Featured Photo: Abigail Adams, a clever woman.
Written by Michael Shannon
In days when people talked to each other by letter there was a small difference between letter writing men and women. Important men wrote for posterity, fully aware that their letters would be read by historians. Women wrote to communicate knowing that in most instances the missives would be relegated to the fireplace when they died.
Have you ever wondered why this should be of any importance? It’s important because most of our history was written by men. As Abigail Adams wrote to her continually absent husband, particularly when he was attending the continental congress, “Don’t forget the ladies.” She and many of the women married to or friends of the men who created our constitution were whip smart and concerned that the framers would do nothing for the rights of women. No surprise; they did not. They did nothing.
It’s often said that winners write history. That’s a fact. Most people have heard this often, most often used to describe some war or another. It’s not often used to describe who gets to write history but it applies.
James Thurber famously and I believe correctly said; “Women are wiser than men because they know less and understand more.”
John Adams should have listened to his wife. You can read her letters. She was very smart. She was also, as she spent most of her married life running a farm, buying and selling property and running a business while her husband was spending years abroad or in Philadelphia much better educated in the things that count. Unlike Thomas Jefferson she was never taught Greek and Latin. She could not read Homer and Virgil in the original, a not uncommon thing for wealthy educated men in the 18th century. James Madison was another educational savant. Madison and Jefferson are primarily responsible for the foundations of our country, such as they are. Keep in mind that “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..” No mention of women’s Rights or Happiness. What they meant was that education and wealth conveyed those rights. The rest could go fish. Little of that has changed.
Consider this little bit of history. Wyoming passed the first woman’s suffrage law on December 10, 1869, and women voted for the first time in 1870. The word suffrage comes from the Latin word suffragium, meaning the right to vote. Every United States History course taught in our high schools includes this little snippet in their curriculum. I learned it, so did you. Why then it must be true. It’s in a book, a history book to boot. No problem.
It’s not true, tidy, easy to teach and memorable, but not true. The truth is far more interesting; a great deal more than just messy and reflects poorly, or should I say badly, on men.
Likely overcome by the heady atmosphere following the vicious civil war that separated the colonies from Britain and perhaps influenced by their wives, the New Jersey legislature voted to extend voting rights to all citizens in 1776. They didn’t specify that they had to be men or women, just citizens of the state of New Jersey. In the first election under the new constitution women showed up at the polls and voted. To legally vote a woman had to own property, a rather narrow category seeing that only widows and single women could own land. A married wife had no such rights. She had no rights at all.
Nevertheless it was done. No on seemed to think anything of it. A few years later an attempt was made to codify the right under the United States Constitution. The word women was to be added but very stiff opposition made the point that such a change would be redundant because women were already voting, so there was no need. Think about how many times you have seen that argument used in politics,”We don’t need a law for that, every body already knows, so why change it.” A favorite smokescreen for Pols. It’s well polished from constant use.
Women had supported the revolution in every way they could including combat. Thousands had read Mary Wollencrafts “Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The book along with Mercy “Warrens History of the American Revolution” brought with them torrents of controversy. Wollencrafts personal history was used by anti-women’s rights groups to fend off reform. She had had the audacity to have a child out of wedlock and conceived a second before marrying the baby’s father. ( That baby, Mary Wollencraft grew up to write “Frankenstein” and marry Percy Bysshe Shelley ) Being a founding mother would not save one from scurrilous attacks of the lowest type.
Since Wollencraft was a tramp, nothing she wrote should be considered for serious thought. Ever heard that one before? Books like these were though to be dangerous because women with “Ideas” were difficult to control.
In 1790 the New Jersey legislature added “He or She” to the constitution since women had been voting the previous four years and they though it was important to codify the law. No reason to suppose that voting for women wasn’t to be forever enshrined in New Jersey.
Lets no forget it was New Jersey though. You should remember this state was the home of Tony Soprano and the Jersey Mob. None of them had been born yet but the natal home was already in a fine fettle.
Partisan politics grew increasingly bitter, elections got dirtier. Finally, many more women than were eligible voted in an Essex County election. Women had attempted to steal an election, the print press went wild, state legislators were tearing their hair out, or at least throwing their wigs across the statehouse floor. Women who had “Ideas” had rigged an election. Horrors!
Is there any proof that they did? The answer is no. None has ever been found but in 1807 the conservative legislature used the excuse of fraud to limit the franchise to, and I quote, “…free, white, male citizens of this state, of the age of twenty-one years.” By this they “….guaranteed the safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state.” In other words, “Stop the Steal.”
“Dignity of the State”, my goodness, in a state were politicians chewed plug tobacco and routinely spat on the carpet and drank corn whiskey at their desks. Fistfights, canings and whippings have been common in our congresses for decades. Witness Florida Republican Cory Mills who presented fellow U.S. House of Representatives members with an unusual gift to mark the start of the 118th Congress: a grenade and a letter inviting them to “get to work on behalf of their constituents.” Mills joined a long list of self-congratulatory idiots, “endowed by his creator with certain unalienable rights,” to leave no doubt as to his superiority to women and the public in general. Yea. PS: The grenades were defused which was nice of him.
Ever since then, after more than two centuries New Jersey has been widely known for it’s free and fair elections. Cue laugh track complete with guffaws.
Now back to Wyoming. The state voted in 1912 to give women the vote. Give being the operative word here, as if it was ever mens right to give something that by reason should have been available to all citizens; or “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.”
Stories abound in the history of Wyoming, remember only men could vote at the time, of those mothers and daughters who made it clear where their men were to stand on the issue. Ranch wives turned the tide. Biscuits and gravy was the currency, or perhaps other things if you get my drift. Nights are cold in December cowboy.
In 1920, universal suffrage became federal law and my two grandmothers, aged thirty-five and thirty-two, voted for the first time. It was a big deal for them but in reality just a small step into the future.
I grew up on story’s about how neither one was smart enough to vote anyway. In one famous incident, my grandmother refused to vote for Thomas Dewey because he had a mustache and she didn’t like. It always seemed as good a reason as any to me. I know people who wouldn’t vote for Mrs Clinton because she didn’t divorce her husband. She did throw a cell phone at his head though. Perhaps if that had been common knowledge it might have made a difference for her.
One hundred-seventy plus years had passed since Abigail had asked her husband to, “Remember the Ladies,” and until 1964 a woman could be refused employment simply because she was a woman. Up until 1974 a woman could not buy a home on her own nor could she have a credit card under her own name. Women were not allowed to make contracts or wills, could not buy or sell property, had little or no control of their earnings in most situations, and were discouraged from acting politically, such as hold office, even though they could vote. Women’s rights were minimal. Girls could not play organized sports in secondary or post-secondary schools and even today women’s sports are funded at a much lower rate than that for men. They still suffer from what is known as the “Pink Tax,” the charging of more for women’s goods than mens. Add some scent, put it in a pink wrapper and the price of a bar of soap goes up.
When you study history you must choose your path each and every time you are presented with something new. Constantly evolving as information is uncovered and studied it can be reliable and truthful or molded like silly putty in order to gain advantage.
Ask the women of New Jersey, it’s right there in their letters and journals.
Be a skeptic, look very closely, but don’t be a cynic. The road can be very long but eventually something good can happen, but you must work at it.
Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.