Women’s suffrage has long been the conventional icon of the early women’s rights movement in America — but suffragettes were vying for much more than the vote at the turn of the 20th century.
In celebration of 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment, we’re delving further into the causes these women were fighting for: the right to their own bodies, the freedom of sexual expression and the dismantling of systemic racism.
Part I: Raising the Age of Consent
As part of the social purity movement in the late 19th century, early women’s rights advocates joined forces to raise the age of sexual consent nationwide.
Carrie Clyde Holly became the first woman to propose a bill when, in 1895, she attempted to raise the age of consent to 21 years old in Colorado. The youngest age of consent in the United States at the time was in Delaware at seven years old, while the remaining states had age limits of either 10 or 12 years old.
Holly was one of many women who challenged legislatures on the issue of consent. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) — the largest women’s organization in the United States during the late 19th century — also lobbied on this cause.
One major reason the WCTU supported this cause was that the organization recognized alcohol contributed to an increase in sexual and domestic abuse. While mainly focused on the prohibition of alcohol, the WCTU supported raising the age of consent as yet another way of promoting a “moral” society, unlike feminists who would later argue in favor of a woman’s autonomy over her own body.
The organization petitioned every state legislator on the issue and lobbied for the age of consent to be raised to 18. Women within the WCTU pressured politicians in legislative sessions all over the country, and by 1890, they managed to raise the age to between 14 and 16 years of age in multiple states.
Helen Hamilton Gardener was another key player for the cause, using her platform as editor of Arena magazine to pressure lawmakers through the media. Gardner wrote about the advocates and their efforts to reform the age of consent, published a black list calling out states that had not yet changed the law and rallied 9,000 readers to write state legislators asking their position on the issue.
She also made personal relationships with politicians at the time and worked closely with their wives and children, gaining their support.
Fighting to raise the age of consent allowed women like Holly, Gardener and members of the WCTU to band together and work toward a common goal, and by the turn of the century, 32 states had raised the age to between 14 and 18 years of age. Working together on this cause later helped feminists more strategically lobby for suffrage in the early 20th century.
While age of consent reform played a key role in early feminism in the United States, the issue is not as widespread or discussed as suffrage, which is often idealized as a rosy, clean-cut fight that ended with the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.
The reality, though, is that suffrage is more widely discussed because the right to vote is a more modest and less controversial topic than sex. This is why early feminists like Susan B. Anthony shifted the movement to focus primarily on suffrage and even rewrote its history to reflect that.
While fighting for their rights, women were also propping up an image of a pure, white mother and wife living a moral life. Some might argue this helped feminists get mainstream support, but in a way, the focus on women’s suffrage also downplayed some of the major injustices women at the turn of the 20th century were facing.
In Part II, we explore further into the topic of sex during first-wave feminism by learning about Victoria Woodhull, a “free lover” and the first woman to run for president of the United States.