“Congress Took No Further Action”: Women and the Right to Petition

This wood engraving from ca. 1840 provides an accurate depiction of the U.S. Capitol when women began mobilizing by sending petitions to Congress./tiles/non-collection/2/2007_334_004-3.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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This wood engraving from ca. 1840 provides an accurate depiction of the U.S. Capitol when women began mobilizing by sending petitions to Congress.
In 1838, women in Brookline, Massachusetts, reacted with “astonishment and alarm” at the recently adopted gag rule, which tabled all antislavery petitions. They signed their names to a brief but searing petition to the U.S. House of Representatives: “Your memorialists ‘consider this resolution a violation of the Constitution of the United States—of the right of the people of the United States to petition—and the right of their Representatives to freedom of speech.’” For women, who, before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, could not vote, petitions enabled them to engage with the political process and find their voices as citizens.

Petitioning is a right granted by the 1st Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”). In the case of House records, petitions are requests for relief or action from an individual, group, or organization, sent to the U.S. Congress. They are among the most voluminous, complex, and emotionally charged categories of House records. They are also part of the bedrock of American civic life. Americans in the early Republic dearly valued the right to petition; colonial frustrations about the lack of representation in Great Britain were still very fresh.  The issue was so important that the Founders included petitioning in the Bill of Rights as a way for citizens to interact with their new government.

Between 1820 and 1860, the nation’s economic and political growth had far-reaching effects on women’s lives. They found increased opportunities for education, work, and public roles. Middle class women began to engage with politics in unprecedented ways.

Petitions for the Public Good

I. Indian Removal

Memorial from the Ladies of Steubenville, Ohio, Protesting Indian Removal, February 15, 1830/tiles/non-collection/I/Indian-Petition.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Memorial from the Ladies of Steubenville, Ohio, Protesting Indian Removal, February 15, 1830
For most of its early history, petitioning was a right exercised almost exclusively by men. Women first petitioned on political issues during the debate over proposed legislation to remove Indian tribes in the Southeast to the West to accommodate white settlement. Very little was expected, let alone permitted, of women in terms of intellectual ability. However, they were perceived as paragons of virtue and particularly in tune with sentiments like empathy. Causes like Indian removal, tinged with a moral imperative, allowed women to participate in the political conversation of the time without upending it.

In 1830, women in Steubenville, Ohio, signed a petition that read: “When, therefore, injury and oppression threaten to crush a hapless people within our borders, we, the feeblest of the feeble, appeal with confidence to those who should be the representatives of national virtues as they are the depositories of national powers, and implore them to succor the weak & unfortunate.” Members of Congress publicly ridiculed their efforts. Senator Thomas Hart Benton responded to the tide of petitions by saying, “I would recommend to these ladies, not to douse their bonnets, and tuck up their coats, for such a race, but to sit down on the way side, and wait for the coming of the conquerors.”

Although the Indian Removal Act became law in 1830, the experience women gained mobilizing for a cause set the stage for the antislavery movement and transformed the way women interacted with their government and the political process. It also equipped them with new and necessary skills, such as outreach, education, political acumen, and crafting of persuasive arguments that translated to effective petitions.

II. Antislavery

Petition to Rescind Gag Rule, February 14, 1838/tiles/non-collection/g/gag-rule-petition.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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Petition to Rescind Gag Rule, February 14, 1838
Beginning in the 1830s, abolitionists inundated Congress with petitions, many the result of nationwide drives to gather signatures. In 1836, the House passed the “gag rule,” which immediately tabled all antislavery petitions. This meant no action would be taken on the petitions, including hearing their contents. In 1838, women in Brookline, Massachusetts, petitioned Congress, asking that the gag rule be rescinded: “Your memorialists . . . regard it as an assumption of authority, at once dangerous and destructive to the fundamental principles of republican government, to the rights of minorities, to the sovereignty of the People and TO THE UNION OF THESE UNITED STATES.” Emboldened by work on the antiremoval cause, the initially subservient tone of women’s petitions started to change, showing that they now viewed themselves as political participants rather than bystanders. The top two signers are sisters Sarah M. Grimké and Angelina E. Grimké, ardent abolitionists and early women’s rights activists, who operated far outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women at the time. During an 1837 women’s antislavery convention in Boston, Angelina Grimké introduced a resolution saying that “the right of petition is natural and inalienable, derived immediately from God, and guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” Any attack on this right was a “high-handed usurpation of power, and an attempt to strike a death-blow at the freedom of the people.” Just days after this petition was signed, Angelina became the first woman in the United States to speak before a legislative body, when she addressed a committee of the Massachusetts legislature on the subject of slavery.

The antislavery debate completed the transformation of women's use of the petition first begun during the antiremoval protests. Although barred from making their voice heard at the polls, women forced some recognition of their opinions through petitions. Women started to ask: What did it mean to be a female citizen? What were women’s rights?

III. Women’s Suffrage

Petition for Woman Suffrage Committee, April 10, 1917/tiles/non-collection/P/Petition-for-Woman-Suffrage-Committee-1.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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Petition for Woman Suffrage Committee, April 10, 1917
The conception of female citizenship continued to widen in the 1860s, as women worked in and contributed to realms outside the home during the Civil War. However, women were excluded from the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution when it was ratified in 1868. The moment arrived for women to use the experience gained during the antiremoval and antislavery petition campaigns for their own benefit.

