North Country newspapers, the only media during the 1800s, were slow to come around and at times downright resistant to women’s rights. Their job was to report the news, but in order to maintain readership, they also had to cater to their customers — like the old adage says, “give ’em what they want.” That atmosphere made it difficult for new and progressive ideas, like women’s rights, to make headway.
The push for women’s rights exposed many inequities early on, but it was difficult to establish a foothold among other important stories of the day. The powerful anti-slavery movement of the 1800s presented an opportunity, for although women and slaves were at opposite ends of the spectrum in the popular imagination — women on a pedestal and slaves treated terribly — they sought many of te same goals: freedom to speak out on their own behalf, the right to vote, and equal pay for equal work. Women passionate about those subjects joined anti-slavery organizations to seek freedom and equal rights for all, regardless of race or sex.
What they soon discovered was that white men, who controlled nearly all facets of life, would battle valiantly for the rights of African Americans to be treated as their equals, but refused to do the same for women. A schism developed in the anti-slavery movement over whether or not women should be allowed to speak at meetings and offer their anti-slavery input (by religious and public law, women in many places were forbidden to speak at public gatherings).
Some leaders, like William Lloyd Garrison, stood firmly on behalf of equal rights for all, which allowed women to promote their own cause and that of the slaves. Among their leaders was Susan B. Anthony, who carried that message far and wide, including the North Country. Besides frequent visits to the legislative halls in Albany, she delivered private lectures at many locations across the northern counties, from Plattsburgh in the east to Watertown in the west, and stops in between. The message was simple: women were the equal of men, and thus should have equal rights. And while equal pay for equal work was critical, tops on the list was the right to vote, which was seen as the key to obtaining all other rights.
It was with great dismay that the truth was recognized: men fought and died by the hundreds of thousands for the rights of African Americans to vote, earn a living, and be free, but denied their own mothers, wives, and daughters some of those same rights for another half century after the war.
Newspapers of the North Country for the most part stood strong behind the anti-slavery movement, but did comparatively little to advance the rights of women. As the sole providers of news and commentary, newsmen exerted powerful influence over readers. In the post-Civil War decades, as Anthony and others battled for equality, their efforts were diminished in print by personal attacks, insults, and commentary disguised as humor. The effect was to portray women’s rights advocates as unattractive, unfemale, and unwanted.
Susan B. Anthony was a frequent target. After she lectured in Jefferson County, the Lowville Democrat said, “she would give all her old boots to be a man.” The Daily Journal of Ogdensburg said, “it really does seem as though somebody might give Susan a cold potato and let her go.” During the wars against Native Americans out west, when Anthony was on a lecture tour, the Journal wrote, “Susan B. Anthony is bearing down on Texas, and Texans think of emigrating over into the Indian Territory.” Another piece in the Journal said, “Susan B. Anthony is no nearer the climax of her hopes than she was twenty years ago. She has simply thrown away twenty years of her life, which would be worth $200 a year in a cheese factory.”
Papers in the north and across the country published a supposedly comical story about a person suggesting they had been knocked across a railroad car by the punch of a prizefighter, only to find out it was Anthony.
The Malone Palladium, Ogdensburg Journal, and others ran short items that made fun of her elderly status, comparing it to the age of countries or of the earth itself. Funny, sure, but addressing a woman’s age was never meant as a compliment. A story in the Plattsburgh Republican referred to “the indefatigable old war-nag, Miss Susan B. Anthony.”
Much of it seemed petty and certainly not worthy of newspaper editors, but as a public figure, Anthony was an easy target. The best response was to laugh and keep fighting, but such frequent negative portrayals, compared to so few mentions of her accomplishments, painted an unfair picture.
Newspapers did publish some articles supportive of suffragettes, and sometimes carried Anthony’s responses to negative or erroneous pieces. When an Iowa editor wrote that the women agitating for rights “were all old maids or childless married women,” newspapers, including the Ogdensburg Journal, featured Anthony’s reply that she was the only one not to have married, and provided a list of 15 prominent suffragists who had a combined 62 offspring. After a visit to promote the cause in England, Anthony was asked if the 1,000 female doctors practicing there were the equal of their masculine counterparts. Utilizing some humor of her own, she replied, “As far as I’ve been able to tell, they kill as large a proportion of their patients, and receive as exorbitant fees for so doing, as male practitioners.”
Despite the criticisms “she persisted” (to borrow a modern phrase) and in doing so Anthony helped change America. The Suffragettes wanted equality, including a primary goal of equal pay for equal work. They defined voting rights as the key to fixing all their problems, but history shows that equal pay has been an ongoing issue. It was pushed by Anthony and others in the 1800s, but has been rejected year after year.
Finally, in 1920, women won the right to vote, but equal pay didn’t follow. In 1944, exerting new-found power as part of the wartime workforce, New York women finally won the day with a law banning pay discrimination based on sex. A federal statute was expected to follow soon after, but annually for the next 18 years, equal pay was rejected by Congress. In 1962, it was pointed out that 38 countries, including Canada and Mexico, already had equal pay laws, and the so-called “greatest country in the world” lagged far behind. That year marked the first time the measure passed the House of Representatives — but it failed after being watered-down by a rider allowing employers to cut the pay of men to the level of women rather than raise women to the pay level of men.
Finally, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963 and took effect in June 1964. But as we now know, the fight hardly ended there. For nearly two decades, violations of the new law increased. In 1981, more ground was gained when the Supreme Court allowed women to sue over sex discrimination, including issues of equal pay.
But despite subsequent laws passed under several presidents, the inequities continued. In 2000, government figures confirmed that women of equal talent, ability, and education earned only 75 percent of what men earned on the same job.
In 2016, a congressional report titled Gender Pay Inequality found that women working full time earn $10,800 less per year than men. Other findings were just as disturbing. On average, women currently earn 79 percent of what men earn, but the older women get, the larger the discrepancy. At 18 to 24, they earn 88 percent of a man’s pay. At age 35, it drops to 76 percent. By age 65, women are paid only 44 percent of what men are paid. As usual, even worse figures apply to women of color: African-American females make only 60 percent of what men are paid, and for Latinas the number is 55 percent. Those numbers also drastically reduce retirement funds.
As an advertisement said during the Women’s Liberation Movement: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” But it’s a national embarrassment that 170 years after Susan B. Anthony sought equal pay for equal work, huge inequities still exist, and for the same reasons that were blamed a century ago.
Rather than honor women’s history for a month, let’s do something really honorable — stop resisting and provide blanket equality for all.
Photos: 1944 headline, Plattsburgh Press-Republican; 1955 headline, North Country Catholic; 1964 headline, Plattsburgh Press-Republican; 2016 Congressional Report
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.