“The contest with the South that destroyed slavery,” wrote the Philadelphia lawyer Sidney George Fisher in his diary, “has caused an immense increase in the popular passion for liberty and equality.” But advocates of women’s rights encountered the limits of the Reconstruction commitment to equality. Women activists saw Reconstruction as the moment to claim their own emancipation No less than blacks, proclaimed Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women had arrived at a “transition period, from slavery to freedom.” The rewriting of the Constitution, declared suffrage leader Olympia Brown, offered the opportunity to sever the blessings of freedom from sex as well as race and to “bury the black man and the woman in the citizen.”

A Delegation of Advocates of Woman Suffrage Addressing the House Judiciary Committee, an engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 4, 1871. The group includes Elizabeth Cady Stanton, seated just to the right of the speaker, and Susan B. Anthony, at the table on the extreme right.

The destruction of slavery led feminists to search for ways to make the promise of free labor real for women. Every issue of the new women’s rights journal, The Agitator, edited by Mary Livermore, who had led fund-raising efforts for aid to Union soldiers during the war, carried stories complaining of the limited job opportunities and unequal pay for females who entered the labor market. Other feminists debated how to achieve “liberty for married women.” Demands for liberalizing divorce laws (which generally required evidence of adultery, desertion, or extreme abuse to terminate a marriage) and for recognizing “woman’s control over her own body” (including protection against domestic violence and access to what later generations would call birth control) moved to the center of many feminists’ concerns. “Our rotten marriage institution,” one Ohio woman wrote, “is the main obstacle in the way of woman’s freedom.”

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