What one notices, when studying Gilded Age Salem histories, besides the racial hegemony (white) presented by biographies and illustrations, is the gender inequality. Women are barely mentioned in the Salem section of 1888's History of Essex County, save as beloved wives, or simply named as daughters.
The Salem portion of the History occupies nearly 250 pages; in the section devoted to literature, fully 3½ columns are devoted to effusive discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne's life and work. Two columns, in contrast, suffice to account for multiple women writers; one separate column is devoted to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and includes her two sisters.
Yet, of course, women were active in nearly every aspect of the town's life, public and private; as artists, musicians, actors, organizers, retailers, philanthropists, activists, orators, teachers, and, of course, as industrial workers.
One very interesting manifestation of changing attitudes, and pushback against that change, can be seen in the ongoing published reactions to a speech given in January 1870 by Mary Livermore (1820-1905), advocating "The Reasons Why" women should be given the vote, and fuller equality in every area of life.
During the Civil War, Livermore worked with the Sanitary Commission in Chicago. The U.S. Sanitary Commission was an organization that provided medical care to Union troops, particularly focusing on areas where the government could not effectively operate. After the war, she worked tirelessly for women's organizations such as the American Woman Suffrage Association (president 1875-1878) and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, wrote for reform periodicals and made speeches, nationwide, on a variety of reform and liberal causes.
She was familiar to Salem audiences. In her Salem speech, she is quoted as saying:
"Women who are true women, dislike and are ill-contented with that condition by which they lie back doing nothing and are supported in idleness. If you think we are content to lie back while you are fighting the battles of life, you are mistaken…. It is no struggle for vulgar supremacy that we are engaged in. We ask only for equality (Salem Gazette, January 18, 1870)."
This speech immediately touched off a virtual firestorm of articles and letters to the editor published over the next few months in the Gazette, many of them running angrily or scornfully against women's desires for "equality" or mocking specific points of Livermore's speech, although a smaller number of reader responses were highly supportive of her main themes.
The letters often reflected not only entrenched gender attitudes, but cultural and racial prejudices as well, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. The argument was often made in a variety of ways that women already had plenty of influence over their husbands' political life in their domestic spheres and did not need the vote:
"Messrs. Editors.—It was pleasing the other evening in listening to Mrs. Livermore's lecture, to be informed of the very happy fact that women almost invariably love their husbands so well as to prefer to die by whatever manner of fate with them, to living without them….
… Mrs. L. also enlightened us, that because women loved the men so well, and wives were so bound up in their husbands, and sisters in their brothers, they ought as well as they to go to the polls and vote! It is not good for men, "to live alone” or vote alone."
Then another query came.—If the women are so fondly attached to their male friends or husbands, will they not vote respectively the same way, or if they can influence the men all to vote their “better” (?) way, cannot they as well change the men to their side at home without themselves voting?…."
"ONE LISTENER" had this to say about the idea that giving women the vote would aid the cause of temperance:
"Listener is too stupid to see how voting by females is to stop rum selling and drinking and thereby all intemperance. “Ladies” at balls and parties love their glasses of “wine” as well as the men do and the “common women” buy, sell and drink whiskey (“rot gut”) and ale. Let who doubts go through our market square and Front Street on Saturday evening, and see the women with cabbages in one hand and whiskey jugs or bottles in the other, going in and out of those miserable dens and poisonous rum holes which pervade that vicinity."
A writer signing themselves as "JUSTICE," entered the discussion with a different attitude:
"It seems to us that the right of suffrage does not depend on whether women will get more work, better pay, or make a more desirable wife; neither does it matter that many women do not wish to vote. It certainly does not require much insight to see, that men have no ... right to say that women shall not have a voice in making the laws which they are subject to… Why should not woman be measured by the same standard."
Next week: Salem Argues "The Woman Question," part two
Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society and author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010). She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have recorded two new albums of 19th-century music for 2011. Reach her at http://singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to http://salemhistorysociety.org.