Back in the summer of 1848, women and men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, for this country’s first convention on women’s rights. For the occasion, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote and read the “Declaration of Sentiments.”
Mimicking the style of the Declaration of Independence, Ms. Stanton wrote: “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. 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.”
Editorials around the country were not receptive to the issue of equal rights. A New York paper stated: “This is all wrong. ... Society would have to be radically remodeled in order to accommodate itself to so great a change.”
A few years after the convention, Elizabeth teamed up with Susan B. Anthony to advocate women’s suffrage. Elizabeth, the mother of nine, put the words to paper, while Susan delivered the message. In the 1860s, the two lobbied for the passage of the 13th Amendment, only to have almost 20 years of hard work cast aside when this passage was included in the 14th Amendment, “But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States ... is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.” This was the first time that gender had made an appearance in the U.S. Constitution. Stanton was so downtrodden, she wrote, “If that word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.”
In the early 20th century, Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party moved from the speeches and conventions of the past to picketing the White House. When the First World War broke out, some called for them to stop. The lesson from the Civil War taught them not to put their cause aside, so they persisted. They were arrested, locked up, force-fed, and abused. Some were committed and many more shunned. Others, including President Wilson, started to come around. Wilson decided that he wanted women’s suffrage to be a part of his political legacy and actively advocated the passage of the 19th Amendment. Seventy-one years after the Seneca Falls Convention and 143 years after the inception of our country, women secured their right to vote.
Since 1920, women fought for and won many legal rights. It’s been a slow, hard battle with some of our bravest women, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, on the front lines. What has eluded us is the highest office in the land. Google female heads of state and you will see a wide variety of countries with a female leader. But not us. And not this year. The only hope for any progress in the near future is a vice presidential nomination. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that long-fought-for amendment, 100 years too long for a woman not to have been in the highest office of this land. It’s beyond time to fix that.
Shannon Green writes from Frederick.