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Friday, October 25, 2019

October 25, 2019: The 1850 Women’s Rights Convention: Harriet Martineau and Harriet Taylor Mill

[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 two English activists who reveal the convention’s Transatlantic influences and legacies.
One of the challenges in researching and writing about the 19th century’s women’s rights and suffrage movements is teasing out the similarities, differences, and relationships between the American and English such movements. While I pride myself on being aware of as many contexts as possible, this blog is called AmericanStudies for a reason—working to understand, analyze, and narrate American histories and stories is much more than a lifetime’s task, and I’ll never pretend to be an expert in any other nation or culture’s histories and stories. Moreover, my belief in the fundamentally cross-cultural and transnational side to American identities and communities doesn’t mean that any one of us scholars can engage every aspect of those interconnections—instead, it means that we can and must engage with scholars whose expertise lies in those other national and cultural contexts, to put our voices and analyses in conversation with theirs. One excellent example of such analyses on the Transatlantic histories of women’s rights movements is Patricia Greenwood Harrison’s Connecting Links: The British and American Woman Suffrage Movements, 1900-1914 (2000), and this post is no way a substitute for such extended further readings.
Yet individual moments can illustrate such broader and more multi-layered histories and contexts, and two striking such moments in the aftermath of the 1850 Worcester convention do just that for the Transatlantic women’s rights movement. Convention organizer and president (and subject of Monday’s post) Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis sent a copy of the convention proceedings to her friend Harriet Martineau, the pioneering English social scientist and reformer who had traveled the US during an extended 1830s visit and remained close to many activists she met there (she also authored her 1837 book Society in America, a text that offers an important counterpoint to Alexis de Tocqueville’s more famous Democracy in America [1835], just after returning from those travels). In an August 1851 letter back to Davis, Martineau both thanked her and reflected on the women’s rights influences in both directions, writing, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review…I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”
The convention’s influence on the English women’s rights movement was even more overt and significant still. After details of the convention were published in the New York Tribune for Europe newspaper in early 1851, a group of activists in Sheffield formed the Sheffield Women’s Political Association, considered the first women’s suffrage organization in the UK; they would present the first suffrage petition to the House of Lords later that year. And Harriet Taylor (Mill), the English philosopher and women’s rights activist, was inspired by those same convention reports to write (with her partner and new husband John Stuart Mill) her ground-breaking book “The Enfranchisement of Women” (1851), which begins with an extended analysis of the movement and cause in the US before broadening to arguments in support of women’s rights and suffrage everywhere. The English women’s rights movement had many origins and contexts, and again I am far from an expert in it or them. But the 1850 Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester provided one striking influence, as reflected by the voices and work of these two prominent English writers and activists.
Special Halloween week Guest Post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories from the women’s rights movement you’d highlight?

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