7 Moments In American Women's Rights History

by JR Thorpe

Today marks the anniversary of a key moment in the history of American women's rights: on July 19,1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention in history, convened. Luminaries like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gave speeches and drafted the now-famous Declaration Of Sentiments And Resolutions, which addressed the state of women's rights in America and what they thought should be done about it. But the history of rights for American women has many major moments, some of which are less well-known than others.

The fight for women's rights in America has been long, brutal and occasionally very difficult to track; it was plagued by problems both external (like resistance from the government and average Americans) and internal (like the exclusion of women of color from suffrage and women's equality movements). But there are also moments of inspiration and, frankly, hilarity; the Seneca Falls Convention, for instance, nearly didn't happen because somebody had forgotten to get the key to the venue, and Cady Stanton's tiny nephew had to be hoisted in through a window to let the activists in from the inside. It's all a remind that history is, at root, a very human thing.

Here are seven moments in the history of women's rights in the US that you should know about — from America's first pregnant mayor to the time when Susan B. Anthony refused point-blank to pay a fine for voting.

1756: Lydia Taft Becomes First Woman To Vote In Colonial America

The first female voter in America unfortunately only got to make history because she had suffered through so much tragedy. Lydia Chaplin Taft was the wife of Josiah Taft, a prominent landowner in the town of Uxbridge, Massachusetts, who worked as a legislator and was one of the settlement's most powerful citizens. Unfortunately, Josiah died suddenly in 1756, several months after his and Lydia's eldest son, Caleb, also passed away while studying at Harvard. In the absence of any male of voting age to represent Josiah's interests, it was decided that Lydia herself would "stand in" for Josiah at a crucial vote for the town council at the end of the year, an honor only ever previously accorded to free male property owners. It wasn't even a one-off occurrence; Taft herself voted in council matters three times, in 1756, 1758, and 1765.

1851: Sojourner Truth Gives Her Famous "Ain't I A Woman?" Speech

One of the most extraordinary things about Sojourner Truth's famous speech was that it was delivered entirely extemporaneously, and could have been completely lost to history had the abolitionist Marius Robinson not been taking notes. Truth, an emancipated slave and abolitionist activist, delivered her speech at the Ohio Women's Convention — an intensely powerful and short rumination on the equality of the sexes and slavery, including the famous edict that "if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart — why can't she have her little pint full?"

However, historians note that the phrase "ain't I a woman" wasn't actually present in early published versions of the speech — it seems to have been added in a later recollection of the speech, published by Frances Dana Barker Gage.

1869: Wyoming Gives Women The Vote

The first state legislation to give women the vote wasn't exactly motivated by noble ideas about equality; the story of how women in Wyoming got the right to vote is actually a story about voting blocks, racial prejudice, and attracting young women to the state in hopes that they would wed its lonely male citizens (the territory's population included six adult men for every one woman).

Wyoming passed the law giving women the right to vote in December 1869, but it wasn't quite an empowering episode in American history: the Democrats who supported the bill had a number of straight-up shameful reasons for pushing it, including "making a statement" about the fact that free men of color had been given the vote. They hoped it would encourage women to vote Democrat; they also hoped it might embarrass the state's Republican governor. So, not great motivations, despite the history-making outcome (though at later dates, William Bright, the legislator who drafted the bill, claimed it was motivated just by belief in the equality of women).

1873: Susan B. Anthony Is Arrested For Trying To Vote

Susan B. Anthony's legal challenge was an attempt to force the issue of votes for women; had it worked out, it could have been a turning point in the pursuit of universal suffrage for American women. As it was, the failed court case was still pretty brilliant. Anthony had been arrested for attempting to vote in an election — she was charged with attempting vote "fraudulently" in an election with 13 other women, and pushed the case to trial, which unfortunately was farcical; as a female, Anthony wasn't allowed to be a witness, and could not testify in her own defense. Her lawyers argued that the Constitution allowed for all citizens to vote, regardless of gender. The jury found her guilty and told her to pay $100, which Anthony refused to do, declaring that she would not "pay a dollar of your unjust penalty." And she never did.

1887: The First Female Politician In The USA Is Elected While Pregnant

Representation matters — and as the US moves towards the increasinglikelihood of its first female President, it's important to look back at where it all began. The first female elected to public office in the US was Susanna Salter, who was essentially part of a family "dynasty" of elected officials in the town of Argonia, Kansas. Her father was the town's first mayor in 1885, her husband followed suit in 1886, and it was Susanna's turn in 1887 (she'd been nominated as a joke, but won two-thirds of the vote). Somewhat amazingly, Salter was actually pregnant while she was mayor; she gave birth to a child during her term, who unfortunately later passed away.

1894: Carrie Holly Introduces The First Bill By A Woman

Carrie Holly was among the first three women elected to a state legislature in the US; she was elected to the Colorado General Assembly. Her major contribution to political life was a bill which marked the first time a woman had introduced a law in the United States. It was, appropriately enough, about women's rights; Holly sought to raise the age of consent from 16 to 18 in Colorado, and sponsored a bill to enshrine it in law, nicknamed "Holly's Law". When it passed, the National American Women's Suffrage association apparently sent her a telegram to celebrate. (The women didn't just concern themselves with issues of women's rights, however; one of Holly's counterparts, Clara Cressingham, introduced a groundbreaking bill about the state's production of sugar beets.)

1896: The National Association Of Colored Women Is Formed

An important thing to remember about the fight for women's rights in America is that it was, for much of the time, focused pretty exclusively on the rights of white, educated women; women of color were either explicitly or implicitly not welcomed. That atmosphere is why the formation of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 is so important. It had an incredibly excellent pedigree; its founders included Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell. One of the founders, activist and first NACW vice-president Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, declared, "Too long have we been silent under unjust and unholy charges; we cannot expect to have them removed until we disprove them through ourselves." The NACW had a huge mandate, focusing on everything from de-segregating transport to forming a college scholarship fund for young black women. By 1916, there were over 300 NACW clubs nationwide, with a membership of over 100,000 people.

Images: Smithsonian, Library of Congress, Kansas Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons