Again: By advocating for her interests, Clarina Howard Nichols won rights for all women

Clarina Howard Nichols
Clarina Howard Nichols, a 19th-century African-American and women’s rights advocate, appears in a portrait taken in the late 1840s. Courtesy of University of Vermont Special Collections, Howe Library

Editor’s Note: Mark Bushnell is a journalist and historian from Vermont. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont”.

History is by necessity an abbreviated view of the past. If we left every story in it, it would be impossible to decipher what was important. In an effort to simplify, however, important stories are sometimes overlooked.

Until recently, such a story was the life of Vermonter Clarina Howard Nichols. In the mid to late 1800s, Nichols was among the nation’s most prominent social reformers, fighting for women’s rights, temperance, and the abolition of slavery.

Nichols’ early experiences seem to have charted the course of her life, according to scholars Marilyn Blackwell and Kristen Oertel, whose biography of Nichols is titled “Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood.”

Born in 1810 into a respectable family in West Townshend, Clarina showed intelligence from an early age. Her parents were careful not to waste her, giving her a solid, if somewhat basic, education, an opportunity not afforded to many girls at the time. She proved to be a skilled learner and outshone her brothers in the classroom.

At the age of 20, Clarina married Justin Carpenter of Guilford. Justin seemed like a good catch. He was 10 years her senior, a college graduate, from a prominent family. With her upbringing and apparent ambition, intelligence and $1,500 dowry, the couple’s prospects looked bright. They moved to upstate New York, where Carpenter started a newspaper. But the newspaper lost money and quickly folded.

Carpenter tried to run a boarding school for girls, which also failed. Then the couple moved to lower Manhattan, where Carpenter sought to become a lawyer. The family, which now included two sons and a daughter, was in debt. Carpenter’s failures forced Clarina to work to support the family, while raising the children. She ran a boarding house for “professional men and their wives”, dabbled in dressmaking, and worked for a hat shop.

Carpenter wasn’t just thoughtless; he was apparently also abusive, at least psychologically. Clarina had had enough. Fearing that her husband would take the three children, as was his right under the law, she fled with them to her parents’ home in Vermont. And, although it was almost unheard of at the time, she filed for divorce.

Vermont’s divorce laws were among the most liberal in the country. Unlike other states, Vermont allowed divorces for cruelty, but the cruelty had to have taken place in Vermont, which was not true in her case. Her father, Chapin Howard, explained the situation to Townshend’s representative in the Vermont House of Representatives, who was successful in getting the law changed.

The law, however, still required a three-year wait for the divorce to become final. Clarina’s experiences demonstrated some of the legal challenges faced by women, particularly with regard to property. Once married, women ceded their property to their husbands. How, she asks, could women meet society’s expectations as mothers if they had no economic rights to protect their children?

Once a women’s rights activist, Clarina generally framed her arguments this way: limited rights hampered women’s role as mothers. She practiced what the authors call the “politics of motherhood.” It was a more conservative argument than that of the next wave of activists, including Susan B. Anthony, with whom Clarina often corresponded.

While waiting for her divorce to become final, Clarina wrote for the Windham County Democrat in Brattleboro. The newspaper’s editor, George Nichols, was impressed with his work and asked him to help select articles for the newspaper. The two grew closer and married shortly after Clarina’s divorce. Although he was 25 years older than Clarina, George proved to be a better choice than Justin Carpenter. Throughout their life together, he approved of his wife’s active career, a rare trait in a 19th century husband. In fact, when George’s health deteriorated, the couple agreed that Clarina would take over the newspaper. For years, the change remained a secret. Many people would not have accepted the idea of ​​a woman running a newspaper.

Clarina proved persuasive, both in the pages of the journal and on the speaking circuit. A series of articles she wrote helped persuade the Vermont legislature to grant women the right to own, inherit, and bequeath property.

In 1852, she became the first woman to address the all-male Vermont Legislative Assembly and advocated forcefully for women’s right to vote in local school assemblies. As her reputation grew, Clarina received invitations to speak at major women’s conferences along the East Coast and as far west as Wisconsin.

While on her way to a conference in Templeton, Massachusetts, Clarina was sitting in the train’s “Ladies Saloon” when an older man and a sheriff entered the car. They were chasing the man’s young granddaughters, curled up next to their mother. They planned to seize the girls, whose father claimed custody, as was his legal right.

Unfortunately for the men, Clarina Howard Nichols was watching. She gave an impromptu lecture to the car passengers about the wrongs of these “kidnappers” and informed the shamed sheriff that since he was from Vermont, he had no jurisdiction now that the train had passed through Massachusetts. A passenger grabbed the grandfather, who had got off the train with one of the girls, and brought her back to her mother.

Even as his fame spread as Vermont’s “great reasoner” in the cause of reform, Nichols was not content to stay put. The year was 1854, and the country was on fire over the issue of slavery, especially if new territories were to enter the Union as slave or free states. Hopelessly divided, Congress left it to the white settlers in each territory to determine the answer by a vote. Nichols left with his sons for Kansas, believing the territory needed more settlers to vote against slavery. (George, in failing health, remained in Vermont. He would join them later, but died soon after.)

“Nichols viewed Kansas as a blank slate on which she and other settlers could trace the outlines of real change,” Blackwell and Oertel wrote. But Kansas was no paradise. The territory was in the throes of violence. Proponents of slavery attacked anti-slavery communities. One of Nichols’ sons was injured defending their colony. Radical abolitionist John Brown and his followers responded by murdering five pro-slavery men.

Nichols fought for abolition and women’s rights in the way she knew best, with her words. She sent letters to newspapers, then took a job at a newspaper and continued to champion the causes that mattered most to her.

In 1859, as delegates met to draft a constitution for Kansas so that it could join the Union, Nichols opposed any “constitutional distinction based on the difference of sex.” Ultimately, her efforts failed, but women won the right to vote on school matters. It may seem like a small feat, but the law made Kansas one of the first states to guarantee women any form of suffrage when it entered the union in 1861.

That same year, civil war broke out. As the fighting approached Nichols’ home, she was prepared to flee if necessary, keeping “(c)arpet sack & camp buckets packed.”

Despite the peril, Nichols risked helping a woman fleeing slavery. She hid the frightened and injured woman in the cistern outside her house. To keep tabs on the hideout, Nichols created a ruse. She placed a “sick bed” nearby and had one of her sons lie in it all night, so she could check on the woman from time to time without arousing suspicion. The next morning, Nichols helped the woman reach another supporter to get her safely out of the area.

Eventually, Nichols decided the danger of living in Kansas during the war was too great. She moved to Washington, DC, in 1863 and took a job as a clerk in the Quartermaster General’s office. Later, when a scandal broke over the dismal conditions of a home for poor African-American women and children in nearby Georgetown, she took a major pay cut to become the home’s manager.

After the war, Nichols returned to Kansas and saw the United States grant former slaves the right to vote, as long as they were male. Women will have to wait another half century to have the right to vote.

In 1871, Nichols moved to California, where one of his sons settled. Although she is only 61, she feels old. “Years are rare to project yourself,” she wrote. Nichols would live another 14 years, continuing the fight for women’s suffrage, militant to the end.

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Pamela W. Robbins