to us, alas.
“PETTICOATS” was often used as shorthand for “women” in the way that “skirts” has been used in more modern times, reducing women to an item of clothing considered frivolous and decorative. Petticoats make women pleasing to the eye but are otherwise inconsequential. They lift things up but aren’t essential, and one is like any other. They serve without being seen.
Still, the Constitution starts with the words “We the People”—not “we the White guys,” not “we the landowners,” not even “we the citizens”—we the PEOPLE of the United States. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence infuses the Constitution’s listed objectives, the first of which is “to form a more perfect union.” Though this has an idealistic ring, it also speaks to the difficulties the colonists encountered in uniting the disparate states after the Revolution.
While the slave-owning signers hold a greater responsibility, the non-slaveholding creators of the Constitution were willing to live with slavery’s existence. None of them seriously considered including women in this democracy. When MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT, the prominent English writer and philosopher, published her widely read A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, she similarly could not make the leap to stating women should be full citizens, saying only that they were capable of rational thought, which was considered radical enough—what would Thomas Aquinas say?—and asking only that women be allowed education.
Wollstonecraft’s questioning of the role of women didn’t come out of nowhere. With men questioning their rights and their roles in society, lots of women had, too. The Revolution itself spurred a lot of questioning in the United States about to what extent old laws had to be preserved, particularly the canon laws. A break with the Crown meant a break with the Church of England. People started getting married less and worried less about premarital sex and having children within the confines of marriage. Freedom broke out all over the place.
THOMAS JEFFERSON had spent time in France before the FRENCH REVOLUTION and came to share the views of ROUSSEAU and others, that uppity women and their salons had helped cause all the trouble. He envisioned a stronger barrier between the public and domestic spheres in the United States. “Our good ladies, I trust, have been too wise to wrinkle their foreheads with politics. They are contented to soothe and calm the minds of their husbands returning from political debate.… It is a comparison of Amazons to Angels.”
In a nutshell, women scared the crap out of Jefferson.
He sought to codify, and thus justify, the divisions between men and women that he believed to be essential. Consider him a perfect personification of the combination of high ideals and loathsome compromise that founded this country.
When his wife died, Jefferson chose as a companion a girl he owned: SALLY HEMINGS, a young slave who was herself a product of the sexual exploitation of another enslaved woman by Jefferson’s late wife’s father. Sally was Jefferson’s late wife’s half-sister.
Sally Hemings was sixteen when Thomas Jefferson, forty-four, first had sex with her. They were in Paris at the time, and slavery was illegal in France, so she was technically free. Imagine for a moment her options.
Yes, she could have in theory refused to allow this man to have sex with her, but what might the repercussions have been? Would she have been beaten? Cast out onto the streets of Paris to make her way in a breadless city on the verge of a violent revolution where people of color were required to carry identification papers? Jefferson was careful never to let on that she or the other enslaved people with him were enslaved, conscious of his reputation as the author of the Declaration of Independence. It would have been assumed that she was a servant, in a country where servants had few rights.
As the companion of a rich and educated White girl—POLLY JEFFERSON, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, and her niece—Hemings had become somewhat educated herself and accustomed to the privileges her position afforded her. Did she think about PHILLIS WHEATLEY, the celebrated African American poet of the American Revolution who had died just a few years before, penniless, grieving three dead babies, her husband in debtor’s prison, all painfully soon after she was granted her freedom? Though Hemings had traveled only between two plantations in Virginia, with no other experience of the world, her older brothers had traveled extensively in service to Jefferson, including to Boston. Had they heard talk of the brutal end to the life of an educated Black woman whose laudatory poems had made her a celebrated and protected figure among the White people who owned her?
In Virginia, Free Blacks were thought to inspire enslaved people to revolt, so a freed enslaved person was required to leave the state within six months of manumission. Sally made the difficult choice—as much as it was a choice—to stay with Jefferson, ultimately returning to Virginia with him after he promised that their children would be set free upon his death. Meaning she would never see them again.
The body of an enslaved person legally and completely belonged to the slave owner, and that included her breasts, vagina, and uterus. Babies born to enslaved mothers were automatically considered to be enslaved themselves. Sally Hemings, knowing that the much older Jefferson would likely die before she did, and assuming that her enslavement would continue after his death, was willing to trade her own freedom for a future in which she might never see her children again—but a future in which they would be free.
Enslaved women weren’t allowed to hold on to their families. They weren’t allowed to officially marry. They couldn’t hold on to their parents or siblings or, often most agonizing, their children. HARRIET TUBMAN had to leave behind her husband when she escaped to freedom. He was justifiably terrified of getting caught. She couldn’t bear not to try. As we know, she not only made it but also went back for more enslaved people. The first few she went back for were her brothers.
