Saluting Women’s Rights
The world’s first women’s-rights convention that took place 150 years ago in Seneca Falls, New York, changed the world. Thus, the site was declared a U.S. national historic park in 1980.
To understand the significance, it’s necessary to review some of the reasons why over 300 women and men dropped everything on a few days notice to travel July 19-20, 1848, "to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman."
In 1848, women in this country could not vote, and only a few colleges were beginning to enroll women. Married women lost control of their property, could not make legal contracts, didn’t divorce even the most abusive husbands because most courts granted custody of children to their fathers.
The convention was organized in about a week by a handful of women who brainstormed at a tea party where Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were reunited. Eight years earlier, they had met in London with other abolitionists at the World Anti-slavery Convention. Mott and other women had been sent as delegates but were excluded from participating—they were forced to sit in a gallery behind a curtain. That’s where they discussed the need for a women’s-rights convention.
As the women sipped tea in upstate New York in 1848, Cady Stanton noted how the American Revolution had been launched some 70 years earlier that month to win freedom from tyranny, but women were still oppressed.
At the convention Cady Stanton, an educated young wife and mother, spoke and read the quickly drafted Declaration of Sentiments. Based on the Declaration of Independence, it called for extensive reforms. The most controversial resolution proposed by Cady Stanton advocated women’s suffrage—such a radical concept that even Mott protested. But after heated debate, this and the other resolutions were approved. Media ridicule was immediate for the Declaration and the 68 women and 32 men who signed it.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was indeed a radical feminist, in the sense that radical means "root." She believed that women’s suffrage would get to the root of many injustices women faced.
In her battle for women’s suffrage, she worked closely with Susan B. Anthony, who did not attend the 1848 convention. Anthony often cared for the Stanton children so their mother could write speeches for both of them to deliver.
When Cady Stanton spoke, she made waves: She once scandalized some supporters by suggesting that drunkenness was grounds for divorce. And an 1854 address she gave before the New York legislature is credited with 1860 legislation granting married women the rights to their wages and equal guardianship of their children.
In 1869 Wyoming became the first state to pass a women’s suffrage law. And many foreign nations began passing women’s suffrage laws.
In 1920, women across this country finally won the right to vote—72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention. By then Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had died.
Radical Modern Movements
The second women’s-rights movement that emerged in the 1960’s has fought injustices and won many rights, especially in employment and education. It has also been linked to abortion rights. Yet pro-life feminists are working today in the spirit of Cady Stanton, mother of seven, and others who spoke out against abortion and slavery as they promoted women’s suffrage.
Feminists for Life has launched a college-based program to reduce abortions. It includes educating students about child-support laws so "partners will no longer be able to threaten women and abandon their children by offering to pay for an abortion but refusing to pay a dime in child support," says Serrin M. Foster, executive director of the organization.
And the Susan B. Anthony List is a nonpartisan organization that recruits pro-life women to run for federal office.
Multitudes will gather again in Seneca Falls this month to celebrate the women’s-rights movement. They will write a new Declaration of Sentiments for the 21st century. Information and historical facts are on the Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s Web site (http://www.nps.gov/wori).
Down the street from the Park, the National Women’s Hall of Fame (www.greatwomen.org) recognizes the contributions of over 100 women. Catholics inducted include Frances Xavier Cabrini, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, Helen Hayes and Eileen Collins (the first American woman to pilot a spacecraft). Another Catholic, Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver (founder in 1968 of the Special Olympics for the mentally retarded), will be inducted July 11 with 20 other women.
Many legal rights gained in the past 150 years are due to legislation pushed by women’s groups, notes the National Women’s History Project. Just 25 years ago, women were not issued credit cards in their own names, and most women couldn’t get a bank loan without a male cosigner. Yet many gains were personal: Husbands now help more with housework and kids, and many women have the financial and emotional strength to leave abusive husbands.
As we celebrate the insights and contributions of women, let us pray and take action so domestic violence, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation and other abuses soon become stories of the past. —M.J.D.