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Women's Rights on Trial: 101 Historic Trials from Anne Hutchinson to the Virginia Military institute Cadets

by Elizabth Frost-Knappman
and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

From "Crimes of Conscience and Nonconformity":

American history is replete with tales of women who lived bravely and in defiance of the "rules of conduct" for their sex. Many had to answer for their actions in court, and at least one had to answer with her life.

In 1637, Anne Hutchinson was clearly and willingly at odds with the male Puritan establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Living in a society that demanded subordination of its women and religious conformity for all, she dared to hold and preach dissenting views. She was exiled from the Colony following a civil trial and excommunicated from the church following a religious one. Twenty-two years later, Mary Dyer ran spiritually afoul of the Bay Colony's leadership as well. Convicted and once nearly hanged for her Quaker beliefs, she too was banished from the Colony. Dyer did not accept her exile; instead, she returned to "look the bloody [anti-Quaker] laws in the face," an act she knew would result in her certain execution....

Our earliest non-religious case of female conscience in conflict with the law is Crandall v. Connecticut. Crandall went to jail in 1834 for teaching young African-American girls in her boarding school, instruction that was forbidden by Connecticut's "Black Law." Although this law was ultimately found unconstitutional, Crandall was forced by arsonists to abandon her school.

Margaret Sanger was also moved by the plight of others: among them were her many nursing patients, including a young woman who died following a self-induced abortion, and her own mother, who died too young after eighteen pregnancies. Sanger went to jail at least nine times in her quest to make contraceptives available to American women....

Two additional cases, forty-four years apart, concern women taking desparate measures to secure suffrage. In 1873, Susan B. Anthony was convicted of illegally casting a ballot in a presidential election. Denied the vote because she was a woman, Anthony did not have the right to testify in her own defense because of her sex. In 1917, Alice Paul and 167 other members of the National Woman's Party went to jail for obstructing a sidewalk. The sidewalk in question was in front of the White House, and the "obstructing" was actually caused by their picketing to demand suffrage. Although picketing was perfectly legal in the United States--and a sidewalk obstruction would seem a minor infration of the traffic rules--the women remained in jail for up to seven months. They also became the first American citizens to claim that the United States held them as political prisoners.

Copyright 1997 New England Publishing Associates, Inc., and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont