Battle for the Ballot

Women openly embraced a presidential campaign in 1840. Some men were scandalized.

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In the fall of 1840, eight decades before women won the right to vote, Elizabeth Clarkson climbed on her horse and led 400 women on horseback from Brookville, Ind., to a rally 75 miles away for presidential candidate William Henry “Old Tippecanoe” Harrison. At another meeting of 5,000 men, “Mother Clarkson” delivered a pro-Harrison speech while holding her infant son on one hip.

It marked the first time American women became openly involved in a presidential campaign, with Clarkson and her followers, backing the Whig Party ticket of Harrison and John Tyler against Democratic President Martin Van Buren.

In 1840, the idea of women taking part in the blood sport of politics was shocking to some men.

“Ladies are better mending their stockings or making puddings than becoming politicians,” scolded the New York Herald.

That changed when the Whig Party decided to encourage female participation in the presidential campaign for “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Not that women could vote, of course. Who could imagine such a thing? But they could influence their husbands who would be casting ballots.

Image: A lithograph depicts William Henry Harrison's presidential inauguration in 1841. His candidacy in 1840 was the first time American women became openly involved in a presidential campaign.

Some single Whig women teased their suitors that they wouldn’t marry a man who wouldn’t vote for Gen. Harrison, a hero of the War of 1812. In Tennessee, young women wore sashes embroidered with the words “WHIG HUSBANDS OR NONE.” Some even carried out the threat. In Bristol, Maine, a young woman told her fiance, a local fisherman, that their wedding was off unless he agreed to vote for the Whig ticket. The young man swung to the Whigs, the Providence Journal reported.

Ballot box
(Library of Congress)
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Whig organizers sent “To the Ladies” invitations for wives to join their husbands at the big parades for Harrison’s campaign. The Whigs brought wagonloads of women to rallies. In Bennington, Vt., it took 25 horses to pull one wagon filled with more than 100 women, the Harrison campaign newspaper reported.

The Whigs handed out handkerchiefs for women to wave, partly to draw the attention of the press. At a parade in Baltimore, windows were crowded with women who looked “with delight upon the scene to which their own presence with waving handkerchiefs and fluttering veils give a bright adornment,” the Baltimore American reported. One woman reached out of a window and waved a bright red petticoat.

While marching in a Harrison rally in New York City, former New York mayor Philip Hone was struck by the flood of femininity along the route.

“The balconies and windows were filled with women, well-dressed, with bright eyes and bounding bosoms, waving handkerchiefs, exhibiting flags and garlands, and casting bouquets of flowers upon us,” Hone wrote in his diary.

Image: A presidential campaign handkerchief from 1840 features a log cabin with a flag reading “Harrison and Reform.” In the election of 1840, many women publicly backed the Whig Party ticket of Harrison and John Tyler over Democratic President Martin Van Buren.

Women did more than wave hankies. Some, like Clarkson, gave speeches for Harrison. In Seneca Falls, N.Y., 22-year-old Amelia Bloomer helped her new husband, Dexter Bloomer, edit his pro-Whig newspaper, the Seneca Falls County Courier. In Springfield, Ill., 21-year-old Mary Todd attended local Whig meetings; she also began dating 31-year-old Abraham Lincoln, who gave campaign speeches for Harrison. They would marry in 1842.

While sitting in a train car in Baltimore in 1840, British writer James Silk Buckingham was shocked to see something he had never witnessed while touring the United States. A well-dressed woman, “with gay bonnet, veil and shawl,” walked down the aisle and began handing out copies of a political pamphlet.

“It is a good Harrison paper,” she explained.

“My first impression was that the woman was insane,” Buckingham wrote.

The woman was Lucy Kenney, the first woman to write political pamphlets for a presidential campaign.

The “Lowell Mill girls” who worked in textile mills in Lowell, Mass., actively supported Harrison as a champion of the working poor. They typically earned $2 a week working from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson, who worked at one factory at age 15, later wrote that the women promoted Harrison “to show how wide-awake and up to date” they were.

Image: An engraving from 1881 depicts President William Henry Harrison. Harrison died a month after he was inaugurated in 1841.

“Harrison Women” were everywhere. They invaded the all-male Tippecanoe Clubs. They dubbed their bonnets “Tippecanoe Hats.” They sewed banners to be carried in the big parades. They cooked food for the big gatherings.

“Women are the very life and soul of these movements of the People,” proclaimed the Cincinnati Gazette.

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Van Buren supporters frowned on these female intruders.

“We have been pained to see our fair countrywomen unsex themselves and stepping across the threshold to mingle in the fight,” chided the North Carolina Standard.

When a wagonload of 50 women rolled by a saloon in a Whig parade in Buffalo, men pelted them with eggs. In a parade in Indianapolis, several women rode in a large canoe on wheels, setting off fistfights among some men in the crowd.

Van Buren’s vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, gave the Democratic view on the role of women. The rights of a woman, he said, were secured through the “coarser sex,” her husband and brothers. “She does not appear at the polls to vote because she is privileged to be represented there by man.”

Image: Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped to organize the women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, building on the momentum of women who had publicly participated in the presidential campaigns that decade.

Old Tippecanoe swept to victory in the election. He died after just one month in office, but “petticoat power” kept going. Many Harrison women attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights, which, Amelia Bloomer wrote, marked the first time that women called for “the right to vote and hold office.”

The next year, Bloomer began publishing “The Lily,” a magazine that promoted temperance, abolition and female equality. She also promoted a new women’s clothing item that gave her lasting fame: a loosefitting pantaloon that became known as “bloomers."

About this story

Illustrations by Bárbara Malagoli for The Washington Post. Editing by Lynda Robinson. Art direction by Amanda Soto. Design and development by Madison Walls. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Photo editing and research by Mark Miller.

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