A Public “Jollification” : The 1859 Women’s Rights Petition before the Indiana Legislature Pat Creech Scholten* Ridicule has long been a weapon used by men against the women’s movement for equality. Beginning with the first mention of the rights of women in the legislative proceedings of the state of Indiana in 1844,’ the men of Indiana have contributed their share in the reductio ad absurdum that followed these disturbing new demands for rights and privileges on the part of women. During the 1850s women in Indiana, like women of other states, began their first demands for property rights and suffrage. At that time such ideas appeared so ludicrous to many men that, when confronted with such demands, they gave full rein to their frolicksome natures. The men of Indiana, with decades of rough frontier living and boisterous backwoods humor to guide them, proved no exception.2 The events surrounding the presentation of the women’s rights petition to a joint convention of the Indiana General Assembly on January 19, 1859, clearly revealed the prevailing attitudes toward women’s rights in Indiana. The incidents arising from this event caused such a public uproar that newspapers carried “long, heavy articles for several days, to the exclusion of news,” according to a cantankerous editor of the Indianapolis Indiana Weekly State J0urna1.~A Cincinnati Gazette reporter described what happened that day as “a farce” and “the most disgraceful affair he ever saw in which ladies were concerned.”4 The Indianapolis Indiana * Pat Creech Scholten is a doctoral candidate in t h e department of speech communication, Indiana University, Bloomington. Indiana, House Journal (1843), 394-95. 2Logan Esarey, History of Indiana F r o m I t s Explorations to 1922 (reprint edition, Indianapolis, 1970) , 574-609. 3 Indianapolis Indiana W e e k l y S t a t e Journal, J a n u a r y 27, 1859. 4 Cincinnati Daily Gazette, J a n u a r y 20, 1859. 348 Indiana Magazine of History Daily State Sentinel editorialized: “We trust, for the sake of woman, ‘the last best gift of God to man,’ that the Legislature of Indiana, will never again give its sanction to such a proceeding.”’ What had caused such a public consternation? F o r the first time in Indiana women had publicly presented a petition calling for women’s rights-a petition signed by over one thousand residents of Wayne County, including signatures of both women and legal (i.e. male) voters.“ And if this were not enough, three women had addressed this joint session of the Indiana legislature, the first time that a person of the female sex had spoken before the state legislature. Even more disgraceful were the events following these addresses. According to the Indianapolis and Cincinnati newspapers, once the house adjourned, the gathering turned into “a noisy and foolish meeting” and “an extemporized affair”’ that included “desultory debates” and “free exchange of opinion and sentiment”X between men, women, women’s rights advocates, temperance advocates, the clerk of the house, senators and their constituents, and “an old, half-crazed individual by the name of Alred.”” In the confusion and uproar many tried to leave, but they could not force their way through the crowd, described a s a “field of crinoline” and a “surging mass of pantaloons.”“’ According to the Indiana Daily State Sentinel, the scenes that took place would be “the subject of burlesque and ridicule for months, and maybe for years . . . ., 7 1 1 Such a t u r n of events should not have been surprising. In 1844 the assembly received the first women’s rights petition asking i t to grant the right for married women to own property.’” According to one Indiana historian, however, this merely provoked “some coarse humor, inspired evidently in a barroom,” from members of the judiciary committee to which it was referred.” The committee suggested t h a t “the dear ,’Indianapolis I n d i a n a D a i l y State S e n t i n e l , J a n u a r y 20, 1859. The f i r s t petition, described a s a “slip,” was submitted anonymously by “J.L. ....................... F o r the text see Indiana, H o m e J o u r n a l (1843), 394-95. i Indianapolis I n d i a n a W e e k l y State J o u r n a l , J a n u a r y 27, 1859. Indianapolis I n d i a n a D a i l y S t a t e S e n t i n e l , J a n u a r y 20, 1859. !’ Cincinnati Daily G a z e t t e , J a n u a r y 20, 1859. l o Indianapolis I n d i a n a D a i l y State S e n t i n e l , J a n u a r y 20, 1859. 