How “Democracy in America” Worked for Women’s Associations

Alexis deTocqueville writes of civic associations, such as religious, municipal and myriad other uses in Democracy in America as capturing the benefits of democracy. He distinguishes America from Europe and explains how associations complement democracy thusly,

“Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States. Thus the most democratic country on earth is found to be, above all, the one where men in our day have most perfected the art of pursuing the object of their common desires in common and have applied this new science to the most objects….Could it be that there in fact exists a necessary relation between associations and equality….Sentiments and ideas renew themselves, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another. I have shown that this action is almost nonexistent in a democratic country. It is therefore necessary to create it artificially there.”

New York and Pennsylvania were among the earliest states to adopt Married Women’s Property Acts (MWPA) to de-Coverture their states in 1845. These states were influential, and slowly thereafter, other states passed various versions of de-Coverture laws. There is little doubt that de-Coverture and the public popularity of Democracy in America resulted in women’s political action. In 1848, 44 women met in Seneca Falls, NY and devoted two days to their first convention. They stated their grievances – The Declaration of Sentiment — which included suffrage, politics, family, education, jobs, religion, property and morals as issues. When they dispersed, each person took up whichever grievance they were most interested. An almost immediate result was women’s presence in the National Liberty Party presidential nominating convention. Even though women could not vote, they were welcomed by the men who ran the convention. Gerrit Smith was their party’s presidential candidate, and Smith made woman suffrage a plank in the platform. Then, among nominees for Vice President was Lucretia Mott, one of the women who had attended the Seneca Falls Convention. She ultimately received five votes and is the first woman nominated to a federal executive office.

For the most part, the women’s movement, aside from support for abolition, did not become widespread in America until after the Civil War. The first phase coincided with the Progressive Era beginning in the 1870s, and followed by a second phase of African American women in the mid-1890s. Black women’s organizations tended to be church-related and to provide benevolence to needy blacks. Non-religious associations, such as the National Association of Colored Women grew out of anti-lynching campaigns. White women’s clubs grew among middle-class women having more time to devote to sharing ideas. When publicly acting upon these ideas and issues they formed associations for the betterment of society based on Victorian ideas that women were morally superior to men. May 21, 2020