Intersection of spiritualism and suffrage

Category:  News
Wednesday, March 21st, 2018 at 5:30 PM

“In July of 1848, Elizabeth Stanton has tea with four of her close friends and they discuss the situation of women in the new republic,” began Susan Stush during her lecture for Women’s History Month on March 7.

“Women’s Suffrage and the Rise of Spiritualism” examined the intersection of the women’s suffrage and spiritualism movements. It also discussed how women’s rights have evolved from the very beginning of the women’s suffrage push to present day.

The first action of the women’s suffrage movement took place after Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott were excluded from an abolitionist event in London because they were women. They planned the Seneca Falls Convention in just four days over tea, and over 300 men and women attended to lobby for equal rights. “Only women could plan something like that in four days,” commented Stush.

Several key figures in the women’s rights movement were proponents for spiritualism, such as Susan B. Anthony, Addie Lucia Ballou and Victoria Woodhull, the running mate of Frederick Douglass for the 1872 presidential election, noted Stush. A common meeting place for these women was in Lily Dale in upstate New York. Lily Dale became a hub for mediums and women’s rights activists alike, making it the cross section of where the suffrage and spiritualism movements met. 

The Quaker movement was experiencing an ideology shift at this time, due to support of the abolitionist movement. Scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, of Sweden, was the first person to develop spiritualism as communication with spirits, and this idea was reinforced by the Fox Sisters of the Hydesville [New York] Rappings. 

Spiritualism is defined as a science, philosophy and religion of continuous life based upon the demonstrated face of communication by means of mediumship with those who reside in the spirit world. “Suffragists ended up embracing this movement because it was non-restrictive and women could participate,” explained Stush.

Early groups of settlers began to settle in the Lily Dale area of upstate New York and identified themselves as liberals and spiritualists. Many were also a part of a social movement called “Freethought,” which advocated for human equality, education and self-development. The original group was the “Cassadaga Lake Free Association.” The settlement became a place where free speech was valued and anyone could go to the “Platform” and speak about whatever they wanted, explained Stush.

“Suffragists would travel to Lily Dale because they could say what they wanted on that platform without any repercussions,” said Stush.

Right before the 15th Amendment passed in 1872, there was a split in the suffrage movement due to conflicts between abolitionists; some women refused to support the 15th Amendment because it did not include women’s rights. That group was called the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and was lead by Anthony and Stanton. The competing group was formed by Mott while Lucy Stone and important women of color such as Sojourner Truth, Naomi Anderson and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, did their part to lead to the suffrage and abolitionist movement.

“Not only were these women dealing with suffrage rights, but civil rights as well, so they have two monkeys on their backs at this time,” stated Stush.

Women earned the right to vote in 1911 thanks to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but unfortunately, there were more rights being fought for, Stush noted.

Title IX is something we see referenced often in higher education, and it was passed to provide “equal access to education.” Stush noted that the bill also made women’s athletics accessible with 1 in 3 girls playing sports in high school today. This is compared to 1 in 23 girls who played high school sports just over 25 years ago. 

Stush said thanks to the Women’s Financial Liberation in the 1960s and ‘70s, women gained the right to have a credit card in their own name, sign for a bank loan without a male co-signer, and be able to hold any job for which she is qualified for.

The Equal Rights Amendment was first proposed by the National Woman’s Party in 1923, but not actually considered again until the 1970s. The amendment was being sent to the Senate and was three states short of passing due to conservative backlash against feminism. Many states have implemented their own legislation to protect the legal rights of women, but equality regardless of sex is not guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. 

“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Stush. 

Livia Homerski can be reached at

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