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4 Women Who Changed U.S. Politics During Victoria's Reign

by Jacob Hillesheim
February 19, 2018 | I ❤️ PBS

During her 63-year reign over Great Britain, Queen Victoria oversaw tremendous domestic change and imperial expansion. An incredibly influential cultural figure, the Victorian Era was named for her. (She was so influential, in fact, she's even responsible for the tradition of white wedding dresses.) Her story has been told over and over again, perhaps most notably in the hit PBS series "Victoria," now in its second season.

But Victoria wasn't the only revolutionary woman of the era. What were women in the United States doing while the Queen presided over Pax Britannica during the better part of the 1800s? The answer, as usual, is more than most people think.

Owning American morality

U.S. Politics pbs rewire
Frances Willard, before 1898. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

When Victoria assumed the throne in 1837, American women had virtually no political rights. The Republican Motherhood movement made mothers responsible for raising the next generation of virtuous Americans. It came with no rights, but women in the United States used Republican Motherhood to claim ownernship over American morality, and as a result, exerted incredible influence through reform movements.

Before the American Civil War, women like Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton fought for abolition and women’s suffrage. After the war, women both led and made up the rank and file of other major reform movements that accomplished a lot given the low political status of their leaders and members.

Frances Willard and the Temperance Movement

One such leader was Frances Willard, who became president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1879. Willard forged strong personal bonds with her followers and her outstanding speeches rallied many against the evils of alcohol. Although the organization faded after Willard’s death in 1898, the Temperance Movement led to Prohibition in 1920.

I can hear your booing from across the internet, but it’s worth remembering that, at the time, alcoholism was seen as a moral issue. Husbands drank away the meager paychecks their families desperately needed or came home drunk and abused their wives and children. Prohibition arguably ended up creating larger problems than it solved, but everything’s obvious in hindsight.

Jane Addams and the Settlement House Movement

U.S. Politics pbs rewire
Jane Addams, ca. 1926. Photo by Bain News Service via Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Addams’ career as a reformer stretched across the 19th and 20th centuries. America’s rapid industrialization in the 19th century brought millions of people, mostly immigrants and young farmers displaced by improved farm technology, into the nation’s growing cities. While jobs were plentiful, cities simply did not have the infrastructure to support so many people. This led to the Settlement House Movement, which set up community centers to help urban-dwellers, especially recent immigrants, with literacy, housing and employment.

Jane Addams, co-founder of Chicago’s Hull House, was the most famous leader of this movement. Later in her career, Addams turned her attention to foreign policy, and she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her efforts in anti-imperialism and pacifism. Queen Victoria probably would not have appreciated that last part.

Ida B. Wells and anti-lynching legislation

U.S. Politics pbs rewire
Ida B. Wells ca. 1893. Photo by Mary Garrity via Wikimedia Commons.

While Addams and Willard's efforts were positive, they did little to help African Americans who battled the racial codes etched in both U.S. law and custom. As a black woman, Ida B. Wells faced additional stereotypes and assumptions that white female reformers did not, but she did not let that stop her.

In 1892, one of Wells’ close friends was lynched. Wells became an investigative journalist, revealing that lynching was not vigilante justice for raped white women, as white Southerners held, but the brutal suppression of African Americans’ equality under the law. Wells weathered constant death threats, and fearlessly delivered speeches and confronted political leaders. Congress never passed an anti-lynching law, but Ida B. Wells challenged the nation’s racial hierarchy at a time when few other progressives did.

Victoria Woodhull and the election of 1872

A lack of political rights did not stop every woman from attempting to play a direct role in American politics. In 1870, American suffragist Victoria Woodhull announced she was running for president of the United States.

U.S. Politics pbs rewire
Victoria Woodhull, between 1866 and 1873. Photo by Mathew Brady via Wikimedia Commons.

“I am quite aware,” she began before outlining her domestic and foreign policy positions, “that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset… But this is an epoch of sudden changes and starling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow.”

Woodhull and her Equal Rights Party won few votes, and even had she won, she may not have been able to assume office (she did not turn the constitutionally-required age of thirty-five until after inauguration day). Still, it was a bold statement over a century before Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket.

Queen Victoria was empowered by royal blood. Without any direct political power, women in the United States claimed political authority via the launchpad of Republican Motherhood. More often than not, the reform movements led by American women during Queen Victoria’s reign pushed the United States to confront its problems and made the nation a better place.

Catch the season 2 finale of "Victoria" on Feb. 25. Check your local PBS station's schedule for broadcast dates and times. Stream the episode online starting the next day.

Jacob Hillesheim
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator, historian and ice cream enthusiast with master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history.
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