Frontier Feminist

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood

Kristen T. OertelDr. Kristen T. Oertel, the Mary Frances Barnard Associate Professor in Nineteenth-Century American History at The University of Tulsa, has penned a new book that sheds light on a little-known women’s rights crusader.

Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood follows Nichols from Vermont to Kansas to California, as she lobbied vigorously against slavery and in favor of women’s rights and temperance in the mid-1800s.

“I got interested in Nichols while writing my first book, Bleeding Borders, because I came across her papers at the Kansas Historical Society archives,” Oertel said. “She addressed the state constitutional convention in 1859 and lobbied successfully for women’s school suffrage. Most people don't know that Kansas was the first state in the country to allow women to vote in school board elections.”

In Kansas, Nichols championed freedom, assisted former slaves, and argued successfully for women’s school suffrage before ending her career in California, where she continued to promote women’s full enfranchisement. Despite her accomplishments and considerable respect from contemporaries such as Susan B. Anthony, historians have largely overlooked Nichols.

Through the years, Nichols stood shoulder-to-shoulder with many more famous abolitionists and suffragists such as Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Harriett Tubman.

Overcoming personal hardships and political barriers, Nichols left a trail of new rights for women across the nation. Frontier Feminist restores this crusading woman to her rightful place among the pantheon of reformers who sought full citizenship for women and freedom for African Americans.

In Frontier Feminist, Oertel and co-author Marilyn S. Blackwell cast Nichols as a private person who guarded the secret of her divorce to protect her political influence and her social position. By digging into Nichols’ few surviving letters, her columns as a journalist, and her speeches, they discover much about her failed first marriage and show how divorce gave her insight into a legal system that disadvantaged many women.

Nichols moved to northern California in 1871, where her son had settled 15 years earlier, and she remained there until her death in 1885. “She almost made it to her 75th birthday, quite a feat for a woman who bore four children, buried two husbands, moved from Vermont to Kansas to California, and fought for abolition, temperance, and women’s rights for more than half a century,” Oertel said.

Oertel earned her doctorate in American history from The University of Texas, her master’s degree from the State University of New York-Binghamton, and her bachelor’s degree from Cornell College.


Mona Chamberlin