1 1 Ibid. l Z Indiana, House J o ~ r n a Z (1843)., 452. Esarey, History of I n d i a n a , 631. Women’s Rights 349 creatures” exercise “a small portion of that acuteness for which the eastern portion of the union [the husband] is so justly celebrated” and “provide for the disunion of their real and paraphernal property” before marriage; but, the committee also hinted darkly that (‘such preliminaries’’ might undermine “unanimity in the union.” They advised instead that “the good old mode of a loving and abiding confidence” in their husbands would “make the union a unit.” In reporting t o the speaker the committee concluded that “though strongly inclined to think that women are angels, yet they cannot forget that angels may be devils: they therefore deem it inexpedient to legislate in the premises, and ask to be discharged from the further consideration thereof.”“ This report was not concurred in and was referred to a select committee which seems never to have reported. Even so, in 1846 women were given the right to make wills,15and women’s property a t time of marriage was exempt from use to pay a husband’s debts.lb Other than these concessions, little had changed by 1859 either in law or attitude. Logan Esarey described the men of Indiana during the 1850s as “rough, outspoken and boisterous.” And the subject of women’s rights seemed particularly to have brought out the worst in them. Esarey remarked that “even so gentle a man as Berry Sulgrove” (editor of the Indiana Weekly State Journal) spoke of the meeting of the Women’s Rights Convention in 1854 which he attended “with a coarseness not common to him.”Ii Esarey wrote further that “The women seemed like peasants of the sixteenth century pleading for liberty and the attitude of the press and the members of the General Assembly was not such as one can speak with pride.”” This certainly described the “jollification”’” surrounding the presentation of the women’s rights petition in 1859. Historical accounts of this event fail to mention the disturbing incidents connected with this presentation. Generally such reports relate that Mary F. Thomas presented the petiIndiana, House Journal (1843), 452. Indiana, L a w s (1846), chapter 6. Indiana, Senate Journal (1846), 141. l 7 Esarey, History of Indiana, 600, 632. Ix Zbid., 632. I!’ Indianapolis Zndiana Daily State Sentinel, J a n u a r y 20, 1859. I n its report, t h e newspaper quoted a “member from a northern county” who labeled t h e proceedings “a jollification.” l4 350 Indiana Magazine of History MARYF. THOMAS Courtesy author tion and gave an address, thus becoming the first woman speaker before the Indiana legislature.20 One account notes that the joint session listened “politely.”21 None describe the scenes recorded by contemporary newspapers of what took place when the house adjourned on Wednesday, January 19, 1859.22 The Indiana House Journal recorded that on that date the General Assembly in a joint convention gathered to hear Thomas read and present a petition “asking the Legislature to grant to women the same rights in property as men, and also the right of suffrage.’’ The house then resolved itself into a committee of the whole to consider the petition of the women and recommended that it be the special order of 20 See f o r example Lillian O’Connor, Pioneer Women Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-Bellum Reform Movement (New York, 1954), 94; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds., The History of Woman Suffrage (Rochester, 1889), 309. z1 E m m a Lou Thornbrough, Zndiana in the Civil W a r E r a : 18501880 (Indianapolis, 1965), 36. 22 See t h e Indianapolis Indiana Daily State Sentinel, t h e Indianapolis Indiana Weekly State Journal, a n d the Cincinnati Gazette. Women’s Rights 351 the day for the following Friday.’“ This straightfoward account gave no hint t h a t this was not an ordinary day in the usual business of the legislature. An unashamedly biased account by the Indiana Daily State Sentinel of what actually happened captured the excitement in the air: “early after dinner yesterday, crowds of curious spectators, among whom were mingled a f e w who felt an interest in the movement, were seen moving toward the State House.” Hours before the session began the hall was filled. The newspaper conjured a picture of the members of the house, who in gentlemenly fashion had relinquished their seats to the ladies. Much ‘Lmasculinehumanity,” however, was crowded out by the expansive skirts of the day and forced to stand in aisles, lobbies, and galleries “merely looking on, wondering, and it may be, wishing.” According to the reporter, “Every man that had a stand point determined to keep it, and there was a perfect unity of ideas between the sexes, for the women tenaciously held to their places.” Only by great physical effort did the president of the house succeed in reaching the speaker’s stand and calling the convention to order.Y4 The verbatim report of the legislative proceedings printed in the State Sentinel documented the levity which set the tone for the day. After the house was called to