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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

October 22, 2019: The 1850 Women’s Rights Convention: Sarah H. Earle

[On October 23-24, 1850, the first national Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, MA; it followed the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention but was the first to bill itself as national, and it featured more than 900 attendees (triple the 1848 numbers). So for the convention’s anniversary, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy a handful of representative such attendees!]
On the convention convener who extends the themes of yesterday’s post and adds other, vital contexts into the mix.
Day one of the 1850 convention was called to order by local reformer and activist Sarah Hussey Earle. Like convention president Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, whose opening address directly followed Earle’s brief remarks, Earle had been an abolitionist activist for decades by the time of the 1850 convention. Born on Nantucket, Sarah moved to Worcester in 1821 at the age of 22, when she married John Milton Earle, longtime publisher and editor of the city’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper. Over the next three decades she would found the Worcester Ladies Anti-Slavery Sewing Circle and the Worcester City Anti-Slavery Society, coordinate a number of anti-slavery fairs in the city, and along with her husband help provide a home and family for two young African American women, Catherine and Cynthia Gardner. Earle not only reinforces the deep interconnections between the abolitionist and women’s rights movements about which I wrote in yesterday’s post, but makes clear that the choice of Worcester to host the first national Women’s Rights Convention was likewise entirely linked to the city’s prominent role in the fight against slavery.
Earle’s links to both Davis and the women’s rights movement extended well beyond the 1850 convention, to an aspect of Davis’s richly multi-layered life and activism that I wasn’t able to mention in yesterday’s post: her pioneering feminist magazine The Una. Founded by Davis in 1853 in her new hometown of Providence (she had married the Irish American entrepreneur and Rhode Island State Representative Thomas Davis in 1849), The Una was one of the first women’s rights journals in existence, and the first periodical in America to be owned, published, edited, and written entirely by women. Earle was one of its earliest supporters and financial backers, and would remain closely tied to the magazine through its crucial early years (in late 1855 Boston publisher S.C. Hewitt took over publication, and new associate editor Caroline Healey Dall shifted the magazine’s focus to more of a literary journal). As with abolitionism, Transcendentalism, and every other significant social and reform movement of the era, the women’s movement would depend on periodicals to advance its ideas and voices, and through The Una Earle lent her support to a vital first step in that process.
Another key side to Earle’s life and work in the years after the 1850 convention (up until her tragically early death in 1858) reflects the more local, Massachusetts-centered elements to the nascent women’s rights movement. Annual conventions continued to be held in the state, and Earle was elected president for the 1854 New England Women’s Rights Convention in Boston. But she also brought the fight for women’s rights directly to the Massachusetts State Legislature through her leadership in assembling and presenting a couple of petitions to that body: an 1851 petition in support of women’s suffrage; and an 1855 one advocating for removing the word “males” from the Massachusetts Constitution. These efforts, like Earle’s deep ties to Worcester, reflect not just the way in which the fight for women’s rights proceeded in individual communities and states, but also the vital role of such local and regional communities in advancing the voices and cause of reform. As much as the 1850 convention was indeed the first national such gathering, it nonetheless featured those more local elements as well, as exemplified by the inspiring activist who called the convention to order.
Next 1850 attendee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories from the women’s rights movement you’d highlight?

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