First off, I lied to you about getting a blog out by Monday. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Now, let’s get to the meat of this essay. The last time I posted, I wrote about how 19th-century women were perceived as purer and more moral than men. This led to at least two possibilities for their participation in the machinery of the political arena, considered to be a rough-and-tumble man’s world. First, women could be welcomed, cautiously, into politics and political action, a stance generally held by Republicans of the era. Second, they could be excluded from political activities, a position generally taken by Democrats, who were fearful that politics would sully a woman’s purity and/or challenge men’s patriarchal authority.
My character Maggie’s is modeled after 19th-century women who took their religious beliefs about loving all people, righting injustice, and practicing mercy out of their homes and into the broader culture. I love that about her.
A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a good friend of mine, a pastor with whom I had served as Christian educator. For three years, we did all manner of crazy things, including writing our own Vacation Bible School programs. While we were eating, I gave her a copy of A Good Community. She happily took it, telling me that she found Maggie to be an inspiration. Now, I am a fairly typical author, loaded with insecurities about my work, and learning how she feels about my character came as a heartening revelation.
But what is it about Maggie that is inspiring? For one thing, she has experienced tough times. She has lost homes, witnessed the death of loved ones, and even seen battle. But I think her most outstanding aspect is her big heart. In “The Dundee Cake,” a short story set in 1852, Maggie has acquired four boarders for her rooming house, none of whom can afford much to pay for room and board. Although she worries about paying her bills, she refuses to toss them out. Foolish? Probably. But loving? Yes, definitely, and she continues this throughout the series’ stories.
Maggie also shares her boarding house with an African American couple, Emily and Nate Johnson. Emily initially works as Maggie’s cook, but she and her husband move in when a fire strikes the Johnson home. This, of course, raises eyebrows in town, as the couple are more than employees, they are friends.
Throughout the series and other stories, Maggie continues to welcome others into her home regardless of color. An early example are Matilda Strong and her young daughter, Chloe, self-emancipators who arrive through the Underground Railroad (Saint Maggie).
Even when focused on personal problems, Maggie continues to welcome others. In “The Christmas Eve Visitor” short story, an illness has struck the children of the household. The last thing Maggie needs is a Jewish peddler by the name of Ira Strauss show up at her door in the middle of a blizzard. But their initial conversation is classic Maggie, as she is able to see Ira’s needs despite her concerns:
The man smiled and said in accented English, “Good evening, Madam. Would you be needing any ribbons or cloth? Some pans or pots perhaps? Or a bit of lace maybe?”
Peering into the dark beyond him, Maggie could just make out the shape of a handcart. She exclaimed, “Good heavens, sir! Whatever are you doing out on a night like this?”
“Business is business.”
“And freezing is freezing! Please do come in and take supper with us. We have some good, hot chicken soup.”
Maggie doesn’t have much to share other than a fire, chicken soup, and bread, but she’s willing to provide them. Ira came to her in the middle of a storm and might very well freeze to death if she turns him away. So, stranger or not, she invites him in.
Other welcoming acts by Maggie include feeding Confederate soldiers and caring for wounded men from both sides while in Gettysburg (Walk by Faith), temporarily housing inmates and employees when a riot consumes the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane (Seeing the Elephant) and, when a fire consumes most of the houses on Water Street, taking in black families in need of shelter (A Good Community).
So, why does Maggie do it? Simple. It’s her faith. I could be glib and say that Jesus makes her do it. However, his command to love God and love others goes further than just warm, fuzzy feelings. It is how Maggie chooses to live her life and interact with those around her.
Rosa Hamilton sums it up well in A Good Community:
“My brother was killed during the battle in North Anna. I came looking for Maggie Smith because I had nowhere else to go. She didn’t care what color I was. She just cared that I was hurting because my brother had died. She was kind to me without any reservations and invited me into her home. Now I work at Greybeal School, where I’m a teacher.” She smiled. “I always wanted to be a teacher. Mrs. Smith and the Greybeal House school gave me the chance.”
Writing Maggie has taught me oceans about welcoming others. I find myself striving to be like her.
Next blog: Maggie the 19th Century Activist: Seeking Justice
I found this image at https://thebeetonideal.wordpress.com/2017/09/05/the-salience-of-the-home-19th-century-baptist-womens-domestic-role/, but I don't know its origin.
I haven’t written a blog in weeks. In fact, I haven’t written since December 2.
Long story short, December 2 marked the first week in Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. It is a time for serious reflection, but also a time for increased activity for those who serve on church staffs. For me that meant an extra service one Sunday, a luncheon hosted by the United Methodist Women at which I was the speaker, two separate campaigns to help those in need (one for coats and another for diapers), and the yearly intergenerational Christmas pageant and luncheon. If you notice that we seem to eat a lot at First United Methodist, you’re right. Food is usually involved whenever most Methodists get together. As our pastor likes to say, “food is love.” And we wonder why we have weight issues!
Anyway, I’m writing this blog perched on the edge of the weekend before Christmas and find that I have – crazy as it seems – a bit of breathing space.
So, here’s a little blog on women in 19th century politics. The information comes from Rebecca Edwards’ book, Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
Edwards makes note that the metaphor of machinery was used for electoral systems and parties. Machinery, of course, was the stuff industry was made of. Industry and all activities outside the home were seen as part of the world of men. And it was in the realm of politics and elections that men debated “faith and deeply held values.” The subjects of these debates and campaigns often “rested on opposing views of the family’s relationship to the state.” (Angels, 3)
The opposite of men’s world was “woman’s sphere,” which was defined as the home. Women were to care for children, keep the home a haven of peace, and be responsible for religious nurture. Women became known as “angels of the home.” (NOTE: while these attitudes seemed widespread, they were practiced mainly among middle- and -upper class homes. The working classes, the poor, and enslaved women had vastly different expectations and experiences.) If you’re interested in where the term “angel in the house” originated, please go to http://victorian-era.org/angel-house-coventry-patmore.html
But overall, American society saw women as being selfless and pure, and therefore unfit for politics, which was a rough, tumble, and dirty business. Edwards writes, “The question was, should men manage politics in the interest of women and families, or should women join the debates and exercise power themselves?” (Angels, 3) After all, if the basic building block of American society was the family, then it was “the government’s first duty to preserve proper relationships within the home.” (Angels, 5)
Meanwhile, many women were taking notice of social and economic inequalities in American culture: slavery, poverty, alcoholism, child abuse, prostitution, women’s rights, and more. Women’s groups, such as the Methodists’ Ladies’ Aid Societies and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, began taking steps to address these things.
Most of us today will agree that our current era is politically polarized. This isn’t a novel thing. The Civil War and the era preceding it had much the same effect, one that lasted into the late 1800s.
Edwards writes: “The war took 600,000 lives and mobilized soldiers and civilians on an unprecedented scale. It also entrenched in Washington a new party with domestic and evangelical purposes. Republicans styled themselves ‘the party of the home’; they celebrated women’s moral influence and praised men who recognized the Christian example set by mothers and wives….By no means all voters shared these values at the time; in fact, a majority probably opposed them. But by the end of the Civil War, Republicans had won a loyal following.” (Angels, 6) On the opposing side, “Democrats attacked this ideology as destructive to patriarchal authority, and its proponents as effete aristocrats.” (Angels, 6)
About now, you should be thinking, “Hmmm… this argument sounds oddly familiar.” And you’d be right. The same attitudes still exist today to varying degrees. The only difference is that the parties seem to have swapped positions. The fascinating story of how that change happened in the 1900s will need to be left for another day – or perhaps another blogger. Let’s stay in the 19th century for the time being.
Since Maggie lives during the Civil War, she is subject to her society’s beliefs about “woman’s sphere” and therefore has an interest in some of the reform movements of her era. Most notably, she is involved in the Underground Railroad, but also has concerns about alcohol abuse, poverty, and women’s rights.
In A Good Community, she, Emily, Rosa, and Abigail seek to address a problem regarding equal education. As a result, Maggie finds herself embroiled in the debate over just how much a woman should get involved in a socially and politically charged question. She is of one opinion. Josiah Norton, the town’s leading industrialist, is of another. And, of course, her husband Eli has his own viewpoint.
I’ll address their stances in my next blog. Since I’m going to write the piece later today, it will be up Monday evening, hence thwarting the possibility that I’ll get derailed by the whirlwind of pre-Christmas work at church. (I have since given up doing all the “traditional” rushing about in my personal life. One can only do so much, after all.)
Yes, you read that right. “Woman Suffrage” is correct usage. Well, for a nineteenth-century person. Today we usually say, “Women’s Suffrage.” Our 1800s forebears tended to lump all women under the term “Woman,” as if we were/are a separate species. But that’s the nineteenth century for you!
So let’s talk voting rights.
Women gained the right to vote in federal elections when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August of 1920. But the story is much more complex than women gaining the right to vote for congressional representative, senator, and president.
Since my character Maggie may be entering politics at a time when women could not vote in most states and territories, I thought I’d look into the situation to make sure I was correct – or, if not completely correct, then on “fudge-able” ground. (By which I mean my story might be unlikely but generally possible.)
