Clarina Howard Nichols 1810 – 1885 Could a woman support herself and children by writing an article like this for the local newspaper today? NO. In fact, it is very difficult to get one’s viewpoint printed at all. Only if you are a celebrity or other notable do you get paid for writing.
Fortunately, Clarina’s parents encouraged her to get educated. From an early age she wrote prose and poetry. Her father Chapin Howard was a successful entrepreneur in Townsend, VT. As a child she witnessed interviews he had with local poor people as supervisor of the poor. This was the beginning of her awareness of women’s lack of property rights. Although her first husband had literary aspirations, her marriage crumbled when he was unable to support the family. Her father provided her with a dowry of $1500 of which her husband became “owner” as well as of her earnings from writing. She had three children, taught school, and worked for a newspaper.1 She started writing in Brockport, NY. She and her husband Justin Carpenter became involved in the Young Gentlemen and Ladies Temperance Society. He had difficulty supporting his family and they tried to regroup in New York City but that also failed. She ran a boarding house, took in sewing and millinery work.
She consoled herself with writing. As a Baptist she was plagued by moral failure and social disgrace. He absconded with the children and then she mobilized for their return and she moved back home to her parents in 1839. Her father’s stature as a selectman, former town representative and experienced justice of the peace gave him influence with legislators. In 1840 they initiated a bill to the Vermont legislature to allow for divorce even if a couple’s problems occurred outside of the state. This reform opened the way for Clarina to receive a divorce (with a three-year residency requirement). This was a lesson on how laws could be changed through political action. She lived with her parents during this time.
In 1840 she started submitting her poetry to a newspaper in Brattleboro using a byline of anonymity. Coupling romantic phraseology with reverence for God and earth she used her memory to write about domestic and historical topics. Her professional relationship with the paper’s owner and widower George Nichols blossomed into a marriage after her divorce in 1843. As his health declined Clarina became the editor. Although 25 years older he was the support she needed as she pursued political action. Local newspapers were partisan in those days, but there were more than one choice, not as today. Women were not allowed to speak publicly. She supported Horace Mann’s education reforms and temperance. In 1846-7 she evolved into supporting antislavery policy and the Free Soil Party. She then started occasional columns written by a pseudo-name, Deborah Van Winkle who would sit in a legislative gallery knitting and then write about the proceedings.
This was a time when petitions were effective. Women began attending political party rallies. In 1852 Clarina attended the Women’s Rights Convention in Syracuse, NY. She was a favorite for her heartfelt and earnest oratory. Here she met Susan B. Anthony and they became lifelong friends. 1852 was Clarina’s initial foray when she initiated a petition pleading for the right to vote in school meetings that was submitted to the Vermont legislature. She went door to door getting 200 signatures. The following year she submitted a petition for equal custody for mothers. She was even invited to speak for her cause; with great trepidation she spoke for an hour and a half. The Broome County legislature restricts to three minutes. “Even though she had ‘earned’ the dress she wore, she noted indignantly, her husband owned it, not because he wanted to, but because of a law passed by “bachelors and other women’s husbands.” “She challenged lawmakers’ manly sense of honor for tolerating committee chair Barrett’s taunts while having “legislated our skirts into their possession.” She claimed the respect due to a woman of refinement.2 Although the effort failed, she gained recognition of the New York Tribune. She went on to support the temperance movement.
Locally, in Broome County a grassroots-organized public hearing on public transportation was attended by 100 people but the BC administrator of transit was not allowed to attend. Six hundred people signed a petition to restore bus services that the legislature ignored. Take note of the Broome County Legislature – Rule 17 PRIVILEGE OF THE FLOOR Except as otherwise provided herein, no person shall be entitled to the privilege of the floor during a meeting of the Legislature unless, either a member of the Legislature requests said privilege on behalf of a person and the Legislature grants said privilege by a majority vote of the whole number of the members of the Legislature, or a special or standing committee grants said privilege by majority vote of the whole number of the members of the Committee on behalf of a person who has appeared before the Committee. The Chair of the Legislature may recognize and grant privilege of the floor to any County, State, Federal or municipal official. The granting of the privilege of the floor may be conditioned upon such terms of time and content as the Chair may impose. 1 – www.kshs.org/kansapedia 2- Frontier Feminist, Clarina Howard Nichols. p.115