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Four women hold a large rolled petition in front of the entrance of the National Women's Party Headquarters.
Deputation Leaving Headquarters to Take Petition to Senator Jones of New Mexico, Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C., September 1918. Box I:159, Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“We, the Undersigned”: Women and the Right to Petition

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Until they secured the right to vote, one of the few ways that women, as disfranchised citizens, could exercise political power was through petitions. The right of petition dates from at least the thirteenth century in England and is guaranteed by the First Amendment in the United States. Americans still petition the government today; however, the meaning of petitioning has changed over time, and the issues that petitioners seek to address have evolved as well. Collections in the Manuscript Division offer many examples of women petitioning the government for a variety of personal and political issues. These petitions document both ordinary and extraordinary women who literally left their marks on the historical record.

In colonial and early America, women petitioned legislative bodies and political officials with the expectation of receiving responses to their requests. These petitions usually focused on personal issues specific to an individual or a small group. Typically written in a humble tone, they were framed in the context of a subordinate appealing to someone with superior status who could assist in redress of grievances. About 1692, accused witches, mostly women, signed a petition during the Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials, when hundreds of people in the colony were arrested. Ten women “besides thre or foure men” were confined in the Ipswich jail for many months. The petitioners—some “fettered with irons,” some pregnant, and all “weake and infirme”—requested that they be released on “Bayle” to stand trial the following spring so that they would not “perish with cold” during the winter months.

An 1805 divorce petition again demonstrates the personal nature of petitioning. Rachel Cunningham of Vermont wrote directly to President Thomas Jefferson and to Congress to request a divorce from her husband, Thomas Cunningham. At this time, a divorce was difficult to obtain and usually could only be granted by a legislative body, either state or federal. Legally, married women were subordinate to their husbands and could not own property or enter into contracts. They had almost no legal options if a marriage soured, other than the right of petition. Cunningham notes that she has been separated from her husband for several years, and since “there is no crime set forth in her articles of separation,” she could not get a bill of divorce from the state of Vermont. The petitioner “throws Herself, on the Justice of Those, who Make Laws for their Country – and Prays, that She may – be set free from her former Engagements.”

A sheet of paper with a heading and three columns of signatures; additional text is added vertically on the right side.
Peterborough (N.H.) women’s petition, circa 1837. Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

 

By the 1830s, the abolition of slavery became an important issue on which white and free Black women focused their right to petition. By this time, women more openly claimed petitioning as a political tool, and the tone they used changed from one of “humility to a tone of insistence,” which “reflected an ongoing transformation of the political identity of signers from that of subjects to that of citizens.” The resolve of women fighting for abolition can be seen in this circa 1837 women’s petition from Peterborough, New Hampshire, where the signers “believing that slavery is a sin…do unite our fervent, importunate petitions with the thousands already presented.” They called on members of Congress to “immediately abolish Slavery in the District of Columbia, that henceforth, whoever breaths its air or touches its soil may be free.” Approximately three million women signed antislavery petitions that inundated Congress from the 1830s to the 1860s, thereby helping to force intense debate on the issue.

African American women demanded their rights as citizens with petitions as well. In 1865, several African American women, including Eliza Bond, signed a “Petition of Colored Citizens of South Carolina, praying that equal rights before the law, and the elective franchise may be granted to them.” At the end of the Civil War, equal rights and universal voting rights for all, including women, seemed like a distinct possibility when the ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and guaranteed citizenship to native-born or naturalized Americans.  However, women were ultimately denied suffrage with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which promised voting rights to African American men. African American women, including Mary B. Talbert and Addie W. Hunter, later led crucial struggles for civil rights and racial justice, including anti-lynching and anti-violence campaigns. In particular, Black women supported and participated in the “Silent Parade” in New York City in 1917, protesting mob violence in the South. The Committee of the Silent Parade sent a petition to President Woodrow Wilson and requested a meeting to discuss recent atrocities in St. Louis, but he refused.  One of the members of the committee who signed this petition was Sarah Walker, better known as Madame C. J. Walker, the famous African American entrepreneur and businesswoman.

Closeup of petition showing male signatures and one woman, Eliza Bond.
Close-up of “Petition of Colored Citizens of South Carolina, praying that equal rights before the law, and the elective franchise may be granted to them,” [1865]. Justin S. Morrill Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

During the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, women organized for public support of broader issues, which would later include women’s suffrage. Suffragist Olympia Brown described her experiences canvassing for her first women’s rights petition, explaining that “the circulating of the petition became a woman’s rights propaganda and every day brought some new and curious experience. Sometimes on coming home at night from a long day’s tramp, I would find a woman there filled will terror and bitterness, demanding, ‘Take my name off that paper. My husband laughs at me. He says I would be asking to vote next.’” Gathering signatures for petitions was a difficult task and women took both canvassing and signing seriously. Petitioning eventually became an integral part of the lobbying and publicity efforts of women suffragists with some suffrage petitions presented with millions of names affixed to them. Suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony mentions working on petitions in her 1877 diary, which may have meant preparing them for Congress by fastening them together end-to-end, mounting them on muslin, and tying them with ribbons. Local and state organizers in the early twentieth century followed instructions from national suffrage organizations on how to prepare their petitions for submission in national suffrage petition campaigns.

Two facing pages of a petition with text heading the left-hand page and two columns of text on each page.
Temperance petition to Helen Herron Taft, March 1909. William H. Taft Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

 

Temperance supporters also relied on petitions to make their voices heard and their political positions known. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), for example, used a huge “Polyglot Petition,” signed by eight million women and supporters from around the world to publicize the prohibition of alcohol and narcotics. Smaller, but no less pointed efforts, included a temperance-related petition sent to First Lady Helen Herron Taft in 1909.  This group of women, residing in Washington County, Pennsylvania, asked the First Lady “to follow the example of [her] husband in turning down his wine-cup and cut out all Intoxicating Beverages from [her] Festivities.” President William Howard Taft was known for abstaining from alcoholic beverages, but the Tafts continued to serve alcohol at White House functions.

Even after women won the vote nationally, began to hold political office in greater numbers, and gained formal avenues to political power, the right to petition still held an important place in women’s political toolboxes in the twentieth century and up to the present time. Discover more women’s history sources by exploring the online guide American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections.

Sources Cited:

“The right of petition. . .” Linda J. Lumsden, Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997), 53.

“Women petitioned legislative bodies . . .” Susan Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, and Women’s Political Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 3.

“‘humility to a tone of insistence . . .'” Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship, 2.

“helping to force intense debate on the issue . . .” Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship, 2.

 

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