The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Essay: Building the Woman's Rights Movement, 1853-1856

In her first year's work organizing women into reform, Susan B. Anthony (SBA) reached the conclusion that "there was no true freedom for woman without the possession of all her property rights." A private epiphany at first, this insight about women's need for equal rights inspired her to launch the first systematic work in New York to change the laws for the "Just and Equal Rights of Women." From November 1853 to late 1856, SBA and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (ECS) directed their travel and writing to the ends of teaching about the state's laws and urging men and women to petition their legislators for change. In the words ECS addressed to the men in the legislature, "We ask no better laws than those you have made for yourselves."
This chapter opens with plans for a statewide woman's rights meeting in November 1853, and the documents then follow the story through an intense campaign into New York's counties to generate interest and political pressure. ECS was called into service to write an address to the legislature that pinpointed specific laws in need of change and illustrated how the offending laws affected the lives of women. This address was soon published as a pamphlet, and with its careful attention to injustices that affected women whether single, married, or widowed, it supplied a basic text for woman's rights organizing until the Civil War.
Ever since the first woman's rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, the idea that women possessed the same rights as men had spread through the northern states. Modest political efforts were made to change state laws. A petition campaign in New York for the right to vote preceded an appeal to the legislature in January 1851. Women in Ohio mobilized the largest of these early campaigns to amend their state constitution in 1850 and 1851. Then, in the fall of 1850, the First National Woman's Rights Convention gathered activists together at Worcester, Massachusetts, to set agendas for all the states. What set Susan B. Anthony's plans apart from earlier efforts at legislative lobbying was their comprehensiveness. Working county by county, the proponents of woman's rights sent out speakers, pamphlets, and petitions to educate the public. They made sure that petitions bearing numerous signatures from towns across the state reached the legislators at Albany. At the state capital they pressed for hearings, to allow their best speakers to tell legislators directly what laws about property, guardianship of children, rights of widows, and voting rights should be changed. New York's woman's rights campaigns in 1854 and 1855 set a new standard for women's political activity.
Although agitation for woman's rights continued until the start of the Civil War, it could not sustain SBA after 1855. She had tried to live and travel on the small sums collected at meetings, and she could not resume the work until 1858 and 1859, when the woman's rights movement received its first major donations to finance the work. That story is taken up in the chapter "Combining Movements, 1859-1861."