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
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
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
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.