Selected Criticism

Woman's Rights Movement and Whitman, The
Ceniza, Sherry
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The terms "woman's rights" refers to the first wave of an organized and ongoing movement for women's rights, "woman" the word used by the activists in the decade of the 1850s. Though the 1848 Seneca Falls meeting inaugurated the movement, it was in 1850 in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the first National Woman's Rights Convention, which Paulina Wright Davis organized and at which she presided as president, that a precedent was established. For the next ten years, until the Civil War began, national meetings were held yearly, as well as numerous state and local assemblies. These conventions received widespread coverage by the press. The New York Tribune, for example, printed the speeches and step-by-step coverage in its oversized pages. These conventions were going on in the exact period of Whitman's most creative breakthroughs. They focused on the issue of consuming importance to Whitman—the analysis of just what American democracy meant in actuality and what the Declaration of Independence said it meant, or could mean. For this reason, given Whitman's like concerns, it is doubtful that he ignored the extensive press coverage given the movement.

There is also the matter of Fowler and Wells. Not only was this publishing firm a part of Whitman's life in terms of the first two editions of Leaves of Grass and in terms of its focus on phrenology and numerous other reform-related issues, Whitman also wrote for one of its journals, Life Illustrated. This firm frequently published the proceedings of the woman's rights conventions and Lydia Fowler frequently served as secretary, meaning that Whitman had first-hand opportunities to hear (as well as read) about the issues discussed by these early woman's rights activists. In addition, one of the movement's early speakers moved to Brooklyn in 1855 and in time became one of Whitman's closest friends—Abby Hills Price. In turn, he became acquainted with two more of the most active female activists in the 1850s—Paulina Wright Davis and Ernestine L. Rose.

What were the issues? Suffrage, of course, stands out as a burning concern, but the speeches reveal that this first concerted effort by activists for women's rights stands out for its boldness and comprehensive grasp both of history and of women's existential situation. A major concern was the institution of marriage. Marriage laws penalized women in every respect. Women lost not only their last names, but also their property, their wages, their homes, and often their children, if the husband died or the couple managed to obtain a divorce. Equally important to these activists were the issues of work, education, and dress. These activists wanted not to be closed out of the workplace, wanted the opportunities to develop their minds and skills and to use them to become financially independent. The more radical activists did not want the separation of home and the public sphere.

Abby Hills Price spoke at the first three National Woman's Rights conventions in 1850, 1851, and 1852. She also read a poem she wrote at the twenty-year celebration of the National Woman's Rights movement, held in New York City, 1870, organized by her close friend and frequent visitor at her home, Paulina Wright Davis. Davis was a force in the woman's rights movement until her death in 1876 and the publisher/editor of the woman's journal The Una. Whitman also knew and visited Ernestine L. Rose, considered in her time one of the movements most eloquent public speakers. Rose frequently served on National Woman's Rights committees alongside Price and Davis, and she influenced Whitman sufficiently that he used her words in one of his poems, "France." Rose's speeches stand out for their tight use of logical argument, as well as for their fearlessness, and their repudiation of the status quo which enforced female subservience.

There can be no convincing critical work on Whitman and women if the ties he had with the woman's rights movement are not taken into account. Because of the woman's movement and the women in his life, Whitman became more sensitized to the issue of women and American democracy. Beginning with the 1856 edition of Leaves, Whitman's poetry and prose become much more radicalized in terms of his stance towards equality. "The Primer of Words" (an 1850s manuscript published in 1904 as An American Primer) and Democratic Vistas (published by Whitman in 1871, after two of the segments had already appeared in the Galaxy) provide eloquent insights into the woman's rights cause. Also of importance is the extensive oratory carried on by activists for woman's rights in the decade of the 1850s. When one notes the importance that oratory played in Whitman's mind and writing, the presence of such orators-activists-friends as Price, Davis, Rose cannot be ignored.


Ceniza, Sherry. "Walt Whitman and 'Woman Under the New Dispensation.'" Diss. University of Iowa, 1990.

____. Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women Reformers. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1998.

____. "Whitman and Democratic Women." Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Donald D. Kummings. New York: MLA, 1990. 153–158.

Davis, Paulina Wright. A History of the National Woman's Rights Movement. New York: Journeymen Printers' Co-Operative Association, 1871.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1978.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage. 6 vols. Rochester, N.Y.: Susan B. Anthony, Charles Mann, 1881–1922.

Stern, Madeleine B. Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971.

Suhl, Yuri. Ernestine L. Rose and the Battle for Human Rights. New York: Reynal, 1959.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.


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