Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
Happy Birthday, Women's Movement
March 20, 1998
In 1848, women could not vote, own property or run for president.
A hundred and fifty years later we can do all of those things and a lot
more. The anniversary of the Women's Rights Movement will be celebrated
all this year.
"The staggering changes for women that have come about over these seven
generations in family life, religion, employment, education, did not
happen spontaneously. Women themselves made them happen. Seven
generations of women have worked together to bring about those changes
by the most democratic ways: through meetings, petition drives,
lobbying, public speaking and nonviolent resistance. They have worked
very deliberately to create a better world, and they have succeeded
hugely," wrote by Bonnie Eisenberg and Mary Ruthsdotter in "Living the
Legacy," a chronology written for the National Women's History
The revolution really started on July 13, 1848, with five women having
tea and conversation in upstate New York. One of them was Elizabeth
Cady Stanton who was dissatisfied with the limitations placed on her by
America's new democracy.
They agreed to convene what they called, "A convention to discuss the
social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women," in Seneca
Falls, N. Y., a few days later.
Out of that meeting came the "Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments
and Resolutions," signed by some 70 women and 30 men. They used the
Declaration of Independence as its framework. The statement ended
with, "Now, in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half the
people of this country, their social and religious degradation,--in view
of the unjust laws, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved,
oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we
insist they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges
which belong to them as citizens of these United States."
The backlash was immediate and violent. But the negative articles and
comments about women's call for expanded rights were so vicious that
they actually had a positive impact. Women and men across the country
were alerted to the issues and the revolution began.
The activists of that first wave of feminism lectured and organized and
traveled the country. Suffrage was the most important issue, but it
took 72 years to win for women the right to vote.
After the vote was won in 1920, the movement slowed down for a while.
In 1919, as the suffrage victory approached, the National Woman
Suffrage Association reconfigured itself into the League of Women Voters
to ensure that women would take the vote seriously. The League is still
During the lull in the political effort, another issue of vital
importance to women surfaced. Margaret Sanger, a public health nurse,
was arrested, tried and imprisoned for opening America's first birth
control clinic. The idea that a woman had a right to control her own
body, specifically her reproductive life, added a new dimension to the
idea of women's emancipation. The Supreme Court ruled in 1936 that
birth control information is not obscene. It was not until 1965,
however, that contraceptives could be obtained legally in all states.
The second wave of the Women's Rights movement started in the 60's.
That was when I joined up, after I read Betty Friedan's book, 'The
Feminine Mystique." It made women aware of the choices they had. The
National Organization for Women was founded. Title VII of the 1964
Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of
sex, race, religion and national origin, but the word "sex" nearly
derailed it in Congress. The 50-year-long battle for an Equal Rights
Amendment to the Constitution finally ended in defeat, but did not slow
down the movement.
Title IX of the Civil Rights Act came along in 1972 and opened the door
for women's sports. During these years women have created battered
women's shelters, rape crisis hotlines and women's clinics. Their
educational opportunities have increased. They are gaining political
and financial power.
Because of countless millions of women who planned, organized, lectured,
wrote, marched, petitioned, paraded, and broke new ground in every field
imaginable, our world is irrevocably changed--a revolution achieved
Today we are living the legacy.
(Legacy Web Sight: