Clarina H. Nichols defended the propriety of her colleagues, Lucy Stone (professional antislavery lecturer), who were forging a place for women in the lecture hall. Nichols asked Stone for help in her campaign for school suffrage. In 1853 Stone gave two lectures at the Baptist Church in Brattleboro, VT. After Nichols successfully refuted one minister in the Democrat her newspaper circulation soared. Traveling by rail and stagecoach, Nichols spoke frequently at churches and lyceums in the towns of VT and MA. The road had been paved by the Grimke sisters in the 1830s.
In 1853 Clarina sent her eldest daughter and youngest son to attend school at the Theodore and Angelina Grimke Weld boarding school in Belleville, NJ for two winters. When the temperance advocates excluded Susan B. Anthony because of women’s rights, she established the Whole World’s Temperance Convention in NYC that 2 to 3,000 attended including Horace Greeley as business manager. Nichols was appointed a vice president representing VT and she displayed her outspokenness by exhorting Christians to political action. Greeley recommended her to speak in Wisconsin for Sherman M. Booth who wanted to combine temperance with the abolition of slavery. Dr. Lydia Fowler joined her. They took a steamer across the Great lakes. In this six week, 900-mile excursion mostly by carriage she spoke to crowds in over forty towns. While there was some male clergy opposition by extending the time of a business session hoping she would disappear, she still spoke and after hearing her she received apologies and endorsement. As a result of her work, and that of numerous others, a law was enacted in 1855 giving Wisconsin women legal control over family affairs in cases of intemperance. Clarina also spoke in Boston and Rhode Island. Stone and Amelia Bloomer were also on the lecture circuit in the Midwest. They saw potential in the aura of freedom in western settlements where they believed women ought to take their rightful place in society unencumbered by patriarchal legal and political structures and social conventions. They often overlooked the loneliness and privations that normally beset pioneering women.
Clarina interrupted her travel to nurse her father before he died in 1854 missing the national women’s convention. Frustrated with conservative Vermont, she decided to move to Kansas where the newly passed Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up an opportunity to pursue freedom for the slave since the settlers would vote on it.
Clarina Nichols’ contribution to reform in Kansas focused mostly on woman’s rights, but like most activist women of her day, she also was opposed to slavery. Her husband died in 1855, and Nichols spent much of 1856 on the campaign trail seeking support for Kansas and John C. Fremont, Republican presidential nominee. On October 4, 1856, she wrote Thaddeus Hyatt regarding the objectives of her recent speaking tour in Pennsylvania: “In the first place I am laboring . . . to subsist my two sons in the Free State army of Kansas by the pay I get from the lectures.” During this time Clarina wrote articles for the newspaper Herald of Freedom of Lawrence, KS. In May 1856 proslavery forces’ violence escalated as they ransacked the office and threw the press into the river. Abolitionist John Brown and his sons, who had emigrated to this territory, led a party who murdered five proslaverymen near Pottawatomie Creek which catapulted Kansas into the civil war, known as Bleeding Kansas.
Subsequently, Nichols moved the family to Wyandotte County, where in the spring of 1857 she became associate editor of the Quindaro Chindowan, an antislavery newspaper.
Excerpt from a Clarina Nichols letter to the editor of the Wyandotte Gazette tells a tale of Nichols and the western branch of the Underground Railroad:
My cistern – every brick of it rebuilt in the chimney of my late Wyandotte home – played its part in the drama of freedom. One beautiful evening late in October ’61, as twilight was fading from the bluff, a hurrid message came to me from our neighbor – Fielding Johnson – “You must hide Caroline. Fourteen slave hunters are camped on the Park – her master among them.”
My cistern had been cleaned and nicely dried preparatory to a wash of cement for some undiscernable leakage. Its dimensions were 7 by 12 (square) and a rock bottom; eight feet in depth and reached from a trap in the floor of the wing; an open space between the floor and mouth – when left uncovered – affording ventilation from the outside.
Into this cistern Caroline was lowered with comforters, pillow and chair. A washtub over the trap with the usual appliances of a washroom standing around, completed the hiding. But poor Caroline trembling and almost paralyzed with fear of discovery her nerves weakened by grieving for her little girl transported to Texas, and the cruel blows which had broken her arm and scarred her body – could not be left alone through the night.
As I must have an excuse if found up at an unusual hour, I improvised a sick room. My son sleeping on the sitting-room lounge for a patient; my rocking chair; a stand with cups, vials and night lamp beside him were above suspicion. All night I crept to and fro in slippered feet. Peering from the skylight in the roof, from which in the bright moonlight all the approaches could be plainly seen anon; whispering words of cheer to Caroline in her cell, and back again to watch and wait and whisper.
At 12 o’clock – mid the cheerful crowing of cocks on both sides of the river – having taken a careful survey from the skylight, I passed a cup of fresh hot coffee to Caroline and sitting by the open floor drank my own with apparent cheerfulness, but really in a tremor of indignation and fear; fear of a prolonged incarceration of the poor victim of oppression and indignation at the government that protected and the manhood that stayed its hand from “breaking the bonds and telling the oppressed go free.”
Seven o’clock in the morning the slave-hunters rode out of town into the interior. When evening fell again Caroline and another girl of whom the hunters were in pursuit found a safe conveyance to Leavenworth friends.
Nichols traveled throughout the territory lecturing about equality, gathering signatures on petitions, and by 1859 building support for her participation at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention. These petitions persuaded the delegates to give Nichols a voice and a platform. She sat in on the convention’s daily proceedings, occupying a seat of prominence next to the chaplain. While there, she lobbied the delegates to grant women equal educational opportunities and the right to vote in school district elections, as well as equal standing on child custody matters and equality in holding real and personal property. Largely due to Nichols’ lobbying efforts, the Wyandotte Constitution guaranteed these rights to Kansas women, and once the convention finished its work, Nichols campaigned for the constitution’s adoption by the electorate. This successful campaign, which ended with the referendum of October 4, 1859, however, did not end the struggle for equality.
Kansas was a vital battleground for woman’s rights, and events there remained important to the national movement. Thus, when the Kansas campaign for equal suffrage was launched in 1867, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Olympia Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined Clarina I. H. Nichols in a valiant but futile effort. Stanton went on an exhaustive 1500-mile tour in an open carriage on dusty roads, slept in a log hut and spoke in unfinished schools and churches. Kansas voters rejected amendments for both female and African American suffrage. The cause of woman’s rights advanced slowly, thereafter, but it did advance, thanks to Nichols and many other selfless and dedicated women. Nichols left Kansas in 1871 to be with two of her children in California, where she died on January 11, 1885. But, of course, the cause lived on. Two years after Nichols’ death, Kansas women could vote in municipal elections, and in 1912 they succeeded in their long effort to amend the state constitution and gain equality at the polls.1
Chapter VII – History of Woman Suffrage, S.B. Anthony, E. C. Stanton & Matilda Joslyn Gage; Reminiscences by Clarina I. Howard Nichols