By BERNICE TELL
Rosemary Fry Plakas, American history specialist in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, presented a sampler of materials on women's history from the Library's rare book collections on March 21 and again on March 30 in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Room.
Her presentation, "Celebrating the Struggle for Women's Rights," was part of the Women's History Month observance at the Library.
Three years before she died in 1906, Susan B. Anthony gave the Library her 300-volume personal library. Nearly every volume contains an inscription in Anthony's hand explaining the book's importance to her. For example, in her copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 cornerstone treatise, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Anthony notes her admiration for this "first step toward progress" in recognizing women's right to political, economic, and social equality. "Aunt Susan," as Anthony was called by her followers, devoted her life to the cause of equal rights and independence for women. She believed that securing the right to vote was essential to women's ability to protect their rights to equal treatment with men in all other areas.
Although Anthony and her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined in leading the women's crusade for more than 50 years, it was Stanton's efforts that led to the first organized convention proclaiming the rights of women in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in the summer of 1848. A pamphlet from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection documents the declarations and resolutions adopted at this landmark convention. They called for legal equality and enfranchisement of women and set in motion a movement that would achieve national significance.
Within a few years, Seneca Falls became the seat of another reform associated with woman suffrage -- that of dress reform. Ms. Plakas showed illustrations from the collections that contrast the physical confinement of the contemporary fashion with the freedom of the reform costume. Elizabeth Smith Miller found it a nuisance to move in the billowing awkward skirts and constraining whale-bone corset considered "proper" attire for a lady and was further concerned about the impact on her health and safety. So she designed and wore an outfit consisting of wide pantaloons gathered at the ankle or tucked into boots and topped by a loose-fitting, knee-length tunic.
In the spring of 1851 she wore her creation to visit her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls, and soon Stanton and the local postmistress, Amelia Bloomer, adopted the style. When Bloomer described Miller's outfit and praised its practicality in her temperance journal, The Lily, bolder women throughout the country began wearing the emancipating attire, publicized in a broadside song as the "Bloomer Costume."
Although Anthony and Stanton had been ardent abolitionists even before they were suffragists, they strongly opposed the post-Civil War movement to give the vote to black men without also extending it to women of all races. In an effort to rouse supporters throughout the country from their postwar apathy, Anthony and Stanton began publishing The Revolution in 1868. Promoting "principle, not policy; justice, not favors," this paper, in "radical and defiant tone, awoke friends and foes alike" and called for universal suffrage.
In the 1872 presidential election, Anthony was one of 14 women who registered and voted, claiming the right to vote was a privilege secured to them as citizens by the 14th Amendment. Ms. Plakas displayed Anthony's annotated copy of An Account of the Proceedings on the Trial of Susan B. Anthony (1874), noting that the judge discharged the jury, ruled that suffrage was not a federal right and fined Anthony $100. Finally allowed to speak, Anthony vowed never to pay a penny of the unjust penalty and urged all women to continue to rebel against "man-made, unjust, unconstitutional forms of law, that tax, fine, imprison and hang women, while they deny them the right of representation."
As a new century approached and a new generation of suffrage leaders took up the cause, efforts were made to embrace a wider constituency. In a speech delivered before the 50th anniversary suffrage convention in 1898, Mary Church Terrell, founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, called for the end of racial injustice and gender bias in education and employment, as well as enfranchisement. Her speech, "The Progress of Colored Women," along with many other pamphlets that document the accomplishments of black women during the 40 years after emancipation, are available in the Daniel Murray Pamphlet Collection at the Library.
In that same year, Charlotte Perkins Stetson Gilman, a niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, published her most important work, Women and Economics, in which she argued that the economic independence of women is essential to the progress of civilization. This need for control over one's life is echoed in the work of Margaret Sanger, who fought to bring birth control and family planning information to poor, working-class women. Ms. Plakas displayed a copy of Family Limitation, the simple instructions for controlling reproduction that Sanger began distributing through the mails in 1914.
Ms. Plakas displayed scrapbooks filled with letters, photographs, newspaper articles and cartoons that were assembled by early feminists. She also showed a number of broadsides promoting a variety of suffrage issues and announcing political programs and processions. Ms. Plakas stressed that although these ephemeral materials were not designed to last for generations, their collection and conservation is important because of the intimate and often unique insights they offer about women whose struggles have benefited all.
She noted that the length of the struggle for woman suffrage is poignantly demonstrated by the fact that only one of the women who attended the 1848 meeting in Seneca Falls lived to vote in a national election after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 -- she was in her '90s.