Living The Legacy The Women

Living The Legacy: The Women’s Rights Movement 1848-1998 Essay, Research Paper

“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

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.

In 1919, as the suffrage victory drew near,

the National American Woman Suffrage Association reconfigured itself into

the League of Women Voters to ensure that women would take their hard-won

vote seriously and use it wisely.

In 1920, the Women’s Bureau of the Department

of Labor was established to gather information about the situation of women

at work, and to advocate for changes it found were needed. Many suffragists

became actively involved with lobbying for legislation to protect women

workers from abuse and unsafe conditions.

In 1923, Alice Paul, the leader of the

National Woman’s Party, took the next obvious step. She drafted an Equal

Rights Amendment for the United States Constitution. Such a federal law,

it was argued, would ensure that “Men and women have equal rights throughout

the United States.” A constitutional amendment would apply uniformly, regardless

of where a person lived.

The second wing of the post-suffrage movement

was one that had not been explicitly anticipated in the Seneca Falls “Declaration

of Sentiments.” It was the birth control movement, initiated by a public

health nurse, Margaret Sanger, just as the suffrage drive was nearing its

victory. The idea of woman’s right to control her own body, and especially

to control her own reproduction and sexuality, added a visionary new dimension

to the ideas of women’s emancipation. This movement not only endorsed educating

women about existing birth control methods. It also spread the conviction

that meaningful freedom for modern women meant they must be able to decide

for themselves whether they would become mothers, and when. For decades,

Margaret Sanger and her supporters faced down at every turn the zealously

enforced laws denying women this right. In 1936, a Supreme Court decision

declassified birth control information as obscene. Still, it was not until

1965 that married couples in all stat! es could obtain contraceptives legally.

The Second Wave

So it’s clear that, contrary to common

misconception, the Women’s Rights Movement did not begin in the 1960s.

What occurred in the 1960s was actually a second wave of activism that

washed into the public consciousness, fueled by several seemingly independent

events of that turbulent decade. Each of these events brought a different

segment of the population into the movement.

First: Esther Peterson was the director

of the Women’s Bureau of the Dept. of Labor in 1961. She considered it

to be the government’s responsibility to take an active role in addressing

discrimination against women. With her encouragement, President Kennedy

convened a Commission on the Status of Women, naming Eleanor Roosevelt

as its chair. The report issued by that commission in 1963 documented discrimination

against women in virtually every area of American life. State and local

governments quickly followed suit and established their own commissions

for women, to research conditions and recommend changes that could be initiated.

Then: In 1963, Betty Friedan published

a landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. The Feminine Mystique evolved out

of a survey she had conducted for her 20-year college reunion. In it she

documented the emotional and intellectual oppression that middle-class

educated women were experiencing because of limited life options. The book

became an immediate bestseller, and inspired thousands of women to look

for fulfillment beyond the role of homemaker.

Next: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights

Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex

as well as race, religion, and national origin. The category “sex” was

included as a last-ditch effort to kill the bill. But it passed, nevertheless.

With its passage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established

to investigate discrimination complaints. Within the commission’s first

five years, it received 50,000 sex discrimination complaints. But it was

quickly obvious that the commission was not very interested in pursuing

these complaints. Betty Friedan, the chairs of the various state Commissions

on the Status of Women, and other feminists agreed to form a civil rights

organization for women similar to the NAACP. In 1966, the National Organization

for Women was organized, soon to be followed by an array of other mass-membership

organizations addressing the needs of specific groups of women, including

Blacks, Latinas, Asians-Americans, lesbians,! welfare recipients, business

owners, aspiring politicians, and tradeswomen and professional women of

every sort.

During this same time, thousands of young

women on college campuses were playing active roles within the anti-war

and civil rights movement. At least,that was their intention. Many were

finding their efforts blocked by men who felt leadership of these movements

was their own province, and that women’s roles should be limited to fixing

food and running mimeograph machines. It wasn’t long before these young

women began forming their own “women’s liberation” organizations to address

their role and status within these progressive movements and within society

at large.

