The current political climate has put both women voters at the center of the daily news, and has me reflecting on the many, many Notable Women who were involved in the efforts to gain the franchise for American women. That, in turn, brings to mind one of my favorite Notable Women, a woman who is unjustly overlooked in the history books: Clarina I. H. Nichols. (My profile of Clarina is in the Vermont volume of the America’s Notable Women series, coming soon from Apprentice Shop Books.)
I generally try to put Clarina in context, for those who’ve never heard of her, by pointing out that she turned down the job of organizing the woman’s suffrage efforts in New York State (because she couldn’t afford to take time away from her lecture tours) but recommended a young woman she knew for the job: Susan B. Anthony. Anthony (who met Clarina at a women’s rights convention in 1852) was not the only better-known crusader to consider Clarina a mentor – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone also looked to Clarina as inspiration and model.
Like so many of the women’s suffrage movement, Clarina was deeply involved in many campaigns for what would later come to be known as Civil Rights. She learned the skills of organizing in the Temperance movement, a natural affinity for a Baptist girl from Vermont. When she and her husband moved to Brockport, New York in 1830, they quickly joined the nascent Temperance movement there. Soon, however, Justin’s inability to support his family and increasing neglect and abuse forced Clarina into a problem she had observed from the outside as a girl, when her father as overseer of the poor in Townsend struggled to assist women who had no legal rights when their husbands abused or neglected them. After laboring for a decade to support and defend her three children as her marriage became more and more untenable, Clarina left her children with relatives and took a job teaching in a girls’ school in Connecticut. While she was away her husband claimed the children and disappeared. Although she had no legal right of custody, Clarina was able, with the help of many friends and family, to find her children and returned with them to the her parents’ home in Vermont. This dreadful period in her own life became fuel for the fiery passion that would drive her for the rest of her days.
Clarina began to write for local newspapers. Her columns spoke of “women’s issues” – the sorts of domestic items newspapers ran in those days: household skills, notes on gardening and parenting advice. Through her writing she came to know, and eventually to love, the publisher of the paper in the next town over, George Nichols. She feared meeting him, believing that he would find her old and plain, but in fact the two connected in person as well as on paper. J’s family supported Clarina in her divorce petition, and George and Clarina were married in 1843.
George was a man of liberal social beliefs, and his bride was quickly involved in every aspect of his business. A good thing, too, as George’s health began to fail shortly after the birth of their son the next year. Soon Clarina was running the newspaper as well as writing her columns, although they left George’s name on the masthead until 1850, knowing that prejudice against women in business would hurt sales of the paper.
George and Clarina used their newspaper to promote the causes of temperance, vegetarianism, abolition and women’s rights. Clarina was asked to speak to the Vermont State Legislature about a bill she supported, which would have allowed married women to own property in their own names and control their own wages. A representative opposed to the bill brought a pair of trousers to the dais, intending to humiliate Clarina by suggesting that she wanted women to “wear the pants” in their households – a ploy Clarina sabotaged by observing in her address that the problem wasn’t that she wanted to wear men’s trousers, it was that men insisted on owning their wives’ skirts.
The clever riposte won cheers from the assembled legislators, although the bill failed. It also began Clarina’s long career as a speaker, in which she often used humor to disarm her opponents and rally her supporters. Two years later Clarina addressed a packed hall at the first Women’s National Rights Convention in Worcester; the local newspapers reported that she was a “sensation.”
Clarina’s campaign for women’s rights was not just carried out in speeches and newspaper columns. She was not afraid to put her beliefs into direct action. Once on the train to Worcester she watched two men take a child forcefully from her mother and board the train, leaving the sobbing woman on the platform. Clarina rallied her fellow-passengers to prevent the men getting off the train again until it crossed the state line into Massachusetts, where more enlightened laws would consider their action kidnapping.
The plight of the powerless also drove the Nichols’ commitment to abolitionism, In 1854, Clarina shut down the Windham County Democrat. She and her sons moved to Kansas as part of the Free State movement. George was too sick to travel, but he and her daughter Birsha joined the family the following spring. Five months later, George was dead. Clarina found herself a single mother of four, living in the wilderness at the (literally) bleeding edge of the conflict over slavery. Over the next decade she would travel hundreds and thousands of miles, by canal boat, stagecoach, train and donkey cart, speaking in support of rights for women, Blacks and Native Americans. She carried a pair of shackles cut off the ankles of an escaped slave so her listeners could feel their cruel weight. Back home in Quindaro, she hid slaves in her cistern, often their first stop in Free territory on their way north to Freedom. Her sons fought with John Brown in Kansas. She was on a speaking tour in the slave state of Missouri when Brown’s insurgents attacked Harper’s Ferry. Clarina had to be smuggled across the state line to safety.
When the war finally broke out, Clarina and her daughter went to Washington, along with thousands of other Union women who filled the jobs of men who had gone to fight. After the war she remained, running a home for Black widows and orphans until her own mother’s death called her back to Vermont. Finally she returned to Kansas, where worked tirelessly to have woman’s and negro/native suffrage added to the new state constitution.
In 1872 Clarina moved to Poma, California with her son George and his family. When George’s wife died, she stepped in to raise her grandchildren. She continued to write for newspapers all over the country, contributed a chapter to the History of Woman Suffrage in 1880, and supported her sisters in suffrage through her letters, including one written four days before she died in 1885. A few months later Susan B. Anthony read the letter to the National Women’s Suffrage Association convention in Washington.
Clarina Howard Nichols was truly a woman of her age, an age that shaped the future of the United States. She deserves to be remembered.