From Domestic Goddesses to Suffragists: The Story of Women Told on Bookbindings, 1820-1920


Oh! Well! You Know How Women Are!
(George H. Doran, 1919)

By the end of the 19th century, women broke from the mold ascribed to them by the Cult of Domesticity. Women no longer were confined to the home or the job of motherhood. Thanks largely to the Women's Rights Movement, women were able to do just about anything men could.

Women's Rights Movement

The fight for women’s rights officially began after two women–Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott–unsuccessfully attempted to serve as delegates to an anti-slavery convention in 1840. The pair joined with a handful of other activists to plan the first Women’s Rights Convention, which took place in Seneca Falls, New York, 1848.

The Women’s Rights movement gained momentum after the Civil War, when women’s involvement in war work gave them leadership, organizational, and occupational skills. In 1866, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, dedicated to universal suffrage for men and women of all races.


Mary Ware in Texas
(L. C. Page and Co., 1910)

Disagreement over the 15th amendment, granting suffrage to black men, split the women’s rights movement in two. Stanton and Anthony’s group became the National Women’s Suffrage Association, which used radical means in an effort to achieve their goal. A conservative group led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe became the American Women’s Suffrage Association.

The main purpose of both groups was to gain a place for women in the political sphere. By the time the Women’s Suffrage Amendment first was introduced to Congress in 1878, women’s place in society was changing. Women were becoming better educated, thanks to a number of women’s colleges founded in the 1860s and ‘70s. Dress reform led by Amelia Bloomer in the 1850s dramatically changed women’s fashions. Improvements to birth control in the 1850s reduced the number of children women had, and their newfound skills gleaned during the Civil War allowed them to secure occupations outside the home.

Fighting for Suffrage

Women also learned techniques that allowed them to lobby for reform. A major target of these newly empowered women was the sale of liquor. Their prohibition crusade in the 1870s led to the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which also promoted women’s suffrage. The temperance movement spurred distillers, brewers, and saloon owners to campaign against suffrage, fearing that the female vote would spell their doom.


Woman and Temperance
(James Betts & Co., 1883)

Opposition from the liquor lobby and others contributed to Congress’s initial failure to ratify the Women’s Suffrage Amendment. The two main suffrage organizations soon merged into the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, under Stanton’s leadership. Suffragists lobbied for voting rights for more than 70 years before the 19th amendment finally took effect in 1920. In the mean time, state and territorial suffrage measures fully enfranchised women in Wyoming (1869), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Alaska (1913), Nevada (1914), Montana (1914), New York (1917), Michigan (1918), Oklahoma (1918), and South Dakota (1918). Several other states passed partial suffrage measures. Jeanette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to serve on the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916.

That same year, the Congressional Union, led by Alice Paul, became the National Women’s Party. CU emerged in 1913 as a militant branch of the NAWSA, seeking suffrage by radical means such as hunger strikes and picketing. After the 19th amendment passed, the NAWSA became the League of Women Voters. The NWP turned its attention to the Equal Rights Amendment. Introduced in 1923, the measure aimed to eliminate all discrimination on the basis of gender. It never has been ratified.

Women Writers Take a Stand


Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern
(Mason Brothers, 1855)

Like the Cult of Domesticity, the Women’s Rights Movement produced a number of female writers. This occurred directly, as activists including Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony founded publications for the purpose of advocating their causes. The movement also produced writers indirectly. As women entered the workforce, journalism became a popular profession for women. Some newspaperwomen, such as Nelly Bly, Fanny Fern, and Anne Royall, became famous.

Several prominent female magazinists emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rebecca Harding Davis contributed to a number of magazines, including Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Scribner’s, in the 1860s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Ida Tarbell is best known for her expose “The History of Standard Oil,” published in McClure’s Magazine in 1904. She also edited American Magazine and was the author of several biographies.

Female fiction writers of the time included Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of romance novels and children’s books in the 1880s, ‘90s, and early 1900s; Willa Cather, whose novels were popular in the 1910s and ‘20s; and Zora Neale Hurston, a product of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s.

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Women's History Teaching Resources based on Publishers' Bindings Online

Women's History K-5 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

Women's History 6-12 lesson plan: Word document or PDF file

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Related Online Resources

American Women's History: A Research Guide, Middle Tennessee State University:

Cairns Collection of American Women Writers, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

National Women's History Project:

Women of the Century, Discovery School:

Women's History Month, The History Channel:


Bald, Marjory A. Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963.

Beddoe, Deirdre. Discovering Women’s History: A Practical Manual. Boston: Pandora Press, 1983.

Clinton, Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1984.

Lewis, Jane. Before the Vote was Won: Arguments for and Against Women’s Suffrage. New York : Routledge & K. Paul, 1987.

Matthews, Glenna. “Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Norquay, Glenda, ed. Voices and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Warren, Joyce W., ed. The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-century Women Writers. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Women and Literature: An Annotated Bibliography of Women Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Women and Literature Collective, 1976.

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