Women’s Rights — Today and Yesterday as Seen through the Press

By Robert L. Harrison

Elizabeth Thacher Kent (second from left) and other Suffragettes, picketing in Washington, D.C., 1917. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Women have suffered unequal treatment from time immemorial. Under masculine dominated law they were, and in too many societies are still controlled by their husband or male relatives. In America it took 145 years for women to win the right to vote and after almost 100 years the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has not been passed. A look back at the press treatment of women in 19th century Marin offers a fascinating reminder of the arguments against the ERA and the local views toward women 150 years ago.

April 6, 1921 photograph of members of the New National Woman’s Party speaking with President Harding on the White House lawn. Image from Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

It seems like a simple question with an obvious answer: Should women and men be equal under the law of the United States? How could there be any doubt with the answer? But since 1923 when suffragist Alice Paul offered the Mott Amendment, a proposed addition to the constitution named after Lucretia Mott, a founding mother of the suffrage movement, there has been no legal affirmation of this seemingly simple question. Paul’s proposed wording for the amendment: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” The wording was filed in every session of congress from 1923 and 1943 but never passed.

Call for membership to the National Woman’s Party from a flyer advocating for passage of the Lucretia Mott Amendment, 1923. Elizabeth T. Kent Collection, Anne T. Kent California Room.

A wave of feminism in 1972 persuaded Congress to adopt a new wording for the ERA by margins of over 90% in both the House and Senate. The ERA that passed read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment needed ratification by 38 of 50 states to be added to the Constitution. In its first year it was quickly certified by 28 states.

Button from the 1970s advocating for women’s equal rights. Edna Mae Phelps Political Collection, Oklahoma State University Library Archives.

The pace of approval soon slowed as the Phyllis Schlafly’s “(STOP ERA) Stop Taking Our Privileges Equal Rights Amendment)” movement gained momentum. Schafly gained national attention as a champion of traditional, stay-at-home roles for women, taking care of the children and home, and support of the man who worked outside the home. This life style was a feature of many 19th century newspaper articles.

The Marin County Journal on April 13, 1861 quoted Stephen Emery, a distinguished lawyer and Judge of the Supreme Court in Maine describing a wife in this manner:

“She is of medium height, possessing a fine form and figure, with auburn hair, a clear fair complexion, expressive eyes, and a voice at once mild, musical and sweet….the best qualities of the female character are ever sure to command.”

In the March 30th issue the Journal presented a poem written by a father explaining the advantages of his daughter as a wife:

“The Girl With The Calico Dress….

She is plump as a partridge, and fair

As a rose in its earliest bloom;….

Her teeth will with ivory compare,

And her breath with the clover perfume;….

If you want a companion for life,

To comfort, enliven and bless,

She is just the right sort for a wife –

My girl with the Calico dress.”

Schlafly argued the ERA would take away what she named as women’s privileges made available by the traditional life style including: “Dependent wife” benefits under Social Security; separate restrooms for men and women; and exemption from the military draft. Her crusade used symbols and props from of the old-style way of life. When lobbying against the ERA the campaign workers handed out homemade cookies, jams and apple pies to legislators. Pink most often associated with sweetness, femininity, chastity and innocence was adopted as their official color.

As the Schafly movement gained strength States began to back away from the ERA. By 1982 when the deadline for passage of the ERA arrived, 15 states had rejected it and Nebraska, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky and South Dakota all voted to rescind their prior support. The STOP ERA movement in support of the traditional male slanted life style had prevailed.

In 1861 the Marin Journal’s early editions offered several pieces that showed no respect for the dignity of women. Offensive attempts at jokes were common: “When is a young lady like a poacher? When she has her hair in a net”; “Lazy girls make rich men poor — industrious poor girls make poor men rich. Mind that girls.” and “Now, Papa, tell me what is humbug. It is when mamma pretends to be very fond of me, and puts no buttons on my shirt until reminded of it a dozen times.”

Disrespectful philosophical pieces were used as fillers: “A woman seldom rises above or falls below the position her husband gives her — or, rather, the circumstances surrounding gives her.” and “A writer in Blackwood says that every man who is not a monster, a mathematician, or a mad philosopher, is a slave to some woman.”

Perhaps the most demeaning of all the Journal’s early 1861 references to women was a birth notice that made no reference by name to the mother herself. The paper’s March 30th issue presented this birth notice: “BIRTHS. On the 20th of March, the wife of C. F. Van Holland, a son.”

To this day it remains unclear whether the ERA will ever become law but attitudes do change over time. It would seem those 19th century views of women’s rights that continued to prevail in 1982 and prevented its passage no longer carry much if any weight and this simple decades-long question can finally be answered affirmatively: Should women and men be equal under the law?

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Anne T. Kent California Room

Anne T. Kent California Room

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