Women in Politics

By Michael F. Holt, Ph.D.

Women were prohibited from voting or holding office in every state of the nation in antebellum America, and electoral politics and governance were considered by some as an exclusively male realm. Nonetheless, many women refused to be confined to a so-called domestic sphere, and when one recognizes that public life encompassed much more than electoral politics and office holding, it is clear that women played an important role in antebellum political life despite their inability to vote.

For one thing, women played an important role in antebellum reform movements that petitioned government to cure moral and social wrongs. Women, for example, were indispensable in circulating and signing the antislavery petitions abolitionist societies poured on Congress in the 1830s and 1840s. They also participated in movements to reform education and in temperance associations that called on state legislatures to regulate the sale of beer and liquor in the 1830s and 1850s and that, in the 1850s, called for total state prohibition laws.

For another, even without the vote, some women, notably politicians' wives and daughters, who often showered them with advice, were keenly interested in partisan politics. But interest went beyond politicians' female relatives. Starting in the presidential campaign of 1840 Whigs regularly invited women to their political rallies to enhance the party's moral tone, and in 1844 one of Henry Clay's arguments against Texas annexation was an open appeal to women that their sons and husbands were bound to die in a war with Mexico should annexation be completed, a warning that later events bore out. Interestingly, Democrats were much slower than Whigs to engage women publicly in support of their cause and did so far less frequently. One possible reason for this gendered difference is that Whigs openly identified themselves as the party of middle-class respectability and it was primarily among the middle-class that the idea of women's separate domestic sphere thrived. Democrats, in contrast, usually pummeled Whigs' claims to respectability as sheer social snobbery and moral pretentiousness.

Finally, some women were no longer willing to tolerate their exclusion from the right to vote itself. Led by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women veterans of the abolitionist movement, these women decided that the demand for equal rights for women must have a separate organization and arranged a convention at Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848, a month before the new Free Soil party organized at Buffalo. The convention issued a Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by Stanton, which asserted "that all men and women are created equal" and complained about the denial to women of "this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation" and "oppressed on all sides."

Even though the women's suffrage movement would not achieve its goal until the twentieth century, the fact was that through their role in reform movements, their appearances at public ceremonies and partisan rallies, and the influence they exerted on the male political participants in their families, women played an important role in antebellum political life.