THE SEARCH FOR RIGHTS AND EQUALITY
It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a woman! Oops, not only a steal, but possibly an overstatement. All the same, let’s consider what women have achieved since the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1848, how they did it, and whether there are lessons for us today as we face both old and new challenges to our rights.
On board a ship on their way to the 1840 World Anti-slavery Convention in London two prominent American women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, had the good fortune to meet. Despite their status as well-known abolitionists, they were humiliated at the Convention by being refused participation except as observers in the gallery. The male members of the American delegation strongly defended their right to be seated, but to no avail. It was then that they realized their own lack of rights left them unable to advocate effectively for others. They vowed to organize a women’s rights convention to take action.
Two hundred women responded to their invitation. The main business on the first day, which was reserved for women only, was the discussion and approval of The Declaration of Sentiments. It was a scathing document prepared by Stanton and modeled on the Declaration of Independence. Women, the document declared, were created equal to men and therefore entitled to the same rights and privileges. Men had, however, established “absolute tyranny” over women, who were now demanding changes in the laws and customs restricting women’s lives and choices.
On the second day, men were permitted to attend and, after a lively discussion the 60 men present were permitted to vote on the adoption of the twelve resolutions. Eleven of the resolutions passed unanimously. The only resolution facing strong opposition was the one demanding suffrage. Many participants judged it a step too far. Stanton, supported by Frederick Douglas, abolitionist and freed slave, argued that the power of the vote was essential for everything else. The resolution narrowly passed, and it ignited the suffrage movement. The conference had given women a sense of worth and agency. The spirit moved other women, and the first National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 attracted 1000 participants, the beginning of an annual event.
The efforts of these women and men changed laws regarding marriage, ownership of property, occupations open to women and, most importantly, the right to vote. They were successful because the women organized themselves in groups where common interests could be explored and debated. They welcomed the sincere contributions of men who were ready to acknowledge their equality. Although many, perhaps, most of them were financially secure, they were mindful of their sisters who were not and advocated for them. Nor was race a barrier. They supported and empowered women of color.
These are contentious times, but women can and must come together to find common ground. We must vote and support women brave enough to run for office! Until women have equal representation in elective offices, we cannot fully impact the rights we care about.
Our foremothers and some enlightened forefathers persisted in their efforts to give us the rights and opportunities that we enjoy today. This may seem a time of setbacks and challenges, but we too can persist and ultimately write not only our own history of accomplishments, but that of our nation as well.
Dr. Beverly J. Weiss
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The Paycheck Fairness Act will help secure equal pay for equal work for all Americans. But until that happens, each state will continue operating under antiquated regulations and piecemeal state and local laws to combat unequal pay. While some states do have stronger laws than other states, AAUW members will keep working to make the whole country a better place for women to live and work.