In which John Green finally gets around to talking about some women’s history. In the 19th Century, the United States was changing rapidly, as we noted in the recent Market Revolution and Reform Movements episodes. Things were also in a state of flux for women. The reform movements, which were in large part driven by women, gave these self-same women the idea that they could work on their own behalf, and radically improve the state of their own lives. So, while these women were working on prison reform, education reform, and abolition, they also started talking about equal rights, universal suffrage, temperance, and fair pay. Women like Susan B. Anthony, Carry Nation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimkés, and Lucretia Mott strove tirelessly to improve the lot of American women, and it worked, eventually. John will teach you about the Christian Temperance Union, the Seneca Falls Convention, the Declaration of Sentiments, and a whole bunch of other stuff that made life better for women.
Transcript Provided by YouTube:
Hi, I’m John Green; this is CrashCourse U.S. history and today we’re going to talk
about wonder women. Mr. Green, Mr. Green, finally we get to the
history of the United States as seen through the lens of Marvel comic superheroes.
Oh, Me from the Past, you sniveling little idiot. Wonder Woman is from the DC Universe.
Also this is the study of history, which means a constant reexamination and redefinition
of what it means to be a hero, and in the case of this episode, it’s about taking
the first steps towards acknowledging that not all heroes worthy of historical recognition
are men. So we’re going to talk about how women transformed
pre-Civil War America as they fought to improve prisons, schools, decrease public drunkenness,
and end slavery. And while fighting for change and justice for others, American women discovered
that the prisoners, children, and slaves they were fighting for weren’t the only people
being oppressed and marginalized in the American democracy.
Intro So in the colonial era, most American women
of European descent lived lives much like those of their European counterparts: They
were legally and socially subservient to men and trapped within a patriarchal structure.
Lower and working class women were actually more equal to men of their own classes, but
only because they were, like, equally poor. As usual, it all comes back to economics.
In general, throughout world history, the higher the social class, the greater the restrictions
on women—although high class women have traditionally had the lowest mortality rates,
which is one of the benefits of you know doors and extra lifeboats and whatnot. So at least
you get to enjoy that oppression for many years.
As previously noted, American women did participate in the American Revolution, but they were
still expected to marry and have kids rather than, like, pursue a career. Under the legal
principle of “coverture” actually husbands held authority over the person, property and
choices of their wives. Also since women weren’t permitted to own
property and property ownership was a precondition for voting, they were totally shut out of
the political process. Citizens of the new Republic were therefore
definitionally male, but women did still improve their status via the ideology of “Republican
Motherhood.” Women were important to the new Republic because
they were raising children—ESPECIALLY MALE CHILDREN—who would become the future voters,
legislators, and honorary doctors of America. So women couldn’t themselves participate
in the political process, but they needed to be educated some because they were going
to potty train those who would later participate in the political process. What’s that? There
were no potties? Really? Apparently instead of potties they had typhoid.
Actually it was a result of not having potties. So even living without rights in a pottyless
nation, the Republican Mother idea allowed women access to education, so that they could
teach their children. Also women—provided they weren’t slaves–were counted in determining
the population of a state for representation purposes, so that was at least an acknowledgement
that they were at, like, five fifths human. And then the market revolution had profound
effects on American women, too, because as production shifted from homes to factories,
it shifted away from women doing the producing. This led to the so-called “cult of domesticity,”
which like most cults, I am opposed to. That’s right, Stan, I’m opposed to the
Blue Oyster Cult, The Cult, The Cult of Personality by In Living Color, and the three remaining
Shakers. Sorry, Shakers. But who are we kidding? You’re
not watching. You’re too busy dancing. The cult of domesticity decreed that a woman’s
place was in the home, so rather than making stuff, the job of women was to enable their
husbands to make stuff, by providing food and a clean living space, but also by providing
what our favorite historian Eric Foner called “non-market values like love, friendship,
and mutual obligation,” which is the way we talk about puppies these days.
And indeed that’s in line with actual story titles from early 19th century American women’s
magazines, like “Woman, a Being to Come Home To” and “Woman: Man’s Best Friend.”
Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document? I hope it’s from “Woman — Man’s Best
Friend.” The rules here are simple. I either get the
author of the Mystery Document right…oh, hey there, eagle…or I get shocked.
Let’s see what we’ve got. “Woman is to win everything by peace and
love; by making herself so much respected, esteemed and loved, that to yield to her opinions
and to gratify her wishes, will be the free-will offering of the heart. … But the moment
woman begins to feel the promptings of ambition, or the thirst for power, her aegis of defense
is gone. All the sacred protection of religion, all the generous promptings of chivalry, all
the poetry of romantic gallantry, depend upon woman’s retaining her place as dependent
and defenseless, and making no claims, and maintaining no right but what are the gifts
of honor, rectitude and love.” Well it was definitely a dude and I have no
idea which dude, so I’m just going to guess John C. Calhoun because he’s a bad person.
No? Well, what can you do? It wasn’t a dude? It was apparently Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
sister Catharine who was an education reformer and yet held all of those opinions, so aaaaAAAAH.
So I assume Stan brought up Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sister to point out that it wasn’t
just men who bought into the Cult of Domesticity. The idea of true equality between men and
women was so radical that almost no one embraced it. Like, despite the economic growth associated
with the market economy, women’s opportunities for work were very limited.
Only very low paying work was available to them and in most states they couldn’t control
their own wages if they were married. But, still poor women did find work in factories
or as domestic servants or seamstresses. Some middle class women found work in that
most disreputable of fields, teaching, but the cult of domesticity held that a respectable
middle class woman should stay at home. The truth is, most American women had no chance
to work for profit outside their houses, so many women found work outside traditional
spheres in reform movements. Okay, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
Reform movements were open to women partly because if women were supposed to be the moral
center of the home, they could also claim to be the moral conscience of the nation.
Thus it didn’t seem out of the ordinary for women to become active in the movement
to build asylums for the mentally ill, for instance, as Dorothea Dix was, or to take
the lead in sobering the men of America. Many of the most famous advocates for legally prohibiting
the sale of alcohol in the US were women, like Carry Nation attacked bars with a hatchet
and not because she’d had a few too many. The somewhat less radical Frances Willard
founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874, which would be one of the most
powerful lobbying groups in the United States by the end of the 19th century. And women
gave many temperance lectures featuring horror stories of men who, rather than seeking refuge
from the harsh competition of the market economy and the loving embrace of their homes, found
solace at the bottom of a glass or at the end of a beer hose. And by the way, yes, there
were bars that allowed you to drink as much beer as you could, from a hose, for a nickel.
Today, these establishments are known as frat houses. These temperance lectures would tell
of men spending all their hard earned money on drink, leaving wives and children—there
were always children—starving and freezing, because in the world of the temperance lecture,
it was always winter. Now don’t get me wrong: Prohibition was a disaster, because 1. Freedom,
and 2. It’s the only time we had to amend the constitution to be like, “Just kidding
about that other amendment,” but it’s worth remembering that back then people drank
WAY more than we do now, and also that alcohol is probably a greater public health issue
than some recreational drugs that remain illegal. But regardless, the temperance movement made
a huge difference in American life because eventually, male and female supporters of
temperance realized that women would be a more powerful ally against alcohol if they
could vote. Thanks Thought Bubble. So, in 1928, critic
Gilbert Seldes wrote that if prohibition had existed in 1800, “the suffragists might
have remained for another century a scattered group of intellectual cranks.”
And to quote another historian, “the most urgent reasons for women to want to vote in
the mid-1800s were alcohol related: They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated.
The wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security
from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and
to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect children from being terrorized
by them. To do all these things they needed to change the laws that consigned married
women to the status of chattel. And to change those laws, they needed the vote.”
Many women were also important contributors to the anti-slavery movement, although they
tended to have more subordinate roles. Like, abolitionist Maria Stewart was the first African
American woman to lecture to mixed male and female audiences. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote
the terrible but very import ant Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters
of a South Carolina slaveholder, converted to Quakerism and became outspoken critics
of slavery. Sarah Grimke even published the Letters on
the Equality of the Sexes in 1838, which is pretty much what the title suggests.
