Indiana at 200 (40): Dublin Hosted 1st Women’s Conference
by Andrea Neal
Hoosier women have come a long way since the mid-19th century when a proposal for women’s suffrage generated more scorn than acceptance.
One political leader summed up the views of the day when he noted that women already enjoyed “the rights which the Bible designed them to have in this Christian land of ours.”
By 1847, married women had obtained limited property rights in Indiana, but the right to vote was still a fanciful idea.
“Few people took it seriously and many ridiculed it or looked upon it as a dangerous manifestation of radicalism, contrary to the teachings of the Scripture,” noted the historian Emma Lou Thornbrough in Indiana during the Civil War Era.
In October 1851, three years after Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., Indiana suffragists summoned a similar meeting at Dublin in Wayne County.
They declared that “unless women demand their rights politically, socially and financially, they will continue in the future as in the past, to be classed with Negroes, criminals, insane persons, idiots and infants.” While their rhetoric seems indelicate today, it launched a movement that did not quit until the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.
The Dublin delegates adopted a constitution that called for annual meetings with reports to be given on working conditions and pay, legal rights and the education of women. In 1852, the convention met in Richmond and formally created the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association.
In 1859, more than 1,000 Hoosiers signed a petition urging the legislature to grant equal political rights to women and to eliminate laws that made distinctions on account of gender. The issue was referred to a committee, which reported back that it saw no need for legislation at that time.
The association was inactive from 1859 to 1867 because the debate over slavery and the Civil War eclipsed the concerns of women. At both state and national levels, efforts to tie women’s rights to black rights and abolitionism were not successful.
State efforts picked up steam after the territorial legislature of Wyoming granted women the right to vote in 1869. Colorado, Utah and Idaho followed suit in the 19th century.
In Indiana, one feminist forced the issue by attempting to vote in Lafayette in the November 1894 election. After Helen Gougar was turned away by the Tippecanoe County Election Board, she filed a lawsuit alleging her rights had been violated. The case went to the Indiana Supreme Court, where Gougar argued the case herself. The justices denied her arguments, ruling that voting was a privilege not a right, and “it is held only by those to whom it is granted,” i.e., men, according to the terms of the 1851 state constitution.
Popular support for women’s suffrage grew during World War I due to the significant role women played on the home front. In 1917, the Indiana legislature approved a law allowing women to vote in presidential elections.
In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the vote in all elections across the country. The Indiana Constitution was amended the following year to reflect women’s new political standing.
Note to readers: This is one in a series of essays that lead up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directions: The Woman’s Rights Convention marker is at 2224 Cumberland Road in Dublin, the corner of U.S. 40 and Davis Street.