- Date of birth: January 25, 1810
- Place of birth: Townshend, Vermont
- Claim to fame: Newspaper editor, writer, pioneer, activist, lecturer, and "conductor" on the Underground Railroad
- Date of death: January 11, 1885
- Place of death: Mendocino County, California
- Final resting place: Potter Valley Cemetery, Mendocino County, California
Growing up in Vermont in the early 19th century, Clarina Howard recognized the need for women’s rights from an early age. Her mother and father taught her values of equality and self-sufficiency that stayed with her throughout her life. In 1828, she attended Timothy Cressy’s Select School in West Townshend, and at the age of 17, she gave her first speech, entitled “Comparative of a Scientific and an Ornamental Education to Females.” While attending school, however, Howard learned the harsh lesson that women in America, no matter how smart or dedicated, were treated as second-class citizens to their male counterparts.
Howard experienced inequality firsthand when she went through an unsuccessful marriage during the 1830s, which resulted in a divorce dated February 16, 1843. The disproportional low wages, lack of property rights, and disrespect that women encountered after divorce all served as inspiration for her future writings. She then married George Washington Nichols, editor of the Windham County Democrat, in 1843 and took his last name. This gave her the unusual opportunity to write on behalf of women’s rights, specifically enlightened by the “cruelty, unkindness, and intolerable severity” that had served as the basis for Nichols’s divorce in 1843. Eventually she became editor, gained a following, and placed her name at the top of the newspaper next to her new husband’s as co-editor.
Following a speech delivered at the first National Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, Nichols left her position as editor to spend her time lecturing on women’s rights. Meanwhile, a heated debate stirred on the Kansas-Nebraska line – a debate that would attract Nichols to the area and change the course of her life. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act attempted to settle the question of slavery in Kansas through “popular sovereignty,” or letting the people and legislature of the territory decide whether the state would allow or ban slavery. In practice, the act unleashed violence among proslavery and anti-slavery “Free-Staters,” eventually causing the territory to be known as Bleeding Kansas.
Nichols became an advocate for the Free-State cause and women’s rights, for she believed the two went hand in hand.
Nichols moved to Kansas in 1855, along with her husband and many antislavery advocates. She believed the turmoil in Kansas presented the perfect opportunity to exert her influence in the territory. In the years 1856 to 1858, Nichols toured Kansas and gave speeches on what her biographer, Diane Eickhoff, calls the “triumvirate of mid-nineteenth century reforms: temperance, antislavery, and women’s rights.” Nichols thus became an advocate for the Free-State cause and women’s rights, for she believed the two went hand in hand.
In 1858, Nichols moved to Quindaro, a Free-State settlement made up almost entirely of African American settlers on the edge of the Missouri River. Its position, right across the river from Missouri, motivated many slaves to escape to Quindaro on their path to freedom. Nichols assisted these slaves and became an integral part of the Underground Railroad. Once again, these experiences influenced the way she wrote and gave speeches. In 1859, Nichols began a lecture tour in which she used shackles to demonstrate the horrific situation of slavery (and, by implication, women’s position in marriage) and to motivate audiences to abolish it at once. This allowed her to not only explain the atrocities of slavery, but also to demonstrate that women, if given equal rights, would help put an end to the peculiar institution.
She used shackles to demonstrate the horrific situation of slavery and to motivate audiences to abolish it at once.
Nichols made state headlines again when she attended the Kansas Constitutional Convention at Wyandotte, Kansas, in 1859. Nichols had circulated petitions throughout the sparsely populated state in the few months prior, and at the Convention she presented 600 signatures to the state legislature. She also spoke to representatives and delegates about women’s rights legislation and how they could incorporate it into their respective communities. Yet, with the distractions of Bleeding Kansas, Nichols was unable to garner comprehensive equal rights. She did, however, gain equal child custody consideration in the event of divorce, the right to inherit and control property, and voting rights in school district elections, all of which were forerunners of equality for women in the nation.
Speech: Clarina Nichols's famous speech, "The Responsibilities of Woman," delivered at the 1851 Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, is available online.
During the Civil War, Nichols worked in Washington, D.C. as one of the first female clerks in the Department of the Treasury. She returned to Kansas in 1867 and played an integral role in getting a female suffrage amendment on the 1867 fall ballot. Nichols’s petitions in the late 1850s allowed her to guarantee that a female suffrage amendment appeared on the Kansas ballot next to black suffrage. Despite her relentless campaign of lectures in the fall of 1867, both amendments failed to garner enough support on election day.
Frustrated by the lack of progress in Kansas, Nichols bid farewell to the state in 1872 and moved to California, where she would write for newspapers from both California and Vermont. She also received an invitation each year to compose a letter to be delivered at the annual National Women’s Rights Convention.
Nichols believed that her life’s work of giving speeches and fighting for the right to vote laid a firm foundation for the next generation of suffragists. In her last letter to Susan B. Anthony on January 7, 1885, Nichols emphasized this belief in future suffragists when she stated, “God is with us-there can be no failure and no defeat outside ourselves that will not roll up the floodwood and rush away every obstruction.” Nichols had seen firsthand what it meant to fight for women’s rights in Kansas, and when she died on January 11, 1885, she rested peacefully knowing the next generation would finish what she started.
Blackwell, Marilyn S. "The Politics of Motherhood: Clarina Howard Nichols and School Suffrage". The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 4: (December 2005) 570-598.
Blackwell, Marilyn S. and Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel. Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2010.
Eickhoff, Diane. Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women's Rights. Kansas City, Kansas: Quindaro Press, 2006.
Kansas Historical Society. "Clarina Nichols: Reformer, Journalist." April 2010, modified February 2013.
Nichols, Clarina Howard. "The Responsibilities of Woman." The Woman's Rights Convention. Worcester, Massachusetts. October 15, 1851.