· · · KANSAS · · ·


Using Boundaries to Break Boundaries

The debate [on women’s rights] was quite an animated one on the various modes to dispose of it.… Motions were made to hear Mrs. Nichols before the Convention or before the [elective franchise] committee. The hall was finally granted to Mrs. Nichols on Wednesday evening, to discuss this “vexed question.”


In the states created after the Revolutionary War, proposals for boundaries often originated at statehood conventions, embedded in the state constitution being drafted for approval by Congress. At the Kansas statehood convention, Clarina Nichols spearheaded the first effort to dispute certain boundaries within a proposed state boundary, among them the boundary around the voting booth that kept women (and African Americans, American Indians, and Chinese Americans) out.

Delegates to the 1859 convention at Wyandotte, Kansas, received, among the numerous citizens’ petitions submitted to such bodies, one that began with the usual frilly phrasing, but in this case lured the reader to a most unfrilly point:

We, the undersigned citizens of Kansas Territory, do respectfully submit to your honorable body that, whereas the women of the State have individually an evident common interest with its men in the protection of life, liberty, property and intelligent culture … and whereas, in virtue of these common interests and responsibilities, they have pressing need of all the legal and constitutional guarantees enjoyed by any class of citizens; and whereas, the enjoyment of these guarantees involves the possession of equal political rights: Therefore we, the undersigned, being of full age, do respectfully petition and protest against any constitutional distinctions based on difference of sex.1

Clarina Nichols (1810-1885) (photo credit 31.1)

As the representative of Kansas’s Women’s Rights Association, Clarina Nichols sat among the spectators at the convention, dutifully knitting during each session and, during any recess, collaring delegates. What brought this woman, who had lived happily and prosperously with her husband and children in New England, to this place at this point in time? Was it that, as she said, “I commenced my life with the most refined notion of women’s sphere.… But I could, even then, see over the barriers of that sphere, and see that, however easy it might be for me to keep within it, as a daughter, a great majority of women were outside its boundaries.”2 Perhaps. But it was not until Nichols found herself outside the boundaries of “women’s sphere” that she became an activist on behalf of equal rights.

She was born Clarina Howard in 1810 to a family that lived modestly, despite being among the wealthiest in West Townshend, Vermont. Her parents adhered to strict Baptist beliefs that included opposition to slavery and abstinence from alcohol. During her childhood, these two tenets formed into separate organized social movements: abolitionism and temperance. The early feminist movement in the United States was, in many respects, a result of women’s becoming involved (and politically educated) in these two movements. But a third issue provided the catalyst, one that affected all women: the absence of equal rights regarding property and child custody. Not all American women sympathized with the abolitionist or temperance movements. But the more a woman subscribed to one or both of those movements, the more likely she was to perceive a pattern of empowerment that favored white men over all others.

Nichols’s first husband, Justin Carpenter, who came from a family of similar values and affluence, did not seem to fit that pattern when she married him. He and his bride settled in Brockport, New York, where Carpenter partnered with a like-spirited man to open a private school and lending library. There they became deeply involved with the Temperance Society of Brockport. But it was also there that she found herself facing the dilemmas all women of that era faced when their husbands turned out to be different persons than they had at first appeared. Clarina never revealed the causes of her failed marriage, although she once described their love as “one-sided.”3 What is known is that Carpenter suddenly ended his business partnership and later closed his school. When he then left his wife, he took the children. Doing so, at that time, was his legal right.

Fortunately for Clarina, Carpenter’s father secured her children’s return to her. Carpenter then opted to have no further contact with his children, nor to provide support. The injustice of this law became her primary concern. “I have asked learned judges why the state decrees that the father should retain the children, thus throwing upon the innocent mother the penalty which should fall upon the guilty party only,” she stated in an address to a women’s rights convention. “Say they, ‘It is because the father has the property; it would not be just to burden the mother with the support of his children.’ ”4

Clarina was fortunate not only to have had sympathetic in-laws to help her regain her children, but also parents who had previously provided her with an education and self-esteem and who later offered a home to which she could return. All this support enabled her to get back on her feet. Soon she was making a living for herself and her children through her skills as a seamstress and by writing articles for the local newspaper. Her gifts for writing and public speaking quickly propelled her to the front ranks of the newly forming women’s movement. Her talents also drew the attention of the paper’s publisher, George Nichols, who became her second husband.

