“… the law which alienates the wife’s right to the control of her own property, her own earnings, lies at the foundation of all her social and legal wrongs…
“O men! in the enjoyment of well-secured property rights, you beautify your snug homesteads, and say within your hearts, ‘Here I may sit under my own vine and fig-tree; here have I made the home of my old age.’ And it never occurs to you that no such blissful feeling of security finds rest in the bosom of your wives.
“When I listen to the Fourth of July orations and the loud cannon tributes to men who won freedom for themselves…I labor in hope that men will honor themselves by releasing …the inalienable rights of women.”
The above is from a speech delivered by Clarina Howard Nichols, called “the forgotten feminist” at the Second National Woman’s Rights Convention Worcester, Massachusetts in 1851.
Nichols was an abolitionist, an anti-war activist, and a colleague of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She was also desperately poor, a single mother, never had a permanent address and never wrote any books. What we know of her life is found in her personal letters and papers.
Born to privilege, she married an abusive man when she was 20, from whom the Virginia Supreme Court eventually granted her a divorce for “untenable cruelty,” but this left her a single mother with three children to raise. She remarried, but her husband, publisher of a liberal newspaper, quickly became ill, could not work, and soon died. For the next 11 years, along with caring for her now-four children, she wrote editorials for the paper, having taken over her husband’s duties, urging new laws that would give women equal political, legal and social rights with men.
Over her lifetime, Nichols was part of the Underground Railroad and helped slaves escaping from Missouri to Kansas, wrote for and helped edit a radical abolitionist paper called the Chindowan, and with her daughter, ran a racially integrated school in Quindaro, Kansas. Her sons fought alongside abolitionist John Brown at the Battle of Black Jack in 1856. In her speeches she urged women not to support their husbands in the making of war, saying:
“I would not follow [a husband] there; I would hold him back by his coat-skirts, and say, ‘… this is wrong. What will you gain by war? It will cost as much money to fight for a bag of gold, or a lot of land, as it will to pay the difference; and if you fight, our harvests are wasted, our hearths made desolate, our homes filled with sorrow, and vice and immorality roll back upon us from the fields of human slaughter.'”
Nichols devoted herself to women’s rights, writing and speaking all over the country. As a result of her efforts, when Kansas entered the Union on January 29, 1861, it had approved these unprecedented reforms:
- The right for women to buy and sell property
- The right to equal custody of children in cases of divorce.
- The right to vote in local school elections.
Nichols also lobbied for full suffrage and the right to vote in all elections. Elizabeth Cady Stanton would say of Nichols that she was the first person “who made the idea of woman suffrage seem practicable.”
In her last letter to Susan B. Anthony, written four days before her death, Nichols said farewell to her old friend, urging her to continue fighting the good fight.
“God is with us,” she wrote. “There can be no failure.”
For feminists, love of home, family, country and its citizens means speaking the truth about its violence, oppression and injustice and devoting our lives to revolutionary change and the building of a new world. This is as true for feminists today as it was for our feminist foremothers.