The abolition movement used the image of children being torn from their mothers’ arms in pamphlets and newspapers to illustrate slavery’s horrors. It was the identification with the feelings of those mothers that brought many White women to the cause, and they were some of its most stalwart activists. Many future suffragists gained their organizing and protesting skills in the abolitionist movement.
In 1820, Missouri became a state. The residents of the territory were dead-set on owning slaves, but this would mean there would be one more slave state than Free State in the country. Representatives of the existing Free States were adamantly opposed to this possible imbalance, and so another one of those compromises was worked out. In exchange for Missouri’s becoming a state, a cold and rocky but delightful area in the Northeast that was considered part of Massachusetts would become an independent Free State: Maine. As part of the compromise, a line was drawn across the states between the North and South delineating where slavery was allowed and where it was not.
The slave states didn’t want balance. They wanted domination. Frustrated that the Free States had become safe havens for enslaved people who ran away from their owners, in 1850, the slave states pushed through the FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT. Not only did the act give federal agents the authority to capture Black people living in Free States and transport them to the custody of those who claimed to own them, it required that the agents do so.
Soon, Black people, some of whom had never been enslaved at all, were being rounded up in every Free State. Activist opponents of slavery were vigorously opposed to the Fugitive Slave Act before it became law. Once it took effect, even those in Free States who didn’t particularly like the idea of slavery, but who were willing to let it exist in the slave states and to accept the economic benefits, were moved to anger and action. Aside from the horrors of slavery itself, the act was seen as an outrageous overreach by the slave states, upholding slavery by infringing on the rights of the Free States. There were riots in some places when agents attempted to capture Black people, with White people fighting back, too. The Free North’s tolerance of the Slave South and its “peculiar institution,” as it was known euphemistically, was being pushed to a breaking point.
In 1855, CELIA, an enslaved woman, killed her owner after five years of being raped and otherwise sexually assaulted by him. Her owner was in his seventies when he purchased her; she was fourteen. She had two children by him before she killed him.
Rape was illegal in the state of Missouri, but, as was true throughout the country, the restrictions on rape were based in the rights of men—fathers, brothers, and husbands—over the female body. The physical, mental, and emotional trauma to a woman was not the concern. The rape of a woman brought shame upon her family, and made her undesirable in the marriage market, and that was the primary focus of the laws against it.
When a married woman was raped, legally the act was considered an offense against her husband, who had sole rights to her body. Women gave up most of their rights when they married. All of their property and any children they produced belonged to her husband. Husbands could legally beat their wives, though some states had laws governing the thickness of the stick they could use (in Massachusetts, for instance, a man wasn’t allowed to beat his wife with a stick any thicker than his thumb, the basis for the expression “rule of thumb”). Husbands also retained full rights to have sexual relations with their wives whenever they desired. Wives could not legally refuse.
In 1855, twenty-nine years after Jefferson’s death, Missouri—a state so determined to be a slave state when it was founded that a whole other state had to be carved out to balance the vote in Congress—defended the slaveowner’s dominion. A judge and jury found, in a decision ultimately upheld by the state’s Supreme Court, that Celia had no legal right to defend herself against the man who owned her because her entire body was his property, and she had no rights over it.
This essentially gave her owner the rights of a husband, though Celia had never had the option to refuse to enter into this legal relationship. Also, enslaved people were not allowed to be legally married because it would complicate the dominion of an owner over enslaved women he owned if those women had husbands, who also could claim dominion. Enslaved men, however, were not allowed to have dominion over anything, especially enslaved women. The state waited for Celia, pregnant at the time of her conviction, to give birth to her third child—stillborn, as it turned out—before she was hung by the neck until she died. The horror of this ruling made it clear how awful the compromise that allowed Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, expanding slavery itself.
So, while White women were being forced into the domestic sphere, enslaved Black women weren’t allowed to have one. If they weren’t working in the field, they were tending to the domestic spheres of other people. Who they were as humans, and as women specifically, in relationship to this reality was something they would spend decades working out on their own.
THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, a time of amazing scientific exploration, heavily influenced the thinking of the leaders of the new America. As the scientific method developed, a focus on minute categorization became essential to the experiments being conducted. Things can’t be explained if we don’t have names for them. Carbon is carbon, helium is helium, and so on, and knowing that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, and never any other combination, is important. This systematic thinking seemed to require strict classifications of masculine and feminine, male and female, man and woman.
- On Sale
- Mar 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Seal Press