The deep overlaps between 19th century woman’s rights and suffrage activism -- indeed, nineteenth century feminism generally -- and the freethought movement should surprise no one. After all, the traditional Christian churches of that time were the most ferocious defenders of two ancient certainties: (1) women were inferior because God had made them that way, and (2) male domination over women was simply part of God’s plan. And did we mention that God is male?
Given all of this, it only makes sense that the three ranking leaders of the nineteenth century woman’s rights and suffrage movements were a moderately outspoken freethinker (Elizabeth Cady Stanton) ... an outrageously outspoken freethinker (Matilda Joslyn Gage) ... and Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was the "traditionalist" of this group, but even she was a radical religious liberal (first a Quaker, later a Unitarian). Even so, at the height of her power over the suffrage movement, Anthony would make overtures to religious conservative groups, believing such alliances necessary to win women the vote.
When women won the vote in 1920, the North American Woman Suffrage Association, then the foremost pro-suffrage organization, became the League of Women Voters, still active today.
Suffrage was a profoundly radical movement that sought to upend one of Western society’s most deeply rooted traditions: the systematic disenfranchisement of one half of the human race. No wonder freethinkers were so easily found within its ranks.
These nineteenth century movements helped to shape the twentieth, most of all with the extension of the franchise to women in 1920. There were other influences, too, including the hugely popular children’s books of L. Frank Baum, who married the youngest daughter of Matilda Joslyn Gage and spent years absorbing Gage’s freethinking and feminist ideas. In Baum’s land of Oz women are men’s equals, religion is all but absent, and free individuals work out their differences with little involvement by the state.
This excitement all began in west-central New York State ... on today’s Freethought Trail.