We are living the legacy of those who fought for women’s rights

In 1848, women could not vote, own property or run for president.

A hundred and sixty-six years later, we can do all of those things and a lot more. And today we celebrate.

Yesterday was Women’s Suffrage Day, the 70anniversary of the final passage of the 19 Amendment. Wow! Women in America finally get to vote.

“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.” Those words were written by Bonnie Eisenberg and Mary Ruthsdotter in “Living the Legacy.”

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.

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.” They were mad!

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.

During that 72 years, Gail Collins reports that “there were 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters ... and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.” And you think today’s Congress is the first difficult one.

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 doing that.

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 ‘60s. That was when I became active, 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, including a chapter in Grand Junction.

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 (note:  Colorado ratified it).

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.

Today we are living the legacy.

Henrietta Hay can be reached by e-mail at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and on the web at http://www.henriettahay.com.


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