order, there was a n unaccountable delay before the women petitioners entered. The exchanges between the legislators revealed tension and uneasiness in the chambers. John s. Davis declared t h a t “This is a grave and important matter.” Since a lack of space and chairs prevented a number of senators from seeing o r hearing, Davis made a special plea for a seat for the senator from Vigo County “as the only bachelor in that body,” which provoked laughter and cheers. Someone Fuggested t h a t while they waited for the women, the best looking bachelor address the assembly. There were cries for “Nebeker, of Warren” who denied bachelorhood, but recommended instead “Edwards, from Vigo.” Edwards then offered to waive his “pretensions for the gentleman from Warrento give him an opportunity to exhibit his personal beauty.” The laughter subsided only “under the hammer of the Chair.” 23 24 Indiana, House Journal (1859), 157. Indianapolis Indiana Daily State Sentinel, J a n u a r y 20, 1859. Indiana Magazine of History 352 The women speakers then “came forward and took seats at the Speaker’s table.”2’ Thomas was conscious of the jocular atmosphere of the gathering, and before reading her petition and her address, she made an emotional appeal for a hearing: “Permit me, friends, to say a word before reading our petition. Brothers and sisters, we have not come here to exhibit ourselves as a show to our brothers of the General Assembly. We have come here feeling deeply the need of that which we petition of you; and I beg of you to receive us as becomes our cause and your position in this place.” She then read the petition and an address in writing, described variously as “a very good speech, delivered, however, in a low tone of voice”2b and as “an interesting and able addres~.”~7 Later historians described it as “an admirable statement of the plea for suffrage” and “a thoughtful, apparently well-prepared address.”2R Like other feminist appeals of that era, Thomas’ speech was built on logical argument, with a separate section devoted to emotional She argued from the underlying premise that what is right for the goose is right for the gander: “If the exercise of this right [of citizenship] is necessary to the perfect development of man’s mind and whole being; if he feels dwarfed, intellectually, by being deprived of that right, will not the same argument apply to woman Thomas then used a second argument not heard in the country for many years but used very effectively by early feminists: “Taxation without Representation.”” Since a woman “is held 2‘1 Ihid. 26 Ibid, 2 7 Senator George K. Steele made this judgment in a resolution following t h e women’s speeches. See Indiana, Senate Journal (1859), 185. Z x Esarey, History of Indiana, 632n; O’Connor, Pioneer Wonten Orators, 94. 2‘”See O’Connor, Pioneer W o m e n Orators, 161. A full t e x t of Thomas’ speech is printed in the Indiana, Senate Joz~rnal (1859), 186-90, in the Indianapolis Indiana W e e k l y S t a t e Journal, J a n u a r y 27, 1859, a n d in the Indianapolis Indiana Daily S f a t e Sentinel, J a n u a r y 21, 1859. The J o w n a l a n d S t a t e Sentinel both r a n the following note from Thomas along with her speech: “I deem i t due t o myself a n d the cause, to say, t h a t in preparing this address f o r the press, i t must necessarily be very imperfect from the hasty manner in which i t was written in the f i r s t place, a n d much of i t not written a t all.” 3n Indiana, Senate Journal (1859), 187. R 1 O’Connor, Pioneer W o m e n Orators, 184 ; Indiana, Senate Journal (1859), 189. Women’s R i g h t s 353 amenable to the laws of h e r country,” she had the same natural, inalienable right as men to express herself on questions “of vital interest to her.”3* Thomas argued that the times and public opinion had changed. The very fact that she spoke before the legislature, she declared, was proof enough. A few years ago, she continued, the legislature of Indiana would not have granted “the respectful attention it now does, in this Hall, dedicated as it is to learning, talent and wisdom . . . .” Then, in a statement that would later prove ironical, Thomas said: “Men are not now shocked at a woman speaking in public,” and are “constrained to admit” that many women can achieve “deeds of noble daring.”