166 years ago this week, Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped organize the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. As a woman of this time, I can look back with pride on this early attempt to gain equality in a country whose very tenants declared one thing but whose reality said something completely different.
American women of the 1840s carried the same inferior status held by their gender since Christianity came to be. An unmarried woman did not vote, hold office, attend school beyond a certain point (no college), or even speak in public. A woman of color had even less. The few doors open for a woman to earn a living involved teaching, domestic service, seamstress work, or working in mills. There was always prostitution. Conversely, a married woman was dogged by these restrictions and more. She couldn’t divorce an abusive husband or gain custody of her children. She couldn’t own property, make contracts, or sue in court. Legally her husband controlled her life. A widow without a male relative had a small measure of control with the guiding hand of male bankers and lawyers. Many widows chose to never marry again just to hold onto it.
In1848, a handful of reformers gathered in Seneca Falls, New York for “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of Woman.” The first day of the convention had more than 300 people in attendance. They began with a Declaration of Sentiments. Amendments were proposed and some were adopted right away. Eleven resolutions were made and ten passed without issue. The right to vote dangled there in a heated debate. Elizabeth Cady Stanton defended that resolution to no avail. Then an eloquent orator and ex-slave by the name of Frederick Douglass argued for this last amendment in his own newspaper and the suffrage resolution was kept with the rest.
Read the Seneca Falls Declaration, 1848
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
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; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they were accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
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.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men–both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming to all intents and purposes, her master–the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women–the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.
After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
He allows her in Church, as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.
He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement 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 the United States.
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.
Now read the resolutions
Whereas, the great precept of nature is conceded to be, “that man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness,” Blackstone, in his Commentaries, remarks, that this law of Nature being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is of course superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid, derive all their force, and all their validity, and all their authority, mediately and immediately, from this original; Therefore,
Resolved, That such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and of no validity; for this is “superior in obligation to any other.”
Resolved, That all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.
Resolved, That woman is man’s equal — was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.
Resolved, That the women of this country ought to be enlightened in regard to the laws under which they live, that they may no longer publish their degradation, by declaring themselves satisfied with their present position, nor their ignorance, by asserting that they have all the rights they want.
Resolved, That inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is pre-eminently his duty to encourage her to speak, and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.
Resolved, That the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior, that is required of woman in the social state, should also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.
Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in the feats of the circus.
Resolved, That woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.
Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
Resolved, That the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.
Resolved, therefore, That, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities, and the same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held; and this being a self-evident truth, growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature, any custom or authority adverse to it, whether modern or wearing the hoary sanction of antiquity, is to be regarded as self-evident falsehood, and at war with the interests of mankind.
Source: E.C. Stanton, S.B. Anthony and M.J. Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1 (1887), 70.
Powerful stuff, no? To that I say, Thank you ladies (and supporting men). Thank you for giving me this life. Thank you for the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibits any United States citizen from being denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. I’ve been walking in your footprints and voting since I came of age. I owe it to you to continue this great work of equality.
When weighing these efforts of the past against today, one can certainly see the slippery slope our country is on. Young women of today need to understand that what they have was hard won and even then it’s not wholly equal. So many women of this world are treated as property. I won’t go into child brides dying of internal hemorrhage after their wedding nights, brutal FGM, abandoning worthless infant girls on the side of the road, girls and women stoned to death for going to school, or the honor killing of women after rape. I’ll just say we’re lucky in the western world. We’re lucky in the USA.
We have the great fortune to live in this country where we can pick up the banner sewn by these pioneering women of 166 years ago, a banner covered with their own blood, sweat, and tears. We can demand better through our hard won right to vote. Demand full equality under the law. Demand politicians and judges keep their special interests to themselves and stop infringing upon our right to control our destiny. That copy of the US Constitution they all seem to carry in their pocket is ours too. And they need to remember that. They don’t say hell hath no fury than a woman scorned for nothing. 😀
Bring that banner and march on Washington again this September. http://www.wearewoman.us/
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