by Diane Eickhoff
Seven years ago I had never heard of Clarina Nichols either. At a little historical museum in Kansas I learned just enough details to pique my interest. Though we were born in different centuries, I quickly connected with her. Her quest for women’s rights and her indignation at religious leaders who used the Bible to consign women to second class citizenship resonated deeply with me.
Who was Clarina Nichols?
Nichols (1810-1885) was one of this country’s earliest advocates for women’s rights. She was a newspaper editor in Vermont in the 1840s who pulled up stakes in the 1850s to pioneer in “bleeding Kansas” when that part of the country was enmeshed in an epic struggle over slavery, another issue close to her heart.
An independent, self-supporting woman (divorced once, widowed once), she challenged conservative clergy, championed abused wives, and changed laws affecting women in several states.
Why Nichols still speaks to us
Early on I began seeing parallels with this woman who had lived so long ago and my own life. She was brought up in a deeply religious family. I was brought up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and attended a Lutheran parochial school my first eight years. Her first marriage had ended in divorce, as had mine. She had become an editor, as had I. And her experiences in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements in the 1850s resonated with my own experiences with the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Through it all, she had needed to balance the joys and responsibilities of motherhood, a challenge I too understood.
It soon dawned on me that through Nichols’s eyes, I could tell the story of the great social movements that roiled the 19th century — temperance, religious revivalism, antislavery, civil war, the Indian removals, the westward expansion of the United States, and women’s rights. In the foreground would be my new hero, Clarina Nichols, a unique and fascinating woman whose story I would be telling for the very first time.
About six months after my introduction to Nichols, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was that diagnosis that led to writing Nichols’s biography — Revolutionary Heart, published this spring by Quindaro Press. A cancer diagnosis focuses the mind beautifully, and mine was no different. Fortunately, I had an easier time of it than many do and was soon able to turn my attention to researching my subject.
Nichols wrote newspaper articles and campaigned for reform in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, the District of Columbia, and California, her final stopping place. On her deathbed she wrote one last message of encouragement to her old friend and comrade-in-arms, Susan B. Anthony, whom she had helped introduce to the movement.
I made two research trips to Vermont and two to California, found Nichols’s long-lost relatives, discovered an historian with a scholarly interest in Nichols, collected letters and articles from many different sources, transcribed faded documents (with my husband’s help. I have very poor eyesight, even with the best correction). And after reading what she had written, walking the paths she had walked, and breathing the air she had breathed, I came to know who Clarina Nichols was.
Conservative clergy opposition
Nichols was particularly critical of the religious establishment, and for good reason. That institution was perhaps the most staunchly opposed to women’s rights of any institution in society. Not only were conservative clergy opposed to suffrage (an “infidel doctrine”), but they were also opposed to women controlling property, getting university educations, and competing with men for good wages. (Many believed the “logical tendency” of women seeking equal wages was communism and free love.) Conservative clergy called the early advocates “unsexed,” “Amazons,” “she-men,” (their word for lesbians), and harlots. A woman’s place was in the home, behind — not beside — men.
Responding to religious critics
While some of the other women’s rights leaders gave up on organized religion, Nichols did not, for she knew that many women would not support women’s rights if they thought the Bible said otherwise. Nichols debated ministers in public lyceums, chided them on their inconsistencies, lectured them on their responsibilities, and used humor to poke fun at their more ludicrous claims.
“There is not one word in the Bible about woman suffrage,” she said in response to the charge that the Bible forbade enfranchising women. “Neither is there one word about apple dumplings. I don’t believe they had any in Paul’s day, not man suffrage either, for there is not a word in the Good Book about suffrage for anybody.”
“Let the woman learn in silence”
One of the biggest impediments to women’s rights was the injunction against women speaking to a “promiscuous” (mixed male and female) audience. This was considered not only unseemly and unwomanly but heretical and blasphemous. Telling women to be silent — censoring and ridiculing those who spoke out — was an effective way of shutting down dissent and discourse, even in the most innocuous situations. Nichols once told about a minister who was conducting a meeting at his church that only women ended up attending. Since he, a man, was present, the women were not allowed to use their own words to express their thoughts. He restricted the women to responding with memorized Bible passages or hymn verses. What an interesting meeting that must have been!