.j3 To prove her point Thomas then listed the achievements of fourteen famous women, ranging from Maria Michell’s discovery of stars to Harriet Hosmer’s sculpture, to Emma Willard’s writing of schoolbooks, to the preaching of Lucretia Mott and Antoinette L. Blackwell.s4 In order to show that these women were not exceptional, Thomas then mentioned the achievements of professional women, including “last, though not least, your humble petitioner with hundreds of other lady physicians.” She praised the achievements of all women during the monetary crisis of the previous year, which in one respect had “been a blessing to women, by calling to the sphere of usefulness many who shrank, in former times, from assuming any responsibility.” Times had indeed changed, Thomas maintained, for “they who once denounced us as fanatics, have, through absolute necessity and trial, learned to feel and to acknowledge that woman has not all the rights she needs.”35 Thomas concluded her arguments with two assertions familiar to the women’s liberation movement. She first declared that men would benefit equally with women. “The true interests of the sexes are so intimately interwoven with each other that one cannot suffer without the other suffering also.” Secondly, Thomas insisted that a woman’s development as a human being would enhance rather than diminish her maternal qualities. . . . “there need be no fear of woman neglecting her maternal duties,” Thomas maintained, for “the Indiana, Senate Journal (1859), 187. Ibid., 188. 34 Ihid., 188-89. 3,: Ihid., 189. 32 33 Indiana Magazine of History 354 more women become acquainted with human life and prepare to discharge its responsibilities, the more interest they will feel in carrying out all the relations of life.”36 Bringing her speech to a close, Thomas quoted Samuel Adams’ statement that taxation without representation reduced free subjects to the state of “tributary slaves.” She rested her argument confidently on “the verdict of all candid minds; for, having taken our stand upon the broad basis of woman’s undeniable humanity, and claimed from thence its rights as a matter of strict justice, we have virtually forestalled all answer and all objections.” Finally Thomas pleaded: however some of this l a r g e a n d attentive audience m a y consider me out of woman’s sphere in t h u s addressing you, I feel i t r i g h t to say t h a t not one who h a s heard these thoughts expressed, b u t feel a living response i n t h e inmost recesses of their souls, a n d we a s k kindly t o consider your d u t y i n reference t o the matter, a n d a c t accordingly.37 According to the State Sentinel, when Thomas’ address was concluded the presiding officer introduced the second woman at the speaker’s table, Mary B. Birdsall. The Sentinel described her address as “a very clear and logical plea in behalf of the right of suffrage in woman”; but no copy of the speech exists, despite the legislative resolution that the addresses of both women be printed in the city n e w ~ p a p e r .The ~ ~ State Journal declared that “we cannot make room for more than one” and published only Thomas’ addresss9 After the conclusion of Birdsall’s speech, Agnes Cook, the third woman to speak before the joint convention, presented an extemporaneous address on temperance, arguing that “the enfranchised woman” would be more effective in the cause of temperance. According to the Sentinel, Cook made an “allusion to the unchivalric remark of one of the orators of the State Temperance Convention yesterday, to this effect: ‘We will hold the ladies’ bonnets whilst they shall fight the doggeries.’ ” Since Cook’s speech closed the proceedings it could very well have set the tone for what happened shortly afterward^.^^ Ibid., 189-90. Ihid., 190. 38 Indianapolis I n d i a n a D a i l y S t a t e S e n t i n e l , J a n u a r y 20, 1859. 3!1 Indianapolis I n d i a n a W e e k l y S t a t e J o u r n a l , J a n u a r y 27, 1859. 4 0 Indianapolis I n d i a n a D a i l y S t a t e S e n t i n e l , J a n u a r y 20, 1859. 36 37 Women’s Rights 355 After Cook’s address, the presiding officer declared adjournment and the senators returned to their chambers. The State Sentinel gave this colorful account of what followed: T h e Senate having retired from t h e Hall, and Mr. Speaker Gordon having resumed the chair, the House should have been t h e House again. The ladies, however, having possession of t h e floor, knew their rights, and dared a n d did maintain them. F r o m t h e seats where grave heads have f o r years bent in thought, bright eyes sent f o r t h bewildering darts, glowing cheeks blushed i n loveliness, and red, rich lips smiled bewitchingly. In such a sea of all t h a t is lovely and enchanting, business was not to be thought of-that rigid systematic business t h a t legislation demands -and, accordingly, a f t e r several ineffectual efforts to do something, a member gallantly moved t h a t t h e House adjourn, and t h a t t h e meeting resolve itself into a love-feast. The motion w a s carried by acclamationt h e Speaker’s hammer fell, and the feast of reason and the flow of soul began.41 In recounting the progression of events, the newspaper continued: “How shall we describe it? We abandon the effort in