New Issues Come to the Fore

These various elements of the re-emerging

Women’s Rights Movement worked together and separately on a wide range

of issues. Small groups of women in hundreds of communities worked on grassroots

projects like establishing women’s newspapers, bookstores and cafes. They

created battered women’s shelters and rape crisis hotlines to care for

victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. They came together to form

child care centers so women could work outside their homes for pay. Women

health care professionals opened women’s clinics to provide birth control

and family planning counseling-and to offer abortion services – - for low-income

women. These clinics provided a safe place to discuss a wide range of health

concerns and experiment with alternative forms of treatment.

With the inclusion of Title IX in the Education

Codes of 1972, equal access to higher education and to professional schools

became the law. The long-range effect of that one straightforward legal

passage beginning “Equal access to education programs…,” has been simply

phenomenal. The number of women doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects

and other professionals has doubled and doubled again as quotas actually

limiting women’s enrollment in graduate schools were outlawed. Athletics

has probably been the most hotly contested area of Title IX, and it’s been

one of the hottest areas of improvement, too. The rise in girls’ and women’s

participation in athletics tells the story: One in twenty-seven high school

girls played sports 25 years ago one in three do today. The whole world

saw how much American women athletes could achieve during the last few

Olympic Games, measured in their astonishing numbers of gold, silver, and

bronze medals. This was another very visible result of T! itle IX.

In society at large, the Women’s Rights

Movement has brought about measurable changes, too. In 1972, 26% of men

and women said they would not vote for a woman for president. In 1996,

that sentiment had plummeted to just over 5% for women and to 8% for men.

The average age of women when they first marry has moved from twenty to

twenty-four during that same period.

But perhaps the most dramatic impact of

the women’s rights movement of the past few decades has been women’s financial

liberation. Do you realize that just 25 years ago married women were not

issued credit cards in their own name? That most women could not get a

bank loan without a male co-signer? That women working full time earned

fifty-nine cents to every dollar earned by men?

Help-wanted ads in newspapers were segregated

into “Help wanted – women” and “Help wanted- men.” Pages and pages of jobs

were announced for which women could not even apply. The Equal Employment

Opportunity Commission ruled this illegal in 1968, but since the EEOC had

little enforcement power, most newspapers ignored the requirement for years.

The National Organization for Women (NOW), had to argue the issue all the

way to the Supreme Court to make it possible for a woman today to hold

any job for which she is qualified. And so now we see women in literally

thousands of occupations which would have been almost unthinkable just

one generation ago: dentist, bus driver, veterinarian, airline pilot, and

phone installer, just to name a few.

Many of these changes came about because

of legislation and court cases pushed by women’s organizations. But many

of the advances women achieved in the 1960s and ’70s were personal: getting

husbands to help with the housework or regularly take responsibility for

family meals getting a long-deserved promotion at work gaining the financial

and emotional strength to leave an abusive partner.

The Equal Rights Amendment Is Re-Introduced

Then, in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment,

which had languished in Congress for almost fifty years, was finally passed

and sent to the states for ratification. The wording of the ERA was simple:

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the

United States or by any state on account of sex.” To many women’s rights

activists, its ratification by the required thirty-eight states seemed

almost a shoo-in.

The campaign for state ratification of

the Equal Rights Amendment provided the opportunity for millions of women

across the nation to become actively involved in the Women’s Rights Movement

in their own communities. Unlike so many other issues which were battled-out

in Congress or through the courts, this issue came to each state to decide

individually. Women’s organizations of every stripe organized their members

to help raise money and generate public support for the ERA. Marches were

staged in key states that brought out hundreds of thousands of supporters.

House meetings, walk-a-thons, door-to-door canvassing, and events of every

imaginable kind were held by ordinary women, many of whom had never done

anything political in their lives before. Generous checks and single dollar

bills poured into the campaign headquarters, and the ranks of NOW and other

women’s rights organizations swelled to historic sizes. Every women’s magazine

and most general interest publications had st! ories on the implications

of the ERA, and the progress of the ratification campaign.

