It’s no secret that men resisted woman suffrage. Over many generations, a majority blocked changes to laws that limited voting rights to males. Why all those individuals felt so strongly about controlling the ballot box is seldom asked. Biographers and political historians ignore the question, and after fifty years of the new women’s history, it is still intellectually respectable to omit from his biography a man’s opposition to women’s rights.
Samuel A. Foot was no ordinary opponent, muttering to his pals about keeping women in their place. While serving his first term in the New York Assembly in 1856, Foot fashioned himself the man to stem the tide of women’s rights. Installed as chairman of the Committee on Judiciary, Foot blocked modest reform bills and wrote an infamous report against women who dared to seek legal equality.
Foot was and is, in some circles, an estimable man of his century. Lawyer, writer, district attorney of Albany, assemblyman, and judge of the Court of Appeals of New York, this “Eminent Jurist” was eulogized by the New York Times in 1878.
He passed through his life . . . without reproach, and honored for the manly qualities he exhibited. . . . Each good cause found in him a champion, each bad one a persistent opponent. He preached by example no less than by precept.
Not then and not since have accounts of Foot paid any attention to his extreme resistance to women’s rights. Neither have his admirers tried to understand that extremism in relation to his better deeds. Let’s consider the possibility that his attitude toward women mattered.
Foot’s chance to behave badly came in fall 1855. While he campaigned for office, the New York State Woman’s Rights Committee circulated a petition asking for voting rights. It put forth a simple argument: the women of New York are “recognized as citizens” and suffrage “cannot justly be withheld” from citizens.
We, the undersigned, do therefore petition that you will at once take the necessary steps so to revise the Constitution of our State that all her citizens may enjoy equal Political Privileges.
Petitions were returned to Susan B. Anthony and sent on to Albany during the legislative session which ran from January 1 to April 9, 1856.
When the first petition from the campaign, signed by residents of Saratoga Springs, reached the Assembly on January 19, members referred it to the Committee on Judiciary. On February 2, assemblymen introduced petitions from Ontario, Livingston, Rensselaer, Wyoming, Westchester, and Chemung counties; on February 4, petitions came from constituents in Onondaga, Yates, Erie, and Queens counties; and so it continued.
As petitions piled up, Samuel Foot ignored them until, in mid-March, colleagues pressed him to report back from the committee. His Report on Women’s Rights was read aloud in the Assembly Chamber on March 14 and, according to local newspapers, “set the whole House in roars of laughter.”
Foot got right to the point: “The judiciary committee is composed of married and single gentlemen,” with married men in the majority. This non sequitur about marital status set up his joke. “The bachelors on the committee, with becoming diffidence,” he went on, “have left the subject pretty much to the married gentlemen.” And those husbands brought “the experience married life has given them” to the subject. From experience they knew,
that ladies always have the best piece, and choicest titbit at table; they have the best seat in the cars, carriages and sleighs; the warmest place in winter and coolest place in summer. They have their choice on which side of the bed they will lie, front or back.
The list goes on, peaking with this drollery:
if there is any inequality or oppression in the case, the gentlemen are the sufferers. They, however, have presented no petitions for redress, having doubtless made up their minds to yield to an inevitable destiny.
Playing petitioners’ plea for constitutional equality as if it were marital tension better left at home, Foot never conceded that these constituents deserved a real answer.
What could be worse than women daring to trespass on political turf? Husbands who let them do it. Foot ended his report with some petticoat-shaming.
On the whole, the committee have concluded to recommend no measure, except that, as they have observed several instances in which husband and wife have both signed the same petition, in such case they would recommend the parties to apply for a law authorizing them to change dresses, so that the husband may wear the petticoats, and the wife the breeches, and thus indicate to their neighbors and the public the true relation in which they stand to each other.
