Some friends have asked me to provide a brief history of women’s rights in the United States. I am tempted to reminisce about my own involvement with the women’s movement, but that is not the assignment. This kind of exercise is always a good opportunity to review, remember and assess how far we have come while remaining mindful that we do not have full equity yet. As one trained as a historian, I really should not call this a ‘history’ or even a ‘brief history’ when it is more accurately a timeline. This is certainly not an exhaustive timeline, so I have included links to websites that provide more in-depth information. I am not going to editorialize or share my opinion or feelings about anything listed here – this blog post is strictly an informative entry. Should you learn something new, that would be great. If you have any questions about anything here, please let me know. OK, I think that I have covered all of the disclaimers and explanations, so let’s go!
1776 Abigail Adams writes to her husband, John Adams who represented the Colony of Massachusetts at the Continental Congress on March 31:
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
1896 The National Association of Colored Women is formed out of more than 100 black women’s clubs. http://www.nacwc.org/
1916 Margaret Sanger opens the first American birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY. Within ten days, the clinic is shut down and Sanger is arrested. She eventually wins legal support and opens another clinic in 1923. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger
This week commemorates two anniversaries: August 26, 1920 the day that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified granting women suffrage or the right to vote and August 28, 1963 when more than 200,000 people convened the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Commemoration is the act of co-remembering, to publicly share and memorialize some historic event. As a student of history, I love commemorations and the many ways that they influence the present and subsequently, our perceptions of the past.
“You cannot know where you are going, until you know where you have been.”
My mouse pad, a gift that a friend brought me from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, has “History” (1962) written across the top and a photo depicting three doors. The first door has the word “Women” on it, the second door has the word “Men” on it and third door has the word “Colored” on it. Under the photo is the caption: “You cannot know where you are going, until you know where you have been.”
I love this mouse pad! Every day it reminds me why I do the work that I do. Every day it reminds me of Emma Lazarus’ words: “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Ms. Lazarus, the poet famous for “The New Colossus” which is etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty was born in New York City but was never able to vote because of her gender.
A Lifetime of Voting
My mother was born eight years after women earned the right to vote in the U.S. and brought me to the voting booth for as far back as I can remember. I remember being in the booth with her, fascinated as she clicked the levers and finally slid the metal bar across that registered her vote and opened the curtain. The Wizard of Oz had nothing on her! I remember entertaining myself while she volunteered at the polls. I remember registering to vote immediately after my eighteenth birthday and counting the months that I had to wait for the first election that I would vote in. It was the 1976 Presidential election and being the nation’s bicentennial made it all even more exciting.
The Women’s Suffrage movement was launched officially in 1848 at a convention in Seneca Falls, NY, where Frederick Douglass, the only African American to attend the event, gave an inspirational pro-vote speech. (There were many women present who were anti-suffrage.) In 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, OH, Sojourner Truth, another former slave delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech which poignantly argues for women’s equality. The women’s suffrage movement had its up and downs over its 72 year span including some deplorably racist tenets held by Susan B. Anthony and others. One might argue that white women competing against African American men for the vote exemplified a successful campaign to ‘divide and conquer’, but it was not and is not that simple. There were some lighter moments as well such as when Alice Duer Miller turned the tables in 1915:
Why We Don’t Want Men to Vote
Because man’s place is in the army.
Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.
Because if men should adopt peaceable methods women will no longer look up to them.
Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms, and drums.
Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them unfit for government.
Yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of the Great March on Washington. In 1963 I watched the historic event on television, awe struck by the vast range of humanity out en masse. The words of hope and inspiration from one speaker and performer after another were incredible, even to a little 5 year old girl. I did not understand the significance of the event nor how it would impact our world, but the message – We all deserve to be free and to be able to make a decent living wage – made its way from the Lincoln Memorial to our living room and has been motivating me ever since.
What is your story?
History – our story – is comprised of people who make a difference every day by marching, walking, talking, sharing, teaching and remembering! How have these historic events affected you and those you love? What is your story? How may we commemorate it?