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Reading 3: The Life of Elizabeth M'Clintock
The life of Elizabeth M'Clintock (1821-1896) in the years following the Seneca Falls Convention illustrated both the challenges and opportunities for American women in the second half of the 19th century. Immediately after the meeting clergymen and newspapers attacked its organizers and supporters. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote some years later, "All the journals from Maine to Texas seemed to strive with each other to see which could make our movement appear the most ridiculous."1
These attacks had only a limited effect, however. Though some of the women who had signed the Declaration decided to withdraw their names, most continued to support the document and the ideas it promoted. The newspaper stories often had the opposite effect their authors intended, because these reports became a way that people learned about the arguments over women's rights. Soon other conventions took place around the country, and similar meetings continued through the rest of the century.
M'Clintock and Stanton worked hard to ensure that the public did not hear only from their opponents. Together they tried to repudiate every argument that was presented against women's rights by writing articles for newspapers from Seneca Falls to New York City, responding to critical ministers, and appealing to the state legislature. They encouraged other women to organize themselves and helped set up women's rights meetings in the Burned-Over District towns of Auburn, Waterloo, Farmington, Rochester, as well as a second one in Seneca Falls.
In the fall of 1849 the two women tried to improve opportunities for women in a more personal way. Earlier in the 1840s, Lucretia Mott's son-in-law Edward M. Davis had offered M'Clintock an apprenticeship in his silk trading firm in Philadelphia. Though Mott remembered the suggestion as a casual one, M'Clintock thought he genuinely wanted to give her the opportunity to follow the "spirit of enterprize" she felt. Stanton now wrote to Mott to ask if she could have her son-in-law give M'Clintock and one of her friends clerkships in his business, or at least find openings at another company.
When his answer came a month later, it was far from what M'Clintock had expected. Davis was not willing to offer her a job, but said his decision had nothing to do with her sex. He explained that because an apprenticeship involved years of menial work at low pay, he would not hire anyone already 28 years old, as M'Clintock was. In addition, Davis's lead salesman Rush Plumly wrote, she had no experience in this kind of work nor did she bring with her any capital to invest in the business.
M'Clintock recognized that the problems Davis and Plumly pointed out had little to do with her personally. They were instead illustrations of the barriers women faced when trying to enter business. She was considered too old and lacked the appropriate experience precisely because women had been excluded from most types of work; she lacked capital for the same reason and because of the laws which limited the property women could keep in their own names.
Not everyone in Davis's firm was so business-like in their reaction to M'Clintock's request. He had passed around her letter to his employees, all of whom were men. Their responses were collected and sent back to her via Lucretia Mott.2 One clerk argued that public prejudices would hurt the company's business: "It would be 'hostile' to the interests of the house in the present state of public sentiment. While all in the company might regret the existence of the senseless objections to woman so participating in commerce and politics, they are not strong enough financially to stem it. The results of such absurd prejudice would hurt the company's business and it would diminish trade." The firm had reason to worry: supporters of slavery, for example, at times threatened to close down merchants who campaigned for abolition.
Other workers at the company based their objections on the "nature" of women. One of the bookkeepers argued that "The sphere of women has its circumference in domestic and social duties. Women are not naturally strong enough in Mind, to conduct such a concern." Even though Martha Wright had helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention, her 17-year old son believed that "Women are not adapted to the duties of our business." Several of the men even included cartoons making fun of women like M'Clintock.
M'Clintock and Stanton were dismayed when they received the letters and the cartoons. M'Clintock found the comments particularly painful since many of the men shared her religion, which supposedly supported equal rights, and her interest in social reform. She responded by drawing her own cartoons (see Visual Evidence) and by writing a play in which she used a fictionalized version of her experience to reveal her support for a society which gave women equal opportunity and status.
In 1852, M'Clintock married Burroughs Phillips, a lawyer whose brother was minister of the Methodist church in which the convention had been held. Phillips actively supported the women's rights movement, joining his wife as an organizer of a women's rights convention in Syracuse. In April 1854, however, Phillips fell from his carriage and received a blow to the head that doctors could not treat. After less than two years of marriage, Elizabeth M'Clintock became a widow.
A series of changes took place in her life over the next decade. In 1856 her family decided to move back to Pennsylvania in the hope of finding opportunities for their children so the family could continue to live near one another. The M'Clintocks also continued their commitment to abolition, an increasingly contentious issue through the 1850s.
It was during the Civil War that Elizabeth M'Clintock finally had the opportunity to pursue her interest in business. In 1861 she opened her own store in downtown Philadelphia; her father apparently offered her the same kind of financial assistance he had earlier given her brother. Her shop served middle-class women, offering items such as hosiery, gloves, and shawls. The store was successful enough that M'Clintock developed the reputation of a solid, responsible businesswoman, and she earned enough that she could retire in 1885 to a home in New Jersey. She died in 1896 at age 75, a woman whose life showed both the opportunities women created for themselves in 19th century America and the limits they faced.
1. How did the newspapers affect people's views of women's rights after the Seneca Falls convention?
2. What experiences did Elizabeth M'Clintock have that might have made her interested in running her own business? (You may want to look again at Reading 1.)
3. What reasons did the men in Davis's firm give for denying M'Clintock's application?
4. Given that Davis's firm took a strong stand against slavery, was it reasonable for his employees to worry about how having a female employee would hurt business? Why or why not?
Reading 4 was compiled from Andrea Constantine Hawkes, "'Feeling a Strong Desire to Tread a Broader Road to Fortune:' The Antebellum Evolution of Elizabeth Wilson M'Clintock's Entrepreneurial Consciousness," (Master's thesis, University of Maine, 1995); Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences, 1815-1897 (New York: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898; reprint, Schocken Books, 1971).