But Elizabeth Cady Stanton proved prophetic

once again. Remember her prediction that the movement should “anticipate

no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule”? Opponents

of the Equal Rights Amendment, organized by Phyllis Schlafly, feared that

a statement like the ERA in the Constitution would give the government

too much control over our personal lives. They charged that passage of

the ERA would lead to men abandoning their families, unisex toilets, gay

marriages, and women being drafted. And the media, purportedly in the interest

of balanced reporting, gave equal weight to these deceptive arguments just

as they had when the possibility of women winning voting rights was being

debated. And, just like had happened with woman suffrage, there were still

very few women in state legislatures to vote their support, so male legislators

once again had it in their power to decide if women should have equal rights.

When the deadline for ratification came in 198! 2, the ERA was just three

states short of the 38 needed to write it into the U.S. constitution. Seventy-five

percent of the women legislators in those three pivotal states supported

the ERA, but only 46% of the men voted to ratify.

Despite polls consistently showing a large

majority of the population supporting the ERA, it was considered by many

politicians to be just too controversial. Historically speaking, most if

not all the issues of the women’s rights movement have been highly controversial

when they were first voiced. Allowing women to go to college? That would

shrink their reproductive organs! Employ women in jobs for pay outside

their homes? That would destroy families! Cast votes in national elections?

Why should they bother themselves with such matters? Participate in sports?

No lady would ever want to perspire! These and other issues that were once

considered scandalous and unthinkable are now almost universally accepted

in this country.

More Complex Issues Surface

Significant progress has been made regarding

the topics discussed at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The people

attending that landmark discussion would not even have imagined the issues

of the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1990s. Much of the discussion has

moved beyond the issue of equal rights and into territory that is controversial,

even among feminists. To name a few:

Women’s reproductive rights. Whether or

not women can terminate pregnancies is still controversial twenty-five

years after the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade affirmed women’s choice

during the first two trimesters.

Women’s enrollment in military academies

and service in active combat. Are these desirable?

Women in leadership roles in religious

worship. Controversial for some, natural for others.

Affirmative action. Is help in making up

for past discrimination appropriate? Do qualified women now face a level

playing field?

The mommy track. Should businesses accommodate

women’s family responsibilities, or should women compete evenly for advancement

with men, most of whom still assume fewer family obligations?

Pornography. Is it degrading, even dangerous,

to women, or is it simply a free speech issue?

Sexual harassment. Just where does flirting

leave off and harassment begin?

Surrogate motherhood. Is it simply the

free right of a woman to hire out her womb for this service?

Social Security benefits allocated equally

for homemakers and their working spouses, to keep surviving wives from

poverty as widows.

Today, young women proudly calling themselves

“the third wave” are confronting these and other thorny issues. While many

women may still be hesitant to call themselves “feminist” because of the

ever-present backlash, few would give up the legacy of personal freedoms

and expanded opportunities women have won over the last 150 years. Whatever

choices we make for our own lives, most of us envision a world for our

daughters, nieces and granddaughters where all girls and women will have

the opportunity to develop their unique skills and talents and pursue their


1998: Living the Legacy

In the 150 years since that first, landmark

Women’s Rights Convention, women have made clear progress in the areas

addressed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her revolutionary Declaration of

Sentiments. Not only have women won the right to vote we are being elected

to public office at all levels of government. Jeannette Rankin was the

first woman elected to Congress, in 1916. By 1971, three generations later,

women were still less than three percent of our congressional representatives.

Today women hold only 11% of the seats in Congress, and 21% of the state

legislative seats. Yet, in the face of such small numbers, women have successfully

changed thousands of local, state, and federal laws that had limited women’s

legal status and social roles.

In the world of work, large numbers of

women have entered the professions, the trades, and businesses of every

kind. We have opened the ranks of the clergy, the military, the newsroom.

More than three million women now work in occupations considered “nontraditional”

until very recently.

We’ve accomplished so much, yet a lot still

remains to be done. Substantial barriers to the full equality of America’s

women still remain before our freedom as a Nation can be called complete.


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