So here’s a little of what I learned about women and the vote in the USA and in the state of New Jersey.
First of all, New Jersey’s Constitution of 1776 stated that white males, women, and free people of color had the right to vote, as long as they owned property. This, however, did eliminate married women from voting, since at that time they could not own property. The good news was that property-owning New Jersey women and people of color were able to vote for presidential electors in 1800.
But good things always come to an end. For New Jersey, the end came in 1807 when the state legislature restricted the right to vote to white, property-owning males, disenfranchising women and black New Jerseyans. The document, Acts of the 32nd General Assembly of New Jersey (Chapter II, section 1, 1807) stated:
WHEREAS doubts have been raised, and Great diversities in practice obtained through-out the state in regard to the admission of aliens, females and persons of color, or negroes to vote in elections, as also in regard to the mode of ascertaining the qualifications of voters in respect to estate.-And whereas, it is highly necessary to the safety, quiet, good order and dignity of the state, to clear up the said doubts by an act of the representatives of the people, declaratory of the true sense and meaning of the constitution, and to ensure its just execution in these particulars, according to the intent of the framers thereof ;-Therefore,
Sec. 1. BE IT ENACTED by the council and general assembly of this state, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That from and after the passing of this act, no person shall vote in any state or county election, for officers in the government of the States, or of this state, unless such person be a free, white, male citizen of this state, of the age of twenty-one years, worth fifty pounds proclamation money; clear estate, and have resided in the county where he claims a vote, for at least twelve months immediately.
The real reason behind the disenfranchisement seems to have been political and it may be property-owning white males were afraid that the votes of property-owning single white women and free people of color would override their votes.
In 1844, the Second New Jersey Constitution continued to block non-whites and white females from the vote (Acts of the Legislature of the State of New Jersey and the First Session Under the New Constitution, 1845):
Every white male citizen of the United States, of the age of twenty-one years, who shall have been a resident of this state one year, and of the county in which he claims his vote five months, next before the election, shall be entitled to vote for all officers that now are, or hereafter may be elective by the people…
But all was not lost. In 1874, after a new law was passed in New Jersey that permitted women to run for school board, a woman took them up on the offer. Her name was Hannah Scholfield and she lived in Hanover, New Jersey (not far from my hometown of Parsippany). She ran for a school committee seat and won, making her the first woman (that we know of) to hold office in New Jersey.
What is fascinating is how many women actually dared to run for office, even though they did not have the right to vote.
In most states, to be eligible for elected office a citizen had to be a voter. In most locales this excluded women from office. However, challenges to the unequal citizenship status of women began in the first years of the early Republic.…Changes to women’s voting rights began in the 1850s and 1860s with women in Michigan (1855) and women in Kansas (1861) gaining the right to vote for school board members and educational officers. Women in Wyoming gained full suffrage in 1869. By the end of the century women in twenty-six states across the country had gained school suffrage, allowing them to vote for members of school boards and superintendents of schools. In some states women also gained municipal suffrage making them eligible for local or state offices as well. These were all hard-fought battles to prove that women could be voters and participate in politics if only on the local and state levels. When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in August 1920, women in sixteen states already had full suffrage rights, and women had been elected to political office in forty-three states. (www.herhatwasinthering.org):
As you can see, although we focus on the 19th Amendment when we think of women’s suffrage, there is so much more to the story – and much of it has been forgotten until recently. For instance, around 6,000 women ran for office between the years of 1853 and 1920. They participated in over 7,500 campaigns – and many of them were elected! “In forty-three states and territories, single and married women, representing nineteen political parties, had campaigned for sixty different offices.” (www.herhatwasinthering.org):
All of which leads me to my big question is this. Would a little town like Blaineton (not to mention the state of New Jersey) allow a woman to run for town council in 1863? I’m still trying to parse the language of the state Constitution. Although it is clear that women have been disenfranchised, It seems to me that wording prohibiting women from running for office is not present. It seems “fudge-able.” I’m saying this based on other research that indicated school boards were associated with the New Jersey State Board of Education, after a certain point in time, and the association may have forbidden women from running for office in the state and local organizations. Clearly, I have more research to do.
My next question obviously is, could a woman be elected to town council? My answer, possibly. I’m saying this because of the way women were perceived in the 1860s, a perception that persisted throughout most of the 1800s.
But that material is for another, upcoming blog.
If this has piqued your curiosity about women and the vote, I suggest you check out the websites below. I hope they will give you more information and (with any luck) take you on a fascinating historical journey of your own.
Her Hat Was in the Ring! Women Who Ran for Office before 1920.
New Jersey Women’s History
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder