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The Election of 1840 and the Long Arc of Women’s Political Participation

Our newest entry is a biography of Virginia-born William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States. One might think there isn’t much to say about Harrison, given that he still holds the distinction of being the shortest-serving U.S. president, dying in office thirty-one days after his inauguration. 

But Harrison’s military career covered the pivotal years of the early Republic when Native Americans were pushed out of much of the Northwest Territory, opening present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin to white settlement, through to the War of 1812, which cemented American independence while opening still more territory to white pioneers.

Harrison didn’t have a particularly distinguished political career. He won the Whig nomination for the presidency in 1839 because he was seen as the least objectionable candidate after Henry Clay’s nomination ran aground. And his lasting contribution to American campaign lore, the “Log Cabin and Cider” strategy, was complete happenstance, as Ronald Shafer details in the entry

But Harrison’s campaign did innovate in several ways—from holding large rallies and parades for the candidate to whip up voter enthusiasm, to allowing Harrison to deliver speeches in favor of his own candidacy, which had been strictly verboten for politicians, lest they appear too political.

The campaign also featured another innovation that defied the rules of political decorum: the Whig Party openly courted women’s support for Harrison. Women lined Harrison parade routes, where they waived white handkerchiefs as the marchers passed by. In Alexandria, the “Whig Ladies” made a banner for the local Harrison club to carry in a parade. Women flocked to their local “Log Cabins”—Whig campaign headquarters—to hear pro-Harrison speakers. Their excitement was palatable. Mary Steger of Richmond told a friend, “I never took so much interest in politics in my life.” 

The campaign of the Democratic nominee, President Martin Van Buren, was quick to cast aspersions on this very public political role that women were taking, calling such women shameless and reminding them that their husbands represented them in the public sphere, while they belonged at home.

But women hadn’t always been banished from the public sphere. Women were courted as political allies in the run-up to and during the American Revolution—an area that EV will explore in-depth in our new section on the American Revolution in Virginia. A number of prominent public women argued for women’s rights and education in the 1790s. Women like Margaret Bayard Smith and Dolley Madison were important political commentators and actors in the early nineteenth century. 

It took the infamous Petticoat War of the Jackson administration—when the elite women of Washington attempted to use their power to force Andrew Jackson to remove John Eaton from his cabinet because they didn’t care to socialize with his controversial wife Peggy O’Neale Timberlake Eaton—to create an open backlash against women’s participation in the political world. When Jackson’s cabinet crashed and newspapers around the country blamed the interference of women in politics, even the politically connected and influential Margaret Bayard Smith wondered if women had gained “more than their share of power” in Washington and sought to downplay her influence. At the same time, powerful economic and social forces were pushing women to identify solely with the domestic world of hearth and home.

As the old Democratic-Republican Party split into the Whigs and the Democrats, the Democratic Party would continue to exclude women’s participation for the next decades, while the Whigs, beginning with the election of 1840, would openly court women. But at this point, the Seneca Falls Convention was only eight years away. Women were already entering the political sphere as abolitionists, and suffragists and temperance reformers wouldn’t be far behind, as women once again created vibrant roles as political actors that would culminate with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

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