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Feminism: 150 Years of Action

Last year marked the 150th Anniversary of a movement by women to achieve full civil rights in this country. Over the past seven generations, dramatic social and legal changes have been accomplished that are now so accepted that they go unnoticed by people whose lives they have utterly changed. ( Eisenberg 1) Many people who have lived through the recent decades of this process have come to accept what has transpired. And younger people, for the most part, can hardly believe life was ever otherwise.

The staggering changes for women that have come about over those seven generations in family life, in religion, in government, in employment, in education – these changes did not happen spontaneously. Women themselves made these changes happen, very deliberately. They have not been the passive recipients of miraculous change in laws and human nature. Seven generations of women have come together to affect these changes through meetings, public speaking and non-violent resistance. (Eisenberg 1)

During the early times of our country’s history, men and women were actually considered partially equal. During this time, America was an agrarian society, which means that it was a farm-based country. There was much work to be done around the farm, and the chores were divided equally amongst the men and women. (K., Esther 1) The livelihood of the family relied on both the husband and the wife, so women’s jobs were considered equally important to those of men.

When America became an industrialized country, women began to loose their importance. Since many products could be bought cheaply, there was no longer any need for women to make things such as butter, yarn and other household items. Their main duties were to raise the children and to keep the house clean and comfortable for there “hard working” husbands. Therefore, women lost their importance in economic society and fell into the background.

Married women were considered “civilly dead” in the eyes of the law, and could be imprisoned and beaten by their husbands. Women could not hold office, attend college, or speak in public. They had no right to property or earned wages. They were not permitted to sue or divorce, nor were they granted the custody of their own children. Women could not participate in the elective franchise, yet were required to obey laws in which they had no voice.

Women did not even think of revolting against this unfair way of life because society dictated that to show any rebellion would be unacceptable. Social class was very important in the early years of feminism, and to break the social chain and embarrass your family, especially your husband, was unthinkable.

Many women longed for equality in many areas of their lives, but it took radical leaders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to take the first step toward equality. Cady Stanton and Mott met in London in 1840 as delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Society. But denied a place on the floor with the other female delegates, Mott and Cady Stanton left the hall and began to discuss the lack of women’s rights in general. What was needed, they determined, was a convention for women to discuss how they could secure the same rights as men. It was almost eight years before the two women met again and called for such a convention. They had an advertisement published in The Seneca County Courier, a semi-weekly journal, of July 14, 1848, which read, simply:

WOMAN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION!

“A Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, NY, on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July, current; commencing at 10 o’clock, A.M.”

(Bouchier 12)

Seneca Falls, site of the first official women’s convention in 1848, became the organizing force to move forward and take action. It was chosen because of the concentration of reformers and abolitionists in the area. They joined forces in calling together this convention and creating a list of grievances towards women’s’ rights for property, education, employment, marriage and suffrage. Elizabeth Cady Stanton told over three hundred women and men who gathered together on July 19th and 20th that it was time to put the question of the subjugation of women before the public. She announced that “woman herself must do this work, for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length and breadth of her degradation.” (Komisar, 83) The Seneca Falls declaration, entitled the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” was a stirring statement of the deepest feelings of women and a list of the grievances that women suffered in every area of life. It was modeled after the Declaration of Independence and began “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal..”. The Declaration of Sentiments ended on a note of complete realism: “In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.” At the end of the two-day convention, 100 people, 32 men and 68 women, including future feminist leaders Matilda Josyln Gage and Susan B. Anthony, signed the declaration.

The “misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule” that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was talking about wasted no time. Newspaper editors were shocked by the audacity of the Declaration’s resolution demanding voting rights for women. The convention received an enormous amount of negative press which helped to spread word of the movement throughout the United States.

From the convention, a revolution would take place concerning women’s’ rights. Women were gradually allowed to speak in public, something that had been strictly forbidden before. Individual states adopted laws protecting the rights of married women, granting them the right to own property in their own name, keep their own earnings and retain guardianship of their children in case of divorce.

The hard struggle for equality continued to address the wide range of issues contained in the Declaration. It took almost 72 years of remarkable women and tremendous obstacles to win that most basic and honorable American civil right-the vote.

As victory grew near, the National American Women Suffrage Association regrouped and emerged as the League of Women Voters to help women take their hard earned right seriously and wisely. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage) in 1920, it was assumed that women were content with their lot; however, the quest for women’s rights would be an ongoing struggle that was only advanced, not satisfied, by the vote.

