Preceding women’s suffrage by 76 years, this silk patchwork “counterpane” bedspread proclaims its maker Rebecca Lombart Williams’ political leanings. In its outermost border are two silk ribbons from Henry Clay’s 1844 presidential campaign. Clay believed that the annexation of Texas—then an independent republic—as proposed by President John Tyler might lead to war with Mexico. He appealed to the women of America, who, while lacking the legal right to vote, might be inclined to try to influence votes of the men in their families. Clay’s campaign hoped that women would wish to support the party that was trying to avoid a war in which their husbands and sons might be sent to fight. (In the end, Clay lost out due to the country’s expansionist mood.)
Clay also opposed the anti-slavery movement, yet this counterpane quilt was made in 1844 in Philadelphia, a predominantly abolitionist city. But perhaps Rebecca Lambert Williams, then in her mid-20s, cared more for Clay’s foreign policy than his anti-abolitionist stance. A third ribbon printed simply with the word “Abstinence” testifies to Williams’ interest in the temperance movement.
Altogether, this patchwork bedcover reminds us that even without the vote, American women had opinions about the world outside their prescribed domestic sphere. Sometimes they were able to express those opinions in subtle ways; in this case, by stitching them into an object intrinsically both domestic and feminine.