Reform Movements: Women’s Rights
Reform Movements: Women’s Rights
DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS
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;…
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.
Now, …because women 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…
Source : From the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, read at the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention.
Limitations. The women who threw themselves into reform movements such as temperance and abolition discovered in those crusades the urgent need for another movement, one to secure their own rights. At every turn their active participation in these causes was limited. They were encouraged to form separate women’s societies, which held prayer meetings and social functions, but many women wanted to contribute more directly. They especially desired the right to speak on behalf of their beliefs but were prohibited by social custom from speaking publicly to a “mixed” crowd, or one made up of both sexes. Female abolitionists who challenged this dictum met with little success. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were shouted down and jeered at by unreceptive audiences. The American Anti-Slavery Society itself split over the issue of women’s rights in 1840. In the same year a call was issued for a World’s Anti-Slavery Convention to be held in London, and eight or nine women were sent (many of them with their husbands) as part of the American delegation. A long and acrimonious debate followed on whether to allow the women to speak. The final vote excluded the women by an overwhelming majority; to add insult to injury, the women were asked to listen to the proceedings from behind a curtain. Garrison, who arrived too late to protest on the women’s behalf, was outraged by their treatment, withdrew from the convention, and joined the ladies in their curtained section, much to the consternation of British abolitionists.
Seneca Falls. The women at the London meeting, especially Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, began discussing the prospect of holding their own convention for women’s rights. When they returned to America, they became distracted by other duties, Stanton by motherhood and Mott by her involvement in the antislavery movement. They did not meet again until 1848, when they decided that the time was ripe. They published an announcement in the Seneca Falls County Courier on 14 July inviting women and men to attend a “Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” From one hundred to three hundred people attended the two-day meeting, which featured speeches by women and Stanton’s reading of a “Declaration of Sentiments.” The document was modeled on the Declaration of Independence, substituting “man” for “King George” as the oppressive agent. The convention unanimously adopted eleven of twelve resolutions but divided over one stating that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Although the resolution was pushed through by a majority, with the help of Frederick Douglass, many of the one hundred signers later removed their signatures after the demand
for the vote proved too radical and caused an uproar in the press. Still, when a second women’s rights convention was held the following month in Rochester, New York, the movement gained momentum.
Race. Although one of the first women to speak publicly for the antislavery cause was an African American, Maria Stewart, women of color were from the beginning kept out of the women’s rights -movement, which was composed mainly of middle-class white women. Fearing that it would hurt their recruiting efforts, organizers of women’s rights societies and conventions did not invite black women, none of whom attended the Seneca Falls convention. When Sojourner Truth appeared at the women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, loud whispers filled the hall proclaiming “An abolition affair!” and “Women’s rights and niggers! I told you so!” Many requested that she not be allowed to speak for fear that women’s rights would be dragged through the mud with abolitionism, but the convention’s president, Frances Dana Gage, invited Truth to the podium, where she gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech amid hisses from the audience. In response to male claims that women were too delicate to assume roles that were meant for men, she said, “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! I have ploughed, planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” Truth attended many women’s rights conventions but usually was the only African American woman present. The determination of the movement to disassociate itself from abolitionism kept out other black women activists, who concentrated their efforts within African American abolitionist societies such as the American Moral Reform Society, which granted them speaking and voting rights as early as 1839. While the mainstream women’s rights movement remained an almost all-white campaign, African American women formed their own parallel movement in black abolitionist societies, fighting against sexism and racism at the same time; for them, unlike for white women, the two issues could not be easily separated.
Janet Zollinger Giele, Temperance, Suffrage, and the Origins of Modern Feminism (New York: Twayne, 1995);
Shirley J. Yee, Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism, 1828-1860 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992).