A second wave of activism made a dramatic resurgence in the 1960’s after more than three decades of silence. In 1961 Esther Peterson, the director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor felt that the government should take a more active role in addressing discrimination against women. With her encouragement, President John F. Kennedy convened a Commission on the Status of Women, naming Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair. The report issued by that commission in 1963 documented discrimination against women in virtually every area of American life. State and local governments quickly followed suit and established their own commissions for women, to research conditions and recommended changes that could be initiated. (Eisenberg 5)

Under President Kennedy, the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963. The act provided that employers must give men and women equal pay for equal work. Soon after, under Lyndon Johnson, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion and national origin. The category “sex” was included at the last minute in an attempt to kill the bill. But it was passed. With its passage, the Equal Opportunity Commission was established to investigate discrimination complaints and enforce the Act. These two laws provided the backdrop for the second wave of feminism.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and the book became a best seller by 1964. It was based on a survey she had conducted for her twentieth college reunion. In the book, Friedan critiqued the limited roles allowed for women as wives and mothers. It inspired many women to become active outside their homes and married lives and look for fulfillment beyond the role of homemaker. Although Friedan’s book basically ignores the situation of minority, lower and working class women, who by necessity were already active outside of the home, the book is often looked at as the turning point for many middle class white women. These women were encouraged to examine and do something about their limited situations.

Enough women were interested that by October 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) held its first formal meeting, with Betty Friedan as the organization’s first president. The group’s goal was to create equality between women and men, calling for “equal participation and treatment of women in employment, education, and government, for establishing new institutions to facilitate public roles for women, for true equality in marriage, and for destroying false images of women.” (Hole 77) NOW set up task forces several areas including employment, religion, the family, the mass media, politics, and female poverty.

In preparation for the 1968 elections, NOW prepared a Bill of Rights that included support for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), as well as for reform of abortion laws. The issues of abortion and the ERA became divisive for NOW and led to a splintering of the group-some women felt that the issues did not belong on the organization’s agenda, while others wanted the agenda to push harder, to be more radical. Some NOW members broke off into smaller groups, but continued to fight.

With the inclusion of Title IX in the Education Codes of 1972, equal access to higher education became law. (Eisenberg 6) Women were now able to enter professions that had always been impossible. The number of women in fields such as medicine, law, and engineering grew and continues to grow.

The past century has witnessed enormous changes in the lives of American women. In many ways women’s lives have come to resemble men’s. One in every five doctors and one in every five lawyers are now women, up from one in twenty and one in a hundred, respectively, at the turn of the century. In 1900 women made up eighteen percent of the work force; by the year 2000 they are expected to make up almost half. (Rosenberg 247) Women’s educational attainment, which lagged behind men’s at the post-high school level for decades, is now virtually the same. And women’s wages, which were stalled at roughly sixty percent of men’s between 1950 and 1980, have begun to rise as women’s training and work force participation have increased (and men’s wages have fallen); they currently stand at seventy percent of men’s earnings. (Rosenberg 247)

Women have achieved a great deal since 1848, but the fight for equality is not over. From the suffragettes to the revolutionary feminists, each wave of feminism has left a mark on the culture and has provided a foundation, or more properly a launching pad, for the next. Women need human equality, which means a broader evolution in culture and in the attitudes of men.

Because women are still underpaid at work and undervalued at home, because they are still subject to discrimination and violence from men, the fight must go on. The changes wrought by the two waves of feminism have indeed been revolutionary. If the past is used to guess at the future, then women will continue to pursue their quest for equality throughout the third wave and into the next. There is a positive future to feminism and much can still be achieved if women believe in themselves, and what they stand for.

Bibliography

Works Cited

Bouchier, David. The Feminist Challenge: The Movement for Women’s Liberation in

Britian and the USA. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

Eisenberg, Bonnie. Ruthsdotter, Mary. Living the Legacy: The Women’s Rights

Movement 1848-1998. The National Women’s History Project, 1998.

http://www.legacy98.org/

Hole, Judith. Rebirth of Feminism. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1971.

K., Esther. The Springing Up of Feminism: How it All Started. HERstory.

http://www.gurlpages.com/

Kosimer, Lucy. The New Feminism. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1971.

Rosenberg, Rosalind. Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century.

New York: Hill and Wang, 1992.

Word Count: 1968

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