History, History Column

We’ve Come a Long Way Ladies

by ©2023 Sarah Becker

March is not only Women’s History Month: March 21 is also World Poetry Day. According to Fireside poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is “a universal poet—of women and young people.” Whitman’s poetry is “situated between” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalism and Realism.

“Where in Washington is the house in which Walt Whitman—printer’s devil, compositor, carpenter, country school teacher, editorial writer, publisher, tramp, hospital orderly, Federal employee, and immortal poet—resided?” The Washington Post asked. “In 1863 he disclosed he was paying $7 a month for a ‘bright little third-story front room’ at 1407 L Street NW.”

Whitman, born a Quaker worked as a Civil War hospital volunteer in both Washington and Alexandria.  Cherry syrup, horehound candy, and money were among his favorite bedside offerings.

“You just maturing youth! You male or female!” Walt Whitman wrote in Chants Democratic 6. “Remember the organic compact of These States,/ Remember the pledge of the Old Thirteen thenceforward to the rights, life, liberty, equality of man,/ Remember what was promulged by the founders, ratified by The States, signed in black and white by the Commissioners,…

Anticipate when the thirty or fifty millions, are to become the hundred, or two hundred millions, of equal freemen and freewomen, amicably joined….”

Hening’s Collection of the Laws of Virginia refers to femes covert, “orphans, femes covert (married women) and persons of unsound mind,” beginning in 1657-1658. In 1789, President George Washington’s inaugural year First Lady Martha Custis Washington was a feme covert; the property of her husband, without rights unable to vote or hold elective office.

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law,” British jurist Sir William Blackstone said in 1765, “that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.”

“[M]arital unity’s…religious origins were in the one-flesh doctrine of Christianity,” author Norma Basch confirmed.

In 1832 bridegroom, newspaper editor and social reformer Robert Dale Owen, of Scotland and Indiana took issue with jurist Blackstone’s “feudal, barbaric” law. His counter: to write “a bold” marriage contract “with the Justice of the Peace…as witness.” The Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) solidified the position of evangelicals in American religious life and Owen opposed evangelical Christianity.

April 12, 1832: “This afternoon I enter into a matrimonial engagement,” Owen wrote. “Of the unjust rights which in virtue of this ceremony an iniquitous law tacitly gives me over the person and property of another, I cannot legally, but I can morally divest myself.  And I hereby distinctly and emphatically declare that I consider myself…utterly divested, now and during the rest of my life, of any such rights….”

It was U.S. Representative Robert Dale Owen (D-IN) who introduced the bill that created the Smithsonian Institution. Owen favored public and industrial education, women’s property rights and liberal divorce laws. He also supported emancipation and the 1865 Freedmen’s Bureau.

In 1850 Owen served as a member of Indiana’s State Constitutional Convention. Women’s gains were many. Advocates included “pioneer Indiana poet laureate” Sarah T. Bolton, Mrs. Nathaniel Bolton. “By dint of perseverance through many obstacles, you have so efficiently contributed to the good cause of property rights of your sex,” Owen documented.

Wrote Bolton in 1850: “Voyager upon life’s sea,/ To yourself be true,/ And whate’er your lot may be,/ Paddle your own canoe./ Never, though the winds may rave,/ Falter nor look back./ But upon the darkest wave/ Leave a shining track…

Nothing great is lightly won;/ Nothing won is lost;/ Every good deed nobly done,/ Will repay the cost./ Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,/ All you will do:/ But if you succeed, you must/ Paddle Your Own Canoe.”

“(Women) are not one jot less than I am,” Whitman affirmed in A Woman Waits for Me. “…They know how to swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike,/ retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves./ They are ultimate in their own right….”

Blackstone’s Law of Coverture remained in effect until the 1970s. “The work experience of women is considerably influenced by their household duties and the presence of children,” the U.S. Census Bureau wrote in 1972. The same year the U.S. Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment, 84 to 8, and sent it to the states for ratification. Still the Equal Rights Amendment struggles—in the Courts and in Congress.

“…Anticipate your own life—retract with mercilous power,/ Shirk nothing—retract in time-,” Whitman suggested in Chants Democratic 6. “Do you see those errors, diseases, weaknesses, lies, thefts? Do you see that lost character?”….

