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Book review: Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood by Marilyn S. Blackwell and Kristen T. Oertel


Published December 8, 2010 at 6:42 a.m.


It’s startling to recall that, before the Civil War, American women were powerless. They could not vote on their local school boards, let alone in national elections. Married women could not own property, control money they inherited, or even lay claim to the meager wages they earned as seamstresses and teachers. In most states, they couldn’t divorce except by proving their husbands’ infidelity. If successful, they lost custody of their children.

But women were angels of the home, exalted as superior moral influences on men and idealized as nurturing mothers.

This was thoroughly inadequate compensation in the eyes of radical “woman’s rights” activists such as Susan B. Anthony (b. 1820), Lucy Stone (b. 1818) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (b. 1815). These women’s bold efforts came to define the antebellum women’s movement, later known as the first wave of American feminism.

But for the slightly older activist Clarina Howard Nichols, born in 1810 in West Townshend, Vt., women’s supposed virtue and prescribed roles were the very basis of an argument to expand women’s rights. Women need to be able to control their own destinies, Nichols contended, because as mothers they shape the next generation of civil society. This sounded, and still sounds, like a reasonable strategy. Why not try to change patriarchy by working within it?

Well, for one thing, you won’t seem radical enough to be remembered by history. As Marilyn Blackwell and Kristen Oertel reveal in Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood, Nichols was a well-regarded activist and public speaker in her day who knew Anthony, Stone and Stanton. But “her maternalist rhetoric failed to resonate with most second-wave feminists,” the authors write, and she was “considered by many historians to be a supportive but conservative — and therefore lesser — player in the antebellum movement.”

Blackwell, an independent scholar living in Montpelier, and Oertel, a history professor at the University of Tulsa, never refute the charge of conservatism in their highly readable and widely researched book. What they do is restore to visibility an important figure in the movement by offering the first complete chronicle of Nichols’ activist life, which took her from the Northeast to the Kansas frontier and, finally, to California.

As the authors paint her, Nichols was forever shaped by the ideal of womanly propriety that defined her comfortable middle-class upbringing. Her father, a town developer, made sure his daughters and sons received equal educations. But, whereas Nichols’ equally smart cousin Alphonso Taft entered the legislature and eventually fathered President Taft, the goal for Nichols was always marriage.

Unfortunately, her first one, to Justin Carpenter of Townshend at the age of 20, was a bad one. It lasted a decade and, according to the authors, demoralized her to such an extent that she spent the rest of her life covering it up and fearing public scorn for being a divorcée. According to the scant record, Carpenter made a series of bad business decisions while the couple was living in New York, burned through Nichols’ considerable dowry and vented his frustrations on his wife in some form of “cruelty,” as Nichols described it later in an autobiography.

Vermont already had a relatively progressive divorce law that allowed women to split for reasons of “intolerable severity” (not just infidelity), but only if the abuse happened in the state. Nichols, who had three children with Carpenter, endured the public humiliation of divorce procedures because her father had connections in the Vermont legislature. Her case resulted in an amended state divorce law allowing native Vermonters to claim “intolerable severity” no matter where it happened.

Divorce allowed her to remarry — this time to a nice man, George Nichols of Brattleboro, editor of the Windham County Democrat. Yet Nichols remained opposed to divorce rights until her death in 1885, even as she eventually supported her fellow women activists’ other progressive causes of antislavery and women’s suffrage.

After her second marriage, Nichols developed a public persona armored in bourgeois respectability — first as increasingly autonomous “editress” of her husband’s newspaper, and later as an admired speaker on temperance and women’s rights. When demure femininity and emotional appeals through stories of women victimized by their husbands’ excesses failed to sway, she developed a character columnist named Deborah Van Winkle, the lower-class but hard-working wife of the lazy Rip, to voice indignation at the decisions of men in power. To the common argument that men’s greater physical strength indicated their natural superiority, Mrs. Van Winkle retorted, “God and the angels and glorified sperits hain’t got no bodies.”

Blackwell and Oertel may not have had much to go on in writing Nichols’ early history, but they make up for it by providing richly detailed descriptions of life in southern Vermont during the 1830s and ’40s. Glimpses of Brattleboro’s golden age as a site of natural-springs-turned-profitable-healthful-retreat are riveting. The Nicholses took advantage of the tourist influx by taking in boarders, one of whom was the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

As an evangelical Baptist, Nichols became increasingly involved in the temperance movement — an entrée to public speaking for many a women’s-rights activist who argued that a married woman with a drunk husband needed legal recourse. The idea of a woman publicly addressing a mixed-gender audience angered the men and conservative clerics who headed the temperance movement, not to mention the public. But, under cover of her soothing femininity, Nichols became increasingly fearless on the trigger issues of her day. She joined the antislavery Free-Soil Party, carefully weighed in on fellow activist Amelia Bloomer’s new, physically freeing garb for women (bloomers and a loose tunic) and even took up vegetarianism.

After speaking successfully at a major temperance convention in New York City along with Sojourner Truth, Nichols was invited to lecture for six weeks in Wisconsin. Her first taste of the West changed her life. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed in 1854, allowing the new territory’s settlers to determine its destiny as slave or free state, she dropped her editing position at the Democrat and joined masses of antislavery Northerners on trains to Kansas to scope out a new home for her family. (George joined her a year later.) To proslavery Missourians who accused Northerners of being unequal to the challenges of frontier settlement, Nichols responded via letters to the press that Free-Staters needed only the civilizing presence of more wives to succeed in settling the territory.

In Kansas, Nichols managed to spur the legislature to pass “school suffrage.” The right of women to vote on school boards was the first sally in the long fight to win complete suffrage.

As Blackwell and Oertel continue chronicling Nichols’ activism in Kansas and California, the detailed cultural, historical and political contextualization they provide proves as interesting as Nichols’ own story. Their narrative leaves a lasting impression of the amount and varieties of resistance this country mounted to the idea of women’s equal rights. In Kansas, the question of slavery crowded out women’s call for autonomy, even though the two ideas were inseparably linked; in California, opponents of the women’s movement perniciously tied it to sexual licentiousness, giving Nichols yet another opportunity to defend female rights from the secure position of a matron.

Though the authors’ narrative voice is consistently engaging, they seem overly judicious in allowing Nichols’ own voice to be heard. Yet each direct quote from Nichols’ writing or speeches made this reader long for more. It’s a shame the authors couldn’t include an appendix reprinting a few of her Van Winkle columns, or perhaps the text of Nichols’ first speech, which the authors identify as one of a very few extant records revealing her oratory power.

One can quibble with certain aspects of Frontier Feminist — the organization of the endnotes in grouped references forces the reader to hunt for sources, and the authors make suggestions that occasionally seem to lack sufficient historical support. But one cannot argue with the book’s significant achievement, which is to bring to life a fascinating woman whose search for a compromise between femininity and radicalism will sound familiar to many 21st-century beneficiaries of the women’s movement.