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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that
ever has.” That was Margaret Mead’s conclusion after a lifetime of observing
very diverse cultures around the world. Her insight has been borne out
time and again throughout the development of this country of ours. Being
allowed to live life in an atmosphere of religious freedom, having a voice
in the government you support with your taxes, living free of lifelong
enslavement by another person. These beliefs about how life should and
must be lived were once considered outlandish by many. But these beliefs
were fervently held by visionaries whose steadfast work brought about changed
minds and attitudes. Now these beliefs are commonly shared across U.S.
Another initially outlandish idea that
has come to pass: United States citizenship for women. 1998 marks the 150th
Anniversary of a movement by women to achieve full civil rights in this
country. Over the past seven generations, dramatic social and legal changes
have been accomplished that are now so accepted that they go unnoticed
by people whose lives they have utterly changed. Many people who have lived
through the recent decades of this process have come to accept blithely
what has transpired. And younger people, for the most part, can hardly
believe life was ever otherwise. They take the changes completely in stride,
as how life has always been.
The staggering changes for women that have
come about over those seven generations in family life, in religion, in
government, in employment, in education – these changes did not just happen
spontaneously. Women themselves made these changes happen, very deliberately.
Women have not been the passive recipients of miraculous changes in laws
and human nature. Seven generations of women have come together to affect
these changes in the most democratic ways: through meetings, petition drives,
lobbying, public speaking, and nonviolent resistance. They have worked
very deliberately to create a better world, and they have succeeded hugely.
Throughout 1998, the 150th anniversary
of the Women’s Rights Movement is being celebrated across the nation with
programs and events taking every form imaginable. Like many amazing stories,
the history of the Women’s Rights Movement began with a small group of
people questioning why human lives were being unfairly constricted.
A Tea Launches a Revolution
The Women’s Rights Movement marks July
13, 1848 as its beginning. On that sweltering summer day in upstate New
York, a young housewife and mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was invited
to tea with four women friends. When the course of their conversation turned
to the situation of women, Stanton poured out her discontent with the limitations
placed on her own situation under America’s new democracy. Hadn’t the American
Revolution had been fought just 70 years earlier to win the patriots freedom
from tyranny? But women had not gained freedom even though they’d taken
equally tremendous risks through those dangerous years. Surely the new
republic would benefit from having its women play more active roles throughout
society. Stanton’s friends agreed with her, passionately. This was definitely
not the first small group of women to have such a conversation, but it
was the first to plan and carry out a specific, large-scale program.
Today we are living the legacy of this
afternoon conversation among women friends. Throughout 1998, events celebrating
the 150th Anniversary of the Women’s Rights Movement are looking at the
massive changes these women set in motion when they daringly agreed to
convene the world’s first Women’s Rights Convention.
Within two days of their afternoon tea
together, this small group had picked a date for their convention, found
a suitable location, and placed a small announcement in the Seneca County
Courier. They called “A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious
condition and rights of woman.” The gathering would take place at the Wesleyan
Chapel in Seneca Falls on July 19 and 20, 1848.
In the history of western civilization,
no similar public meeting had ever been called.
A “Declaration of Sentiments” is Drafted
These were patriotic women, sharing the
ideal of improving the new republic. They saw their mission as helping
the republic keep its promise of better, more egalitarian lives for its
citizens. As the women set about preparing for the event, Elizabeth Cady
Stanton used the Declaration of Independence as the framework for writing
what she titled a “Declaration of Sentiments.” In what proved to be a brilliant
move, Stanton connected the nascent campaign for women’s rights directly
to that powerful American symbol of liberty. The same familiar words framed
their arguments: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men
and women are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the
pursuit of happiness.”
In this Declaration of Sentiments, Stanton
carefully enumerated areas of life where women were treated unjustly. Eighteen
was precisely the number of grievances America’s revolutionary forefathers
had listed in their Declaration of Independence from England.
Stanton’s version read, “The history of
mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of
man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute
tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Then it went into specifics:
Married women were legally dead in the
eyes of the law
Women were not allowed to vote
Women had to submit to laws when they had
no voice in their formation
Married women had no property rights
Husbands had legal power over and responsibility
for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with
Divorce and child custody laws favored
men, giving no rights to women
Women had to pay property taxes although
they had no representation in the levying of these taxes
Most occupations were closed to women and
when women did work they were paid only a fraction of what men earned
Women were not allowed to enter professions
such as medicine or law
Women had no means to gain an education
since no college or university would accept women students
With only a few exceptions, women were
not allowed to participate in the affairs of the church
Women were robbed of their self-confidence
and self-respect, and were made totally dependent on men
Strong words… Large grievances… And
remember: This was just seventy years after the Revolutionary War. Doesn’t
it seem surprising to you that this unfair treatment of women was the norm
in this new, very idealistic democracy? But this Declaration of Sentiments
spelled out what was the status quo for European-American women in 1848
America, while it was even worse for enslaved Black women.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s draft continued:
“Now, in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half the people
of this country, their social and religious degradation, — in view of
the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved,
oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist
that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which
belong to them as citizens of these United States.”