Less amusing were the times Nichols was shut out of churches where she had been promised a hearing. Or when the ministers who publicly denounced the early women’s rights advocates wrote scathing personal attacks about them in the newspapers and warned their congregations about the dangers of entertaining such far-fetched ideas as equality of the sexes.
Confronting family violence
Worst of all, husbands in Nichols’s time used the exalted position they felt the Bible gave them to apply “moderate correction” when their wives displeased them or failed to follow their desires or directions. Laws against spousal and child abuse were decades away. Some men even bragged about beating their wives, “to keep them in line.” While traveling in upstate New York one time, Nichols came across a minister who was spanking his two-month-old baby and berating his wife for her failure to keep the child quiet. Nichols and another woman stepped in to tell him that his behavior might injure the baby, and the minister flew into a rage. Using St. Paul as his authority, he told them they had no right to interfere with a man’s right to run his family any way he pleased. Legally, he was right.
Nichols’s “Bible Position of Woman”
In 1869 Nichols published her “Bible Position of Woman,” a treatise she had been working on for a decade in which she deconstructed the passages that were traditionally dragged out to prooftext religion’s prejudices against women. Was Adam less a sinner than Eve? she asked. Weren’t they both sinners, and hadn’t God given them both “co-sovereignty” of the earth? Wasn’t God’s statement to Eve that Adam would rule over her merely a prediction, not a statement of divine will?
Co-sovereignty, the idea that men and women could live and work as partners in the world, was one of the most radical ideas in the 19th century women’s rights movement. That idea was lost in later years of the century as the focus of the movement narrowed to suffrage in order to bring in the legions of women and men necessary to pass that important measure. The earlier advocates, however, did not let up on other issues they considered important.
In answer to a question posed by the Woman’s Journal “Shall Women Preach?” Nichols responded as follows:
Yes, they must preach, and preach they will….From the beginning our pulpits, more especially those of the Orthodox sects, have taught and fostered a despotic relation of the sexes. Man to rule: Woman to be ruled. In the marriage relation, he with the powers of a despot, she with no rights and the obligations of a slave.
The slavery analogy
Though there are obviously huge differences between the plight of slaves and the plight of women, the early women’s rights advocates were quick to see parallels between fugitive slaves and runaway wives. Harboring or helping either could result in large fines or jail time. Nichols goes on:
Do I charge them [the clergy] falsely? Their Bible commentaries, their periodicals, their theological schools bear witness. The clergy themselves bear willing testimony in the pulpit, in conference, and on the lecture platform, with notable exceptions they stigmatize us as ‘unsexed women’ ‘Amazons,’ ‘the self-willed women of the period,’ etc. Yet two-thirds, at least, of the women prominent in the movement for legal and political equality are or have been members of Christian churches, in the Church of out of it, holding fast to the teachings of the Saviour as the Magna Charta of their freedom and of human rights.
Prelude to First Wave feminism
Most people who think of the First Wave of feminism recall the early 20th century. They remember the pictures in textbooks of women in white dresses and big hats marching down the streets with signs reading “Votes for Women” or the militant measures taken by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns in the final decade of the suffrage struggle when they staged the hunger strikes portrayed so graphically in the film Iron Jawed Angels.
But there is a story that pre-dates those later efforts, and it involves the heroic efforts of women like Clarina Nichols who began their work in the years before the Civil War. These early efforts — and they involved legions of women and men — are as important to women’s history as the Middle Passage is important to African American history.
Knowing what these women faced and what they went through and what they advocated helps us understand today’s situation, not only in the United States but around the world. These stories give us the history and the bedrock on which we stand and on which we can build. Women like Clarina Nichols have the power to inspire and encourage women today to keep on keeping on. It is time to recover and reclaim that history.
© 2006 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, volume 30, number 2, Summer (July-September) 2006