By the way, Stan, you could have made Sarah Grimke’s letters the Mystery Document. I
would have gotten that. But I want to say one more thing about Harriet
Beecher Stowe. There’s a reason we read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in history classes and
not in literature ones, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin introduced millions of Americans to
the idea that African American people were people.
At least in 19th century readers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin humanized slaves to such a degree that
it was banned throughout most of the south. So many women involved in the abolitionist
movement, when studying slavery, noticed that there was something a little bit familiar.
Now, some male abolitionists, notably Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison became
supporters of women’s rights, but ultimately the male leaders of the anti-slavery movement
denied women’s demands for equality, believing that any calls for women’s rights would
undermine the cause of abolition. And they may have had a point because slavery
only existed in parts of the country whereas women existed in all of it.
In fact, one of the arguments used by pro-slavery forces was that equality under the law for
male slaves might lead to a slippery slope ending with, like, equality for WOMEN.
And out of this emerging consciousness of their own subordinate position, the movement
for women’s rights was born. The most visible manifestation of it was the issue of woman’s
suffrage, raised most eloquently at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 where Elizabeth Cady
Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and many others wrote and published the Declaration
of Sentiments, modeled very closely on the Declaration of Independence.
Except, in some ways this declaration was much more radical than the Declaration of
Independence because it took on the entire patriarchal structure.
Okay, so there are three things I want to quickly point out about the 19th century movement
for women’s rights. First, like abolitionism, it was an international movement. Often American
feminists travelled abroad to find allies, prefiguring the later transatlantic movement
of other advocates for social justice like Florence Kelley and W.E.B DuBois.
Secondly, for the most part, like other reform movements, the women’s movement was primarily
a middle-class or even upper class effort. Most of the delegates at Seneca Falls, for
instance, were from the middle class. There were no representatives of, like, cotton mills,
but this didn’t mean that 19th century feminists didn’t acknowledge the needs of working
women. Like, Sojourner Truth, probably the most famous
black woman abolitionist, spoke eloquently of the plight of working class women, especially
slaves, since she’d been one until 1827. And other women recognized that women needed
to be able to participate in the market economy to gain some economic freedom.
Now, of course all the women who wrote about the moral evils of 19th century America or
spoke out or took hatchets to saloons were doing what we would now recognize as work.
But they were not being paid. Amelia Bloomer got paid, though, because she
recognized that it was impossible for women to easily participate in economic activities
because of their crazy clothes. So she popularized a new kind of clothing
featuring a loose fitting tunic, trousers, and eponymous undergarments.
But then Bloomer and her pants were ridiculed in the press and in the streets, and this
brings up the third important thing to remember about the 19th century women’s movement.
It faced strong resistance. Patriarchy, like the force, is strong, which
is why Luke and Yoda and Darth Vader and Obi-Wan and whoever Samuel Jackson played…all dudes.
By the way, why did they train Luke up and not Princess Leia who was cooler and had more
to fight for and was less screwed up? Patriarchy. Many women’s rights advocates were fighting
to overturn not just laws, but also attitudes. Some of those goals, such as claiming greater
control over the right to regulate their own sexual activity and whether or not to have
children were twisted by critics to claim that women advocated “free love.”
It’s interesting to note that the United States ended slavery more than 50 years before
it granted women the right to vote and that although much of the march towards equality
between the sexes has been slow and steady, the Equal Rights Amendment, despite being
passed by Congress, was never ratified. But by taking leading roles in the reform
movements in the 19th century, not just when it came to temperance and slavery, but also
prisons and asylums, women were able to enter the public sphere for the first time.
And these great women changed the world for better and for worse, just as great men do.
And along the way, they made “the woman question” part of the movement for social
reform in the United States. And in doing so, American women chipped away at the idea
that a woman’s place must be in the home. That might not have been a presidential election
or a war, but it is still bringing real change to our real lives on a daily basis. Thanks
for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer, and myself. And our graphics
team is Thought Café. If you want to suggest captions for the libertage,
please do so in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will
be answered by our team of historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course and as we
say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome…oh, lights! Everything’s fine.
This post was previously published on YouTube.
Photo credit: Screenshot from video