As the women’s suffrage movement made its final push in the 1910s, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association Carrie Chapman Catt demonstrated the fruit of previous petition drives. Using the political savvy developed and honed by her predecessors, she expertly petitioned Speaker of the House Champ Clark in 1917 for a Committee on Woman Suffrage. She deftly appealed to his vanity as a powerful man, by turning the stereotypical female petition on its head. Her tone is ostensibly one of supplication, but it’s accompanied by a sly wink. Catt knew she was on the right side of the argument—and history—and used flattery and guile to her advantage. “You have had a long and successful political career and that means you know men and women . . . . Mr. Speaker, the women of our country appreciate the fact that you are yourself an advocate of our cause, but we do not presume upon your interest when we ask for a House Suffrage Committee. We ask it because the world is calling to the Congress of the United States to make better time if it would hold its place as Leader in the march of world democracy.” Catt understood that the creation of a House committee to consider a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage would finalize the movement started with hundreds of petitions. The House Committee on Woman Suffrage was created in 1917, and the 19th Amendment granting women national suffrage was ratified in 1920.

Recycling many of the tactics and connections and some of the rhetoric used during previous campaigns, at the end of the 19th century and turn of the 20th, the women’s suffrage movement used the petition to make women’s voices heard in Congress and spread their message nationally.

Petitions for Private Relief

Relief from individual hardship characterized many petitions sent to Congress. Without full citizenship, women could not seek remedies available to men in times of personal struggle, leaving them vulnerable to economic hardship. Instead, tragedy or personal crisis often forced women to seek public relief. 

IV. Divorce

Petition Seeking Divorce, 1804/tiles/non-collection/P/Petition-Seeking-Divorce-1.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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Petition Seeking Divorce, 1804
Ann Alricks petitioned Congress for a divorce in 1803. Alricks was 15 when she married. She lived together with her husband for four years “very unhappily” before he abandoned her. Alricks pleads, “That your petitioner being yet possessed of youth and health, and not destitute of respectable friends and connections, indulges the hope, that a prudent and discreet conduit, might enable her to better much her situation, was she freed from those matrimonial obligations contracted with Mr Alricks, almost in her infancy, which have long since become equally embarrassing and intolerable to them both.” To obtain relief from her situation, Alricks was forced to expose the deeply private and intimate details of her life to Congress. Early divorces could be obtained only by a legislative act of the state, when they could be obtained at all, meaning the process was public, potentially lengthy and costly, and required a certain level of understanding of how the political system worked. In the District of Columbia, without statehood, Congress received petitions for divorce under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17 of the Constitution.

Unfortunately, Alricks’s situation was not unique in early America—dependent on her husband for her social standing and financial well-being and unable to improve her station/situation without the permission of other men. Until 1801, no divorces were granted by Congress to residents of the District. In 1801, jurisdiction over separation and alimony cases was moved from Congress to the Circuit Court, and in 1860, so was jurisdiction over divorce. This shift was in line with what was taking place in other states, as the number of petitions for divorce grew steadily in the first half of the 19th century. Alricks was ultimately granted a divorce by the district court of the District of Columbia. Divorce petitions, although limited, specific, and personal, were the first incremental steps for women in crafting a political identity separate from men by taking ownership of the right to request relief.

V. Widows’ Pensions

Petition of Mary Todd Lincoln, January 26, 1869/tiles/non-collection/P/Petition-of-Mary-Todd-Lincoln-2.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration
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Petition of Mary Todd Lincoln, January 26, 1869
Unable to support themselves without their husbands, widows and dependents requested pensions, or payments, for soldiers who died during the Civil War. Even a destitute former First Lady swallowed her pride and exercised her right to petition Congress for relief in 1869.

Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of President Abraham Lincoln, petitioned Congress four years after her husband’s death, seeking a pension. Although her husband did not die on the battlefield, she regarded his death as a direct result of the Civil War. Mary Lincoln, ill and living abroad, used language familiar from other women’s petitions. She emphasized her distress and desperation, and threw herself on the mercy of men in a position to relieve her suffering. “In consideration of the great services my dearly beloved husband has rendered to the United States and of the fearful loss I have sustained by his untimely death his martyrdom I may say, I respectfully submit to your Honorable body this petition hoping that a yearly pension may be granted me.” Finding no other options for relief from her difficult circumstances, in 1870, a bill was passed giving Mary Lincoln $3,000 per year.

For the first half of American history, petitions were one of the only formal means available for women to participate in politics. Writing and disseminating petitions expanded the role of women in politics, leading to national suffrage, and ultimately to women serving in Congress. The petitions that women signed and sent to Congress tell the story of the United States as it expanded and changed. But the petitions also chronicle the stories of individual women as citizens of this country, told in their own words.

Explore other records related to women’s history in Records Search.

Sources: Sarah Zaeske, Signatures of Citizenship: Petitioning, Antislavery, & Women’s Political Identity (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1980); Raymond W. Smock, ed., Landmark Documents on the U.S. Congress (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1999); National Archives and Records Administration, Our Mothers Before Us: Women and Democracy, 1789-1920 (Washington, D.C.: The National Archives Foundation, 1998); Stephen A. Higginson, “A Short History of the Right to Petition for the Redress of Grievances,” The Yale Law Journal 96, no. 1 (Nov. 1986): 142–166; Martin Schultz, “Divorce in the South Atlantic States: Origins, Historical Patterns, and Recent Trends,” International Journal of Sociology of the Family 16, no. 2 (Autumn 1986): 225–250; Mary Hershberger, “Mobilizing Women, Anticipating Abolition: The Struggle against Indian Removal in the 1830s,” The Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (Jun. 1999): 15–40; Nancy F. Cott, “Divorce and the Changing Status of Women in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts,” The William and Mary Quarterly 33, no. 4 (Oct. 1976): 586–614.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the election and swearing-in of the first woman in Congress, we will publish a series of blog posts about the early women Members and the changing role of women in the institution. Check back each month through 2017 to see the latest posts.