The Legacy of the White Pantsuit

Today, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s words ring as true now as they did a hundred years ago: “The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.”

If nothing else, Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy has sparked a renewed enthusiasm for talking about America’s suffragettes. Much of that interest is tied to Hillary Clinton’s “white pantsuit,” a conscious nod to the color that was most associated with the Votes for Women movement, along with the mass uptick in Election-Day pilgrimages to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite in Rochester, New York.

The suffragettes learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but perhaps chief among those lessons is that change is a journey — a journey that includes crossing lots and lots of borders in pursuit of a more equal world.

To be literal about it, Clinton traveled to 112 countries during her time as secretary of state, a number that makes her the most widely traveled U.S. state secretary ever. But long before Clinton’s miles of experience landed her the Democratic nomination for president, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to London in 1840.
Both crossed the Atlantic to attend the ground-breaking World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, and it was there that two of the foremost advocates for women’s equality would meet and put their heads together. And though neither of them lived to see the fruition of their biggest goal of all, every woman who voted yesterday should thank them for taking the first steps beyond the status quo.

Lucretia Mott, left, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

At the time of the London convention, Mott was 47 years old and a well-established voice in the American abolition movement. Though invited to the London convention as one of six formal delegates, the other five male delegates voted to formally exclude her participation. But Mott didn’t shy away; she was an active contributor to the various debates tackled at the convention, and she attracted a fan girl: 25-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a rising star in women’s rights circles who attended the London convention while on her honeymoon.

Mott and Stanton were fast friends, and while in London, they brainstormed the idea for a new women’s rights convention in America. That idea became the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which was the first organized push for U.S. suffrage. It would take another 72 years, but Seneca was an absolutely crucial starting point.

Mott and Stanton weren’t alone — many American suffragists had close ties the parallel women’s movements in England and Scotland or traveled elsewhere around the world to garner international support the for the U.S. cause. Here are just a few:

Susan B. Anthony

In 1883, spent nine months in Europe to form an international women’s organization called the International Council of Women, now associated with the United Nations. Was also instrumental in the founding of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and presided over its first meeting in Berlin in 1902.

Lucy Burns

Moved to Berlin for graduate school in 1906 and visited England in 1909, where she met British and Scottish suffragists. Dropped out of school to join the movement full time through 1912. Returned to New York to lead several protests and events. Was arrested six times and spent more time in prison than any other U.S. suffragist.

Alice Paul

In 1906 or 1907, moved to England and got involved with the British and Scottish suffrage movements, often putting herself in physical danger in order to garner attention to the cause. Arrested seven times and imprisoned three times in England. Returned to the United States in 1910 to recover from a hunger strike. Eventually wrote the text of the original Equal Rights Amendment.

Elizabeth Robins

Moved to London on September 3, 1888, to emotionally recover from her husband’s suicide earlier that year. Became deeply involved in the women’s movement in England and maintained ties in the United States.

I know history is of limited comfort to the present, but it’s the best we can do. Someday soon, an American woman will be president. And though there are still a few miles to go, since yesterday, we’ve made it that much further down the road.

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