Living the Legacy: The Women's Rights Movement 1848-1998 Essay

Living The Legacy The Women S Rights Movement 1848 1998 Essay

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Living the Legacy: The Women's Rights Movement 1848-1998 Essay submitted by Jay "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 on their mothers' legacy through the next generation. Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt, leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in the early years of the 20th century, who brought the campaign to its final success. Alice Paul, founder and leader of the National Woman's Party, considered the radical wing of the movement. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a Supreme Court Justice, learned the story of the Women's Rights Movement. Today she says, "I think about how much we owe to the women who went before us - legions of women, some known but many more unknown. I applaud the bravery and resilience of those who helped all of us - you and me - to be here today." After the Vote was Won After the vote was finally won in 1920, the organized Women's Rights Movement continued on in several directions. While the majority of women who had marched, petitioned and lobbied for woman suffrage looked no further, a minority - like Alice Paul - understood that the quest for women's rights would be an ongoing struggle that was only advanced, not satisfied, by the vote.
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