Colleagues recognized the incivility of Samuel Foot’s performance. As laughter faded on March 14, Henry Northup observed that Foot said nothing about voting rights or political equality. He moved that the report be sent back to committee, “with instructions to submit a report touching the subject of the prayer of the petitions referred to them.” The Assembly rejected Northup’s motion, but in the very next item of business, a majority rebuked Foot in a related matter. They had sought his committee’s counsel on a bill expanding the property rights of married women. When Foot reported against taking any action, Andrew Warner moved that the bill be printed and taken up by members regardless of Foot’s opposition. The Assembly agreed.
In one last reprimand a week later, members took away Foot’s power to block women’s rights in committee: they referred the petitions to the friendlier Committee on Claims. According to William Hay, a distinguished lawyer and ally of the woman’s rights committee, Foot was quite angry; he “squealed out his angry opposition, in the old stupid slang (or Shakespeare perverted from ‘Macbeth’), about unsexing women with the right of suffrage.”
In the short term, Foot stonewalled to prevent discussion of voting rights in that legislative session. In the long term, his report became a totem in the battle for woman suffrage. First, Foot included the report and an introduction to it in his Autobiography published sixteen years later. By then, by 1872, the topic of women’s political rights was not new, surprising, or confined to Albany. Campaigns were national in scope, and women of Wyoming and Utah enjoyed full voting rights. Time and social change, however, did not lessen Foot’s resistance. Indeed, he added a boast about his talent for obstruction.
The committee regarded the idea of changing the order of an infinitely-wise Creator in regard to the sexes of those created in his own image, as too absurd for serious consideration, and determined to make no report on the subject. . . . The result showed that it was just the right way of putting down such nonsense. . . . . It killed women’s rights for the time and for several years afterwards.
Then, nine years later, in 1881, Foot’s report surfaced in the History of Woman Suffrage, in a chapter about the agitation in New York. There historians of women controverted Foot’s arrogance and the euphoria of his obituary. The report was introduced as the work of a reputable man gone bad, in a damning crescendo of words likely written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (Odds are that Stanton knew Foot through her father, Daniel Cady.)
Mr. Foote (sic) was at one time a member of the bar of New York, associating with some of the first families in the State–a son, a husband, a father–and yet in his maturer years he had so little respect for himself, his mother, wife, and daughters as to present in a dignified legislative assembly the following report on a grave question of human rights–a piece of buffoonery worthy only of a mountebank in a circus.
In a stunning return, on May 23, 1915, the New York Times published Foot’s buffoonery again, as a message from “Mrs. J. Alex Mahon,” a leader in the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. New Yorkers were debating woman suffrage that season in advance of a state referendum in November. Mrs. Mahon, citing Foot’s Autobiography as her source, redeployed the report in her campaign to defeat woman suffrage.
Though Foot-the-reactionary was inscribed into women’s history within a few years of his death, his modern champions simply ignore that facet of the man and make no effort to explain how the views and tone of his report accord with the man they admire. Foot is classified today as a “luminary” by the New York State Unified Court System. His prominence as a champion of male-only government gets no mention. By historians, Foot is respected for his swift opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case in 1857. In his second term in the Assembly, he introduced resolutions condemning the decision. A year later, he wrote a widely circulated speech about how the decision threatened the Constitution. These are good deeds, but someone needs to explain how they coexist with the smug extremist who mocked women for expecting something from their government–and boasted about it later.
Autobiography: Collateral Reminiscences, Arguments in Important Causes, Speeches, Addresses, Lectures and Other Writings of Samuel A. Foot, LL.D., Counselor-at-Law, and Late Judge of the Court of Appeals, 2 vols. (New York: n.p., 1872). Available free on the web. Foot reminisces in vol. 1 about the writings included in vol. 2.
Journal of the New York Assembly, 79th session, 1856.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage et al., History of Woman Suffrage, (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 1: 629-631.
Dred Scott decision: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/slaves-court/history6.html The full text of Foot’s 1858 speech is also part of the same lessons.
A man of expensive tastes: http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/galleries/the-american-wing/738