In 1851, while Elizabeth Oakes Smith penned a series of essays titled Woman and Her Needs for the New York Tribune defending the feminist movement, baby steps were being made in securing equal human rights for women. Smith's essays were widely read, and led her to opportunities to lecture on the subject. At that time, Smith's experience as an American woman was vastly different from the modern person. At the core of these essays were her beliefs that:
"It is the making of woman a creature of luxury--an object of sensuality--a vehicle for reproduction--or a thing of toil, each one, or all of these--that has caused half the miseries of the world. She, as a soul, has never been recognized. As a human being to sin and suffer she has had more than an acknowledgement. As a human being to obey her God, to think, to enjoy, men have been blind to her utmost needs. She has been treated always as subservient, and yet all the most entire responsibility has been exacted of her. She has no voice in the law and yet has been subjected to the heaviest penalties of the law. ...Men have written for us, thought for us; and they have constructed from their own consciousness and effigy of a woman to which we are expected to conform."(2)
In the 1850's women in NY state were not granted joint guardianship of their own children; they did not have the authority to will property, or control their own wages. Women could not vote; they had no say in lawmaking, but they could be arrested for breaking laws, and were subjected to capital punishment. Although the first female seminary (college) was opened at Troy by Emma Willard in 1821, girls were typically not encouraged by their families to seek higher education. Society was very much at odds with the feminists, and they were criticized heavily by the media. (1)
Those who chose to speak out for equal rights felt the pressure, but they did not step down from the platform. In an 1852 letter Lucretia Mott wrote,
"It is gratifying as well as encouraging that the author of Woman and Her Needs feels constrained to lift up her voice also on behalf of her sex." (3)
Women and Her Needs was a series of concise persuasive essays calling for a societal change of viewpoint on the intellectual and creative abilities of women. In her writing, Smith suggested that women should be able to pursue their talents and intellectual needs in addition to fulfilling their roles as wives and mothers. She encouraged the pursuit of careers and higher education for women, saying that families raise boys to become self-sufficient and girls to be dependent. Marriage, in this case, becomes a game in which its sanctity is lost. She argued for laws regulating the age of women who marry, explaining that a girl is not mature enough emotionally or intellectually to enter into a life-long contract with a man twice her age. (Smith was married at sixteen in 1822 to a 30 year old man. She had hopes of going to college to become a teacher.)
Smith was pro-divorce in cases where a marriage is arranged for a girl who is not yet of a consenting age, but against divorcing for frivolous reasons. She was anti-capital punishment, believing that women who have no say in law-making should not be executed. She argued that a society that makes women dependent on men keeps them impoverished sometimes financially, and always intellectually. It binds them to the home like children, and leaves them destitute as widows.
In her book Two American Pioneers, Mary Alice Wyman writes that Smith's husband, Seba, had no interest in the women's right's movement and did not approve of his wife's lecture tour on Woman and Her Needs, apparently having written in a letter to his sister in May 1952, "How long this filibustering is to last, Heaven only knows."(4)
Her high intellect and beauty made Smith a sought-after speaker. She lectured for six years after the 1951 publication of Woman and Her Needs. Being different from other early feminists, who seemed plain and stern, made her an odd fit in the group.
When Smith was nominated for the presidency of the Woman's Right's Convention, Susan B. Anthony "balked that Smith, appearing fashionably in a white, somewhat seductive, low-necked sleeveless gown could not represent 'the earnest, solid, hard-working women of this country.' " (5)
It seems that Smith didn't care much about the comments among early feminists about her dress, writing that "a large number of the reformers so called seem to have a spite against everything like refinement and culture."(5)
It was this understanding of fashion and contemporary culture that added to the normalcy of EOS, and made her such a standout. According to Beth Oakes, a great-grand-daughter of Smith who grew up hearing family stories of EOS, women "loved her" and her writing. In his book Mid-century America: life in the 1850's, Carl Bode writes "though a feminist, she was also feminine."
I think this stylish quality is one of the most intriguing things about Smith's character. It makes her bolder, in a sense, for not blending into the stodgy crowd of feminists. Despite the popularity she enjoyed for many years, it seems that Smith fell into obscurity in her old age. The feminist movement shifted, and for some reason she was not remembered like Mott, Stanton, and other leaders. In a Jan 15, 1887 entry in her diary, Smith wrote,
1. statistics from The Brooklyn Eagle, August 25, 1915
2. Woman and Her Needs, No. II. by Elizabeth Oakes Smith for the Tribune, (Novemember 30, 1850)
3. Letter from Lucretia Mott, Box 1 F.3 MSS. & Archives Section N.Y.P.L.
4. Wyman, Mary Alice. Two American Pioneers. p. 193
5. Letter to John H. Hesbreck Esqur. Oct. 15 1853. Box 1. F.6b. -
MSS. & Archives Section N.Y.P. L.