The First War Against Women

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It is 1866. The Civil War has been fought and won, but has left the country in tatters. 600,000 men are dead. President Lincoln has been assassinated and his successor Andrew Johnson, is about to be impeached. The Southern states are in chaos, with little resources, leadership, or economic stability.

And the women of the country, those who held heart and home together during the trials of war, those who fought for the abolition of slavery, and those who rose to prominence during the war such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wanted the vote. They had crisscrossed the country at their own expense working on behalf of the African-Americans, and now, it is “their hour, the women’s hour.”

But the men who heaped praise on Anthony and Stanton publicly, who worked side-by-side with them on the cause of abolition, were not ready for women to vote. Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent minister and leader, told the world that it was “too soon” for women to vote, and that they should first concentrate on ensuring that former slaves are allowed to vote. And a Congressman publicly said that “women are more beautiful holding a baby than a ballot.” The newspapers derided the women’s call for suffrage, with alternating arguments that women are too gentile and too dim witted to be trusted with the vote.

The one area where women were equal to men was execution. Mary Surrat, who owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin stayed was hanged for her role in the crime despite evidence that she had no knowledge of Booth’s plan. Representative John Bingham said women should hang just as men and should be denied “exclusive privileges” on the basis of their sex. Edmund Spangler who misdirected the authorities when they were searching for Booth after the assassination was spared.

Despite these prevailing attitudes towards women, a band of sisters pressed on for the vote, changing hearts and minds along the way. Although their trailblazing path was wrought with internal skirmishes, they risked everything for future generations.

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