That summer, change was in the air and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was full of hope that the future could and would
be brighter for women.
The First Women’s Rights Convention
The convention was convened as planned,
and over the two-days of discussion, the Declaration of Sentiments and
12 resolutions received unanimous endorsement, one by one, with a few amendments.
The only resolution that did not pass unanimously was the call for women’s
enfranchisement. That women should be allowed to vote in elections was
almost inconceivable to many. Lucretia Mott, Stanton’s longtime friend,
had been shocked when Stanton had first suggested such an idea. And at
the convention, heated debate over the woman’s vote filled the air.
Today, it’s hard for us to imagine this,
isn’t it? Even the heartfelt pleas of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a refined
and educated woman of the time, did not move the assembly. Not until Frederick
Douglass, the noted Black abolitionist and rich orator, started to speak,
did the uproar subside. Woman, like the slave, he argued, had the right
to liberty. “Suffrage,” he asserted, “is the power to choose rulers and
make laws, and the right by which all others are secured.” In the end,
the resolution won enough votes to carry, but by a bare majority.
The Declaration of Sentiments ended on
a note of complete realism: “In entering upon the great work before us,
we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and
ridicule but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect
our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State
and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press
in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of
Conventions, embracing every part of the country.”
The Backlash Begins
Stanton was certainly on the mark when
she anticipated “misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule.” Newspaper
editors were so scandalized by the shameless audacity of the Declaration
of Sentiments, and particularly of the ninth resolution-women demanding
the vote!– that they attacked the women with all the vitriol they could
muster. The women’s rights movement was only one day old and the backlash
had already begun!
In ridicule, the entire text of the Declaration
of Sentiments was often published, with the names of the signers frequently
included. Just as ridicule today often has a squelching effect on new ideas,
this attack in the press caused many people from the Convention to rethink
their positions. Many of the women who had attended the convention were
so embarrassed by the publicity that they actually withdrew their signatures
from the Declaration. But most stood firm. And something the editors had
not anticipated happened: Their negative articles about the women’s call
for expanded rights were so livid and widespread that they actually had
a positive impact far beyond anything the organizers could have hoped for.
People in cities and isolated towns alike were now alerted to the issues,
and joined this heated discussion of women’s rights in great numbers!
The Movement Expands
The Seneca Falls women had optimistically
hoped for “a series of conventions embracing every part of the country.”
And that’s just what did happen. Women’s Rights Conventions were held regularly
from 1850 until the start of the Civil War. Some drew such large crowds
that people actually had to be turned away for lack of sufficient meeting
The women’s rights movement of the late
19th century went on to address the wide range of issues spelled out at
the Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women like Susan
B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth traveled the country lecturing
and organizing for the next forty years. Eventually, winning the right
to vote emerged as the central issue, since the vote would provide the
means to achieve the other reforms. All told, the campaign for woman suffrage
met such staunch opposition that it took 72 years for the women and their
male supporters to be successful.
As you might imagine, any 72-year campaign
includes thousands of political strategists, capable organizers, administrators,
activists and lobbyists. The story of diligent women’s rights activism
is a litany of achievements against tremendous odds, of ingenious strategies
and outrageous tactics used to outwit opponents and make the most of limited
resources. It’s a dramatic tale, filled with remarkable women facing down
incredible obstacles to win that most basic American civil right – the
Among these women are several activists
whose names and and accomplishments should become as familiar to Americans
as those of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of course. And Susan B. Anthony. Matilda Joslyn
Gage. Lucy Stone. They were pioneer theoreticians of the 19th-century women’s
rights movement. Esther Morris, the first woman to hold a judicial position,
who led the first successful state campaign for woman suffrage, in Wyoming
in 1869. Abigail Scott Duniway, the leader of the successful fight in Oregon
and Washington in the early 1900s. Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church
Terrell, organizers of thousands of African-American women who worked for
suffrage for all women. Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady
Stanton, and Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone’s daughter, who carried
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