despair, and content ourselves with giving a few brief incidents, which may be taken as a sample of the entire affair.” The first incident involved a senator and his constituent. The senator, according to the newspaper, termed the proceedings a “jollification” which caused one of his female constituents to make “severe threats of dire vengeance.” The newspaper reported that “The Hon. gentleman rose and took it all back. He would call it any name the lady desired-it was not material Next, the clerk of the house, R.J. Ryan, made a speech “giving the ladies some wholesome advice in his own way.” He declared that “Already everything was conceded to the ladies. He had to buy a new suit of clothes because he had lately t o step so often in the gutters, to let the ladies have the clean dry side-walk.” This began what the newspaper described as “desultory debate” and “out-pouring of patriotism.” “An old gentleman, Mr. Alred,” aroused by this statement, proclaimed that he was happy that “Dick had spent some money with the tailors, for i t kept just that amount out of t h e tills of the grog-shops!” Alred then proceeded to describe the evils of intemperance: “the black eyes, swolen [sic] lips and numerous noses he had seen knocked up.” And 41 42 Ibid. Ibid. Indiana Magazine of History he declared that “He had never, however, seen but three women in that fix. A lady present coincided exactly with Mr. Alred” and the “free exchange of opinion and sentiment After declaring that “We have no idea that one out of every ten of the ladies present had any sympathy with the movement,” the State Sentinel created the impression that the ladies drawn to the meeting “merely from [innocent] curiosity” were helplessly trapped by the crowds against their will and assured its readers that they “heartily wished themselves out of the scrape . . . .?’ The newspaper concluded that the idea of the joint session was a foolish one, that the presentation of the petition did not advance the cause, and that the legislature of Indiana, “for the sake of woman,’’ should never again “give its sanction to such a p r o ~ e e d i n g . ” ~ ~ The Indiana W e e k l y State Journal commented on the events surrounding the presentation of the petition in a different, more tolerant manner. In an editorial the Journal attacked a correspondent of the Cincinnati Gazette for labeling the joint convention “a farce” and describing the meeting that followed it as “the most disgraceful affair he ever saw in which ladies were concerned.” The editors disavowed any sympathy with the women’s rights movement: “We think if the women were granted all they ask, they would soon wish, like the bricklayer who broke his leg in falling from a scaffold and begged Jupiter to suspend the laws of gravitation in his case, that they were restored to their former condition.” But even though nine out of ten women were “indifferent or adverse to the rights their lamenting sisters” desired, the editors continued, “at the same time we don’t see that anything is gained for truth by ridiculing the efforts of those who desire such rights.” The editors placed the blame on the legislature and not the women. “ T h e y did not ask that the Hall should be turned into a The Journal’s true sympathies, however, clearly showed up in its comments prefacing Thomas’ speech. The editors were reluctant and surly about printing Thomas’ address and did not reproduce Birdsall’s speech a t all. As a matter of fact, they claimed to be generous for agreeing to print Ibid. Ibid. 4 5 Indianapolis Indiana Peekly State Journal, J a n u a r y 27, 1859. 43 41 Women’s Rights 357 one address. “Indeed, if it were not that t[h]e novelty of the movement, and the popular curiosity excited by it, as well as its intrinsic interest, made a publication necessary, we should feel indi[s]posed to surrender so much space to it, after having had our columns crowded with long, heavy articles for several days, to the exclusion of news.”“’ Alongside Thomas’ speech the Journal also published a letter addressed “To the Ladies of Indiana” and signed “John Young.” Expressing popular opinion of the day and devastating in his ridicule,47 Young confessed that he was attracted by curiosity to the legislative hall where “one of your number” read an address. He heard the address called beautiful by a member of the house but had not been able to hear a single sentence himself. The low tone of voice . . . demonstrated very satisfactorily t h a t woman i s not in h e r t r u e sphere when she attempts t o address a large assembly. Here was a g r a n d occasion f o r you t o show t h a t in power of voice, self command, a n d declamatory power, you a r e equal to man. You chose the readers a n d the speakers, a n d are fairly responsible f o r the effort-yet t h e address was not heard by one third of t h e people who filled t h e ~ 1 . 