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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.

society.

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

impunity

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

space!

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

vote.

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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