One Monday morning in March 1863, readers of the New York Tribune opened their papers to find an impassioned plea to Union women to wake up, make their loyalty count and play their part in the war.
The writer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she minced no words. Known by then as the leader of the women’s rights movement in the United States, Stanton issued a direct challenge to Union women to match the women of the South in their reputation for sacrifice and devotion. “If it be true, that at this hour the women of the South are more devoted to their cause than we to ours, the fact lies here,” she baited her readers. Many Northern women had nursed the sick and wounded, but “thus far, there has been no united public expression from the women of the North as to the policy of the war….We have as yet, no means of judging how and where the majority of Northern women stand.”
Stanton was just the woman to do something about that. Within the space of two months she and her longstanding co-conspirator, Susan B. Anthony, had formed a new organization called the Women’s National Loyal League. On May 14, delegates from all over what remained of the United States convened in a church in Union Square in Manhattan for the founding meeting.
That was when the trouble started. Their attempt to advance women’s own claims to equal citizenship as the proper exchange for loyal service and sacrifice in the war met with bitter defeat at the hands of the league’s own members. The meeting shows more than anything else just how difficult it was even for extraordinarily experienced activist women to find a point of entry into the national political conversation. That the Women’s National Loyal League was not formed until spring 1863, a full two years into the war, is telling. There was a sense that it was improper for women to agitate for their own cause in the midst of the crisis. So when Abraham Lincoln was elected, women’s rights leaders agreed to put aside their organizing to attend to the crisis at hand. But by March 1863, it was widely recognized that the Union war effort was in trouble and extraordinary measures were warranted. As the Union turned to “hard war” measures, including emancipation, women founded the league as the female counterpart to the influential Union Leagues for men, started a year earlier to rally support for the government and emancipation. It was a delicate matter from the start: how to demonstrate women’s value to the nation and their claim to rights as citizens in the crisis of the nation’s destiny.
For Stanton, Anthony and other women’s rights leaders, the issues could not be separated. To them, this was a war for the soul of America, for “the final settlement of the problem of self-government.” War was worthy only if the cause was “genuine democracy,” or “true democracy” (as the Declaration of Independence promised) and by which they meant a government based on the consent of all the governed: “all slaves, all citizens of African descent and all women.” As fellow feminist Ernestine Rose put it, “In a republic based upon freedom, woman, as well as the negro, should be recognized as an equal with the whole human race.” And as Anthony reiterated, “There can never be a true peace in this Republic until the civil and political equality of every subject of the government shall be practically established.” It was their own version of the Gettysburg Address.
But their vision was not widely shared among the women in attendance at the meeting. When, on the first day, Anthony gave a speech urging them to throw off convention—“I ask you to forget that you are women, and go forward in the way of right, fearlessly, as independent human beings”—she was quickly rebuked.
“Let us never forget that we are women, and that we are mothers,” chided a California delegate. “Our field is very small and God has given us character and abilities to follow it out.” Women, rather, should be true to their nature and fulfill their duties within their sphere. “We do not need to stand at ballot-boxes and cast our votes…in our homes we have a great office.” She spoke, it seems, for many others; her remarks were greeted with applause. And when the group’s resolutions came up for a vote, all passed unanimously except one about women’s rights. Amid denunciations of women’s rights “ism” as damaging, conservative delegates urged the organization to stay out of politics and “attend to our own business.” The resolution was dropped. Resolutions supporting emancipation were approved, as was one noting that as women had supported the Revolution, “we, their daughters, are ready in this war to pledge our time, our means, our talents, and our lives, if need be, to secure the final and complete consecration of America to freedom.”
The Women’s National Loyal League turned to more selfless work on behalf of the enslaved, mounting a massive petition drive in support of immediate emancipation. By the time Congress passed the 13th Amendment in December 1864, the league had gathered 400,000 signatures, one for every 24 adults in the Northern states.
Stanton had seen Northern women loyalists as the counterpart to black soldiers. As historian Christine Stansell has said, she hoped loyal women would enter the Union as enfranchised citizens right alongside freed-people, recognized for the part they had played in the battle that determined the republic’s fate. But in a world of war, especially one that claimed 700,000 men, citizenship became ever more intimately linked to manhood and military service. As Stanton, Anthony and other feminists learned when they tried to link patriotism and women’s rights, this was not a battle women could win.
Stephanie McCurry is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the award-winning Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.