Twelve years into their marriage, the second precursor of the women’s movement, abolitionism, propelled George and Clarina Nichols to move to Kansas. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act had replaced the Missouri Compromise with “popular sovereignty,” allowing a state or territory to decide for itself whether or not to allow slavery. As a result, among the droves of people moving to Kansas and Nebraska for economic opportunity, many opted for Kansas in an effort to create a majority vote for or against slavery. A key reason Kansas was more inviting to slaveholders was its adjacency to the slave states of the South. Though its immediate neighbor to the south, present-day Oklahoma, was then the Indian Territory, there were slave owners among the Cherokees and among the region’s sparse white population.

The droves arriving in Kansas for the purpose of creating a proslavery majority were followed by droves seeking to counter this effort. George and Clarina Nichols were among this second wave of arrivals, though Clarina, being female, had no vote. When not establishing their homestead or coping with a near-fatal accident that befell one of her sons, or her husband’s illness and subsequent death in 1855, Nichols worked as a journalist and activist. As the Moneka Woman’s Rights Association strategized for the statehood convention, Nichols opposed the suggestion that they attach their quest for equality to the more formidable quest for racial equality. Doing so, she feared, could result in more harm than good for both.

Reflecting the turmoil over the question of slavery in Kansas, the Wyandotte convention was the territory’s fourth constitutional constitution. The geographic boundaries of the proposed state were not at issue; the demographic boundaries were. The lines defining the status of human beings collided in the efforts to create Kansas. Finally, at Wyandotte, a bloodied and exhausted territory produced a constitution that both the territory’s voters and Congress approved.

The boundary barring women from the voting booth was only one of several boundaries Nichols sought to eliminate in the proposed constitution at Wyandotte. More immediately important to her were the boundaries that preserved child custody and all property for men. As in the later civil rights movement, Nichols kept her eyes on the prize, but she focused her initial efforts on these specific, indisputable injustices. In her 1841 speech, she explained:

Now, my friends, you will bear me witness that I have said nothing about woman’s right to vote or make laws.… When I listen to Fourth of July orations … tributes of admiration paid to our fathers because they compelled freedom for themselves and sons from the hand of oppression and power. I have faith that when men come to value their own rights as means of human happiness, rather than of paltry gain, they will feel themselves more honored in releasing than in retaining the “inalienable rights” of woman.5

With custody and property rights as her priorities, Nichols was able to persuade the men at the Wyandotte convention to embed in the constitution equality regarding these two issues. Article 15 stated, “The Legislature shall provide for the protection of the rights of women in acquiring and possessing property, real, personal, and mixed, separate and apart from the husband; and shall also provide for their equal rights in the possession of their children.” The same article also provided protection for a woman’s home (or a man’s, for that matter) by declaring it to be “exempted from forced sale under any process of law, and shall not be alienated without the joint consent of husband and wife.” These two clauses rendered the Kansas constitution a historic document in the American struggle for women’s rights.

The abolitionist and feminist movements scored partial victories at the Wyandotte convention. In addition to gender-neutral property and custody protections, the delegates voted to prohibit slavery in the state. But both African Americans and women lost when it came to voting rights.

The outbreak of the Civil War resulted in a hiatus for the women’s movement, as its members turned their attention to the crisis at hand. Nichols moved to Washington, DC, where she worked in the Army Quartermaster Department and, with the end of the war, became the matron of a home operated by the National Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children. She returned to Kansas in 1866, then moved in 1871 to California, where her grown children had migrated.

Nichols did not live to see voting rights extended to women. Throughout her life, women’s influence resided primarily in their persuasive skills or, for some, the power of their beauty. Nichols’s persuasive skills combined her keen wit and her ability to reveal (in the words of her petition) “common interest” with those she sought to persuade. One such common interest—surprising, perhaps, in an ardent feminist—was her valuing of feminine beauty. But Nichols’s sense of beauty was beautifully insightful:

Can it be that we have no more lasting claims to admiration than that beauty and those accomplishments which serve us only in the springtime of life? Surely our days of dancing and musical performances are soon over, when musical instruments of sweeter tone cry, “Mother.”… Has not God endowed us with some lasting hold upon the affections? My sisters … cultivate your powers of mind and heart, that you may become necessary to his better and undying sympathies.… Then will his soul respond to your worth, and the ties that bind you endure through time, and make you companions in eternity!6

Clarina Nichols passed away in Mendocino, California, in 1885. Her viewpoints continue to be passed on.

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