This has been called woman’s century. Certainly the last half of it may be called so with emphasis. The younger generation cannot realize the change that has been going on in regard to the legal and business status of women, or public sentiment concerning the sphere, employments, and privileges of the sex. When, forty years ago, a convention of women was to meet in Worcester it was advertised far and wide in the newspapers as a “hen convention.” Now they may have conventions about missions, social science, education, suffrage, or anything else, and they are spoken of courteously and reported fairly.
Thus began an article in The Kimball Union newspaper by alumnus, the Rev. Charles M. Palmer, class of 1858, for the January 1893, issue. Palmer then gave examples of women’s progress toward equality. He told the story of a minister who preached in a church near Boston, who, having been requested to read a notice stating that a woman would be addressing an anti-slavery meeting, said, “I am requested to say that a hen will undertake to crow like a cock at the town hall this afternoon at 5 o’clock. Anybody who wants to hear that kind of music will of course attend.” In modern times, Palmer said, many women had spoken from that same pulpit, “much to the pleasure of their audience.”
Education was one of many subjects he wrote of stating that, “Two score years ago there was not a college in the country for young women, though men’s colleges had been in operation nearly 250 years.” In 1837, Mary Lyon opened Mount Holyoke Female Seminary “amid much opposition and indifference” and he added that Oberlin College accepted African Americans and women a little earlier in 1833, “and endured no small amount of odium and distrust for it.” At the time, articles were written stating “conclusively” that there was “no call for higher education of women; and it was urged that in the classics and higher
mathematics it was quite impossible for her to cope with the difficulties.”
Later, when results showed that women averaged better than men in these and other subjects, these same doubters predicted a breakdown in their health, compared to women who did not go to college, as a result of their success. However, records proved that “These young women serenely persist in not dying or breaking down in health quite as fast as the average of their ex.” [Kimball Union, ahead of its time, accepted women as students from its very first year in 1815-16.]
In the 19th century, in many instances, women were not equal to men under the law. Palmer gave us examples of this when he wrote, “Often the widow must purchase again the cups and saucers and other household stuff she brought to her new home. A woman’s legal existence was suspended during marriage. She could possess no personal property. All with herself belonged to her husband. … When her husband died, the law gave the widow the use of a third of the real estate she might have done as much to acquire as he, and it was called the ‘widow’s encumbrance.’” Any money she earned belonged to her husband no matter whether he worked or not. Perhaps hardest of all, “No mother had a right to her child if she lived with her husband, and to this day in most states he can will away the babe from its mother’s bosom. It took ten years to get a law through the Massachusetts legislature that a wife could have right to her own clothing. There was formerly a ducking stool for a scolding wife, but none at all for the male scold.”
Although by 1893, inequalities in regard to property and children had been modified in many states, Palmer believed that if men had to live under the same regulations, “there would be a rebellion.” In speaking of men and women, he concluded that now, in 1893, “Side by side in the future they will be found, working without jealousy or domineering superiority, at the great problems that confront the church, society, and government. Each one’s sphere will be determined by fitness, capacity, and choice. Men will be done denying woman’s sphere concluding wisely that she has the same right to do anything she can do
that they claim for themselves.”
The Kimball Union newspaper printed this article 100 years ago; it would be 27 more years in 1920 before women would finally be granted, through women’s suffrage, the right to vote and to hold office.