Like many of you, for many years I have known the names of and something about leading U.S. feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906). However, I knew nothing about Clarina Nichols, another outstanding feminist, until rather recently.
But Clarina is also a woman definitely worth knowing about.
Fairly recently, June and I have become friends with Diane Eickhoff and her husband Aaron Barnhart. After becoming acquainted with Diane, I found out that she had written a book titled “Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights” (2006).
I decided to read Diane’s book and discovered that not only was it very well written, but Ms. Nichols was also a remarkable woman. I was happy to learn about her life and achievements.
Clarina Irene Howard was born in Vermont on January 25, 1810. At the age of 20 she married Justin Carpenter, who turned out to be a weak man, unable to provide for his wife and their three children. They separated in 1839, and her divorce in 1843 was granted on the basis of “cruelty, unkindness, and intolerable severity.”
Clarina then married George Nichols, a newspaper editor and a widower twenty-eight years her senior. Clarina became an editor alongside, and then in place of, her husband, and from that position became one of this country’s earliest advocates for women’s rights.
In 1854 she pulled up stakes to pioneer in “bleeding Kansas” when that part of the country was enmeshed in the struggle over slavery, another issue that greatly concerned her.
According to Diane, “As an independent, self-supporting woman, . . . she challenged conservative clergy, championed abused wives, and changed laws affecting women in several states.”
Clarina Nichols died 130 years ago this past Sunday, on January 11, 1885. Interestingly, Alice Paul was born on that very same day. Alice grew up to be an indefatigable advocate for women’s suffrage, which Clarina dreamed of and worked for so laboriously but without success.
Finally, because of Alice’s efforts, along with those of many others, in 1920 woman in this country finally were given the right to vote, 35 years after Clarina’s death.
Some of you might be interested in reading Diane’s book. And some of you might have already seen, or may want to see, “Iron Jawed Angels,” the engaging 2004 film about Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their struggle that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Ms. Paul is admirably played by talented actress Hilary Swank. (Last June when I was in Maloy, Iowa, visiting Brian Terrell whom I wrote about here, I heard that Hilary Swank’s father, Steve who had grown up in Ringgold County where Maloy is located, had bought the old Catholic church in that village and lives in the former church rectory.)
It was because of women such as Clarina and Alice that all U.S. women finally acquired voting rights. But there is still a long way to go for there to be gender equality in this nation. For example, in the 114th U.S. Congress that convened for the first time this month, there are 84 women in the House of Representatives and 20 women serving in the Senate.
But even though women make up half of the population, women still comprise only about 20% of those serving in Congress. That percentage is growing, though—and from what I hear there is a strong possibility that the next POTUS will be a woman.