The unknown history of Seneca Falls: Catharine Beecher

An old photo of  Catharine Beecher, who was opposed to women's suffrage
Photo courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

C atharine Beecher, a member of one of the most famous 19th-century families, did not attend the Seneca Falls Convention and opposed women’s suffrage. At age 47, she was a popular writer. Her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe became famous for the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and their brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was a prominent minister.

Catherine Beecher wanted women to have more rights, but she believed that men and women needed separate spheres of activities. Beecher supported women’s education. Instead of decorative sewing, she wanted women to learn basic skills so that they could run efficient households. Beecher lived with her sister Stowe and observed the challenges that her sister faced as she raised her children and worked to support her family.

Beecher never married or had a household of her own, but she wrote about how women should run their homes. In 1841, she published her most famous book, A Treatise of Domestic Economy. Beecher argued that women needed to be virtuous, run a good household, and raise children according to republican ideals.

Mostly white, middle- and upper-class women could run a household according to Beecher’s suggestions. Poorer women, immigrants, women of color, and enslaved women worked outside the home and could not achieve Beecher’s ideals.

Three years after the Seneca Falls Convention, the author responded to the reformers in The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Woman. Beecher wrote, “It cannot be disputed that, even in our own most favored country, our sex, as a whole, are in many ways sufferers from unjust laws, opinions, and customs.” She condemned women’s political participation as “wrong.” Instead, she believed that women should use their domestic skills to improve society.

Beecher promoted these ideas throughout her life. In 1870, she told her Boston audience: “A large majority of American women would regard the gift of the ballot…as an act of oppression.” She believed the vote would force them “to assume responsibilities belonging to man, for which they are not and cannot be qualified; and, consequently, withdrawing attention and interest from the distinctive and more important duties of their sex.”

Beecher was one of many women who opposed women’s suffrage. Women argued that they had power in their homes and that voting was for men only. They believed that men represented them in the government, and that women would lose their virtue if they voted. Beginning in 1895, women founded anti-suffrage organizations and campaigned against the 19th Amendment. Beecher’s argument that women should focus on their households persists today.