4 ~ Further, Young declared, the women were presumptuous in claiming to speak for the women of Indiana. “Why, dear ladies,” he wrote, “half the people of Indiana are of your sex.” Surely, if women wanted more rights, they could ask for them in the bed chamber or a t breakfast. But “we rarely hear a word of it.” Young recalled how pained he was to hear that the ladies threatened to take law in their own hands -laws that protect their marriage vows, chastity, peace, and prosperity. “These very extravagancies, ladies, show that impulse and feeling prevail too much in your nature to fit you for the cool calculations of statesmanship.” Women had already been granted property rights; women did not need the ballot, for when they voted in church meetings, they usually “vote with, not against their husbands.” Young added the Ibid. One guess is t h a t he was the same John Young who was nominated f o r superintendent of public instruction in 1858 and who is mentioned (once as writer of a letter t o a newspaper) in Mildred C. Stoler, “The Democratic Element in the New Republican P a r t y in Indiana,” Indinvin Magazine of Histov-y, XXXVI (September, 1940), 191, 194, 195, 196, 199, 207. 4 X Indianapolis Indiana Weekly State Journal, J a n u a r y 27, 1859. 48 47 Indiana Magazine of History 358 often used male criticism of feminists: “I know what is the matter with you women’s rights ladies!” he declared. “You don’t rule your husbands by love as the rest of the women of Indiana do . . . .7,4!) Young advised the women to go home and take care of their husbands and children and “see if your homes will not be a paradise, and your rights all safe in the true love of your good man.” Besides, women would soon be cured of politics; rather than elevating politics, as they claimed, women would “soon be corrupted, your beauty will fade, your virtue would become weak and vacillating.” Instead, Young recommended that “You can now be the mothers of a noble race of American citizens . . . .” He predicted that if they chose the path they now sought they would leave behind a weak race “carried away with the love of novelty and change,” and somewhat in the spirit of the French Revolution all would “soon perish in fraternal blood.” He concluded that “angels might envy you in your glorious work,” for “The mission of woman is indeed a glorious one. To sweeten man’s rugged life, to soften all his sorrows, to share and rejoice with him in his joys, to train the rising race, to stamp the loved image of the father’s character upon the rising boy, to raise up the future mother, and fill their hearts with love and goodness and wisdom.” In closing Young declared that “I love you all very much, but I love my country more.” He had a particular love for one woman, he assured the ladies, but “I want that one to forget her own rights in thinking of mine, then I think I will not fail to protect and cherish her.’’5n So ended the public discussion of the events iurrounding the presentation of the women’s rights petition to the joint session of the Indiana state legislature. Thomas, undaunted by this ridicule and buffoonery, continued a full and rich life, working with the suffrage, temperance, and abolitionist movements.51 Not until 1871, twelve years later, did Indiana women again address the state legislature on women’s Ibi.d. Ibid. 5 1 For biographical accounts of Thomas’ accomplishments as a physician a n d leader of r e f o r m movements, see Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, H i s t o r y of W o m a n S u f f r a g e , 314; D. W. H. Kemper, A Medical H i s t o r y o f t h e S t a t e of I n d i a n a (Chicago, 1911), 348; a n d H i s t o r y of W a y n e C o u n t y (Chicago, 1884), 606-608. 4o 50 Women’s Rights 359 rights.52 Two women who had been instrumental in presenting the petition in 1859, Amanda Way and Emma Swank, addressed the joint convention “upon the question of Female Suffrage.” A joint senate resolution was drawn up, proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would confer the right to vote to women over the age of twenty-one. After due deliberation, the resolution was put before the state senate where there was a last minute move that the word “white” be inserted preceding the word “female” wherever i t occurred in the resolution.“< This joint resolution was not adopted. The women of Indiana, along with women in other states, discovered over the next fifty years that women could not hope to win the vote by the “states route.” I t would take a federal amendment to the Constitution which could be impersonally enacted and enforced. 52 53 Indiana, Senate Journal (1871), 235. Ibid., 644.
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