Women’s history month (March) is a reminder of the struggles they have endured for equality and fair treatment. Unity is important in any movement, but in the North Country, women were often on opposing sides in the battle for equal rights. The region’s rural nature had much to do with that division, as did the population’s roots: mountain folk, farmers, and miners were primarily immigrants (many via Quebec) from European countries that were overwhelmingly Catholic or Protestant.
Resistance to change was organized by branding the opposition as silly and simultaneously ungodly. For more than a century in the United States, those promoting women’s rights were labeled Bluestockings, a term that has been used both in a complimentary and a pejorative sense.
Its origins are nebulous, but it’s known that in the 1700s, Bluestockings in England were educated women unwilling to settle for being simply an adornment on a man’s arm. They learned languages, engaged in political discussions, and sought to better themselves by gaining certain rights previously enjoyed only by the privileged in society: men.
In time, the word’s meaning changed, and in the 1800s, speakers who urged females, including North Country women, to demand suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and other rights were branded as Bluestockings. Rather than a compliment, the label was intended as sarcastic criticism.
In the 1850s, the push was on to end taxation without representation by women landowners who paid taxes but were denied the right to vote. For the next several decades, women fought for their rights, resulting in strong push-back by the powers that be (or were): again, men. (Some of the attitudes prevalent more than 150 years ago persist today.) While union organizers were generally supportive back then, the power of the media was evident in articles and editorials that criticized, ridiculed, poked fun at, or dismissed the fight for equality. Those writings were among the few sources of information and opinion reaching people in rural settings like the Adirondacks and foothills.
The Whiggish Troy Weekly Times said in 1856: “When Woman steps from her chosen, consecrated spot beside the family hearthstone… and ascends the public rostrum, we do say that she perpetrates a wrong… because it subjects woman to odium [hatred], and lowers her in the esteem of man, her natural guardian, friend, and protector.” In other words, men won’t like how it looks when women speak up, so they shouldn’t.
That same year, the Times ran a commentary (written by a woman!) on the prospects of suffrage: “What a grand comedy it would be if women get the vote! How spiteful they would get!… If ever that [Women’s Rights] faction prevails in this land… I intend to try to persuade my husband to go to some other country — where the men are men, and the women are true to their finer and better natures.”
In 1857, when a Saratoga representative proposed a bill in Albany, the Troy Times wrote: “The ‘Blue Stocking’ Amazons have again commenced their fire for Women’s Rights.” The reporter added that “a Judicial Committee examined the matter and found that women have the best food bits at a table, the warmest place in winter, the coolest place in summer, their choice of which side of the bed to sleep on, and a woman’s dress cost three times as much as a man’s clothes.” Their conclusion? If anything, women were treated better than men. As happened year after year, their pleas for equality were dismissed.
In 1858, a Troy Times editorial stated, “Men and women are not equal. There is no use talking of it.” The argument? Courts were routinely deferential to most female criminals, even those convicted of the same crime as a man, which was true. “We say, therefore, in view of these facts, that men and women are not equal, and that the Courts recognize the inferiority of that portion of the race which wears petticoats.”
In 1858, the Ogdensburg Journal posted a humorous look at the dangers of marrying a woman who speaks up for herself, ponders politics and business, and seeks equality. Included was the following: “Take my advice and live a bachelor. Women are good in their place, but Oh! ye gods forbid that I should ever be united to that worst of encumbrances, a Blue Stocking.”
In 1860, the Cape Vincent Gazette offered advice to young men seeking a wife. “If you marry a ‘Blue Stocking,’ you will go with holes in your own.” A woman involved in issues outside the home, you see, would make a poor housewife. Many such negative/humorous articles appeared in regional newspapers, earning smiles but effectively cautioning women about the downside of speaking out: men would shun them in favor of traditional wife material.
But there were also those who stood strong for advancing the cause. At a debate-club event in Plattsburgh in 1872, the pro-women stance held that the right to vote was critical “for securing her other rights.” And that was just the beginning of a very progressive agenda. Women, the speaker continued, should be able to live and acquire wealth “by any and every method that is honorable to man… all avenues to honor and fame should be as free to her as to man; let her be a doctor, a lawyer, a preacher, a merchant, a judge, or anything else that she is fitted for and chooses to be. Let woman freely enjoy all privileges for the highest education…. She should not be kept in a position that forces her to look upon marriage as the great necessity of her life.” How slow was progress on those fronts? A full century later, many of those same sentiments were voiced during the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s.
That debate in 1872 addressed the realities of life as well. Women did not receive equal pay for equal work. A wife, it was noted, “has no equal title with her husband to property accumulated during their married life. He is left free to devote himself entirely to his business, and she is deprived of the equal chance to make money. When he dies, she has no title to any of his property.” In divorce, men again held the upper hand, generally deciding the fate of the children.
During the long, drawn-out struggle for equality, seemingly sudden progress was achieved at times through the unfortunate circumstances of war, when females proved that their capabilities extended far beyond the status quo established by a male-dominated society. Unshackled and uninhibited, they were the answer to a nation in need during the Civil War, World War I, and World War II, when women took command of food, clothing, and armament production by assuming jobs normally performed by men. And when those wars ended, men unfailingly sought to drive women back into the home to resume life as dutiful housewives. Many did so, but those fighting for equality persevered in the face of innumerable setbacks, continuing to chip away at unfair manifestations of the glass ceiling.
The basis for much of their success over time has been education. One of the keys to power is controlling information: the less people know, the easier it is to manipulate them. Suppressing women’s access to higher education thus helped maintain control over them, which is why the women’s movement owes a huge debt of gratitude to people like Emma Willard, who two centuries ago recognized the importance of providing instruction for girls beyond the level of one-room schoolhouses.
Attempts by the media to dismiss her as just another Bluestocking failed in the face of her intelligence and persistence. Today’s Emma Willard School (founded in Troy, New York, in 1821 as the Troy Female Seminary, the first institute for women’s higher education in America), is a physical manifestation of her efforts. But Willard’s great influence on the progress of women is beyond measure. In 1819, her paper titled, “An Address to the Public: Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education” was sent to New York’s legislators (she couldn’t deliver it as a lecture because women were not yet allowed to speak in public). Copies were sent to many others, including influential statesmen like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe.
That very paper is held in high esteem by the National Women’s History Museum, which places it in historical context: “Emma Willard’s 1819 work on behalf of female education remains one of the founding documents of American women’s history.”
The museum also cites Willard’s own inspirational words that remain relevant today to women as independent individuals: “we too are primary existences… the companions, not the satellites of men…. Education should seek to bring its subject to the perfection of their moral, intellectual, and physical nature… [for] the greatest possible happiness of which they are capable, both as to what they enjoy and what they communicate.”
As we continue looking towards a brighter future for women, it’s important to remember the roots of progress established by pioneer Bluestockings like Emma Willard, a Connecticut native whose name remains legend in Northern New York and in women’s fight for equality — and rightfully so.
Photos: Emma Willard (National Women’s History Museum); Emma Willard Seminary (circa 1905, Detroit Publishing Company); Emma Willard statue at Troy (circa 1905, Detroit Publishing Company)