If the U.S. Senate, Congress can pass the 2022 Respect for Marriage Act a.k.a. the marriage equality bill; provide statutory authority for same-sex (Obergefell, 2015) and interracial marriages (Loving v. Virginia, 1967) then it can pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). According to the September 2021 Census Report the U.S. has 1.2 million same-sex-couple households, 59% of which are same-sex married-couple households. Not surprisingly female same-sex married-couple households had a higher poverty rate than either opposite-sex or male same-sex married-couple households.

“Women sit or move to and fro, some old, some young,” Whitman’s Beautiful Women said. “The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young.” Beauty: “a quality that pleases or delights the senses or the mind.”

History is rife with stories of female activists: from Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Lucretia Mott to Alice Paul; from Susan B. Anthony to Victoria Woodhull to Hillary Clinton; from Frances Wright to Alexandria’s Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas (OTC Colored Rosemont, Pt. I, Jan 2020; OTC Colored Rosemont, Pt. 2, Jun 2020; OTC Virginia Fitzhugh Wheat Thomas and Colored Rosemont, Mar 2022).

Frances “Fanny” Wright, the Marquis de Lafayette’s Scottish traveling companion responded well to America especially her introductions to former Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Like the Marquis, Wright abhorred slavery. Unlike Lafayette, she promoted “A Plan for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in the United States without Danger or Loss to the Citizens of the South.” Quaker and abolitionist Benjamin Lundy published her Plan in the Genius of Universal Emancipation and Baltimore Courier in 1825.

Wright’s goal: “To purchase…land, within the good south cotton-producing areas,…To place on this land from 50-100 negroes, and introduce a system of cooperative labor, promising them liberty…, along with liberty and education (including) a school of industry…The length of service approximately five years.”

“Could (enslaved) people be supplied to the (the utopian Nashoba, TN) establishment by the friends to abolition,” Frances Wright asked Dolley Madison in 1825. “The expenses would be brought within the reach of my own means. The deep interest I have long felt in the prosperity & honor of America has found an additional stimulus…in the suffering without hope of the unhappy race first doomed to bondage…”

“The magnitude of this evil (slavery)…is so deeply felt, and so universally acknowledged, that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it,” Montpelier’s James Madison replied. “The remedy for the evil which you have planned is certainly recommended…1. It requires voluntary concurrence of holders of the slaves with or without pecuniary compensation: 2. It contemplates the removal of those emancipated either to a foreign or distant region.” Madison favored colonization, the American Colonization Society (1817-1964).

“I am eternally equal with the best—I am not subordinate,” Whitman wrote in Me Imperturbe. “Me toward the Mexican Sea, or in the Mannahatta,/ or the Tennessee, or far north, or inland,…O, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced…” In favor of equality: woman’s equality especially.

“The current resolution (the 117th Congress’ S.J.Res.1) has more than 50 bipartisan cosponsors,” U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) explained. “The required 38 states have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. The House has passed legislation eliminating the deadline for ratification. Now it is up to the (118th) Senate to remove any obstacles to certifying the ERA as the 28ᵗʰ amendment.”

The ball, it seems, is in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s “court.” More than half of Alexandria’s population is female, 51.6%.  Yet unlike the men the city’s women, American women everywhere remain constitutionally unequal. Maybe the fact that February’s Super Bowl LVII relied on an all-female Navy flight crew to navigate the national anthem’s four aircraft formation flyover will awaken reluctant politicians to need.

Columnist’s Reply: It seems gun violence remains on the minds of many. The total number of U.S. gun related deaths from January 1-February 16, 2023, was 5,445; the number of mass shootings 72. On  January 24 U.S. Senators Mark Warner [D-VA] and Tim Kaine [D-VA] announced that they have teamed with Senators Dianne Feinstein [D-CA], Richard Blumenthal [D-CT], Chris Murphy [D-CT] and 32 Democratic colleagues to reintroduce gun control legislation, The Assault Weapons Ban of 2023. “While this legislation will not prevent every senseless act of gun violence, it is a reasonable step that will take high-capacity weapons off the street,” the Senators said. See OTC, A Brief History of Guns, Politics and the NRA, Sept. 2022.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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