From afternoon tea to American history

19 Mar 2004 | Cpl. Kat Johnson

Suffrage — the power to choose rulers and make laws, and the right by which all others are secured.

For the past 150 years, historians have used this word to explain the principles behind the women rights movement, according to the National Women’s History Project. An organization founded to circulate knowledge about the historical achievements of women.

In 1938, Elizabeth Cady Stanton used this word and its definition to create a movement that changed the Constitution and the rights of women for generations to come.

On July 13, 1848, Stanton and four of her closest friends, while hosting an afternoon tea, compared their personal stories of maltreatment from the government and their husbands. Their complaints to Stanton of spousal abuse, job discrimination, and political dismissal began a campaign for women’s rights that lasted for seven generations.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world,” Margaret Mead, 1868 women’s rights crusader said. “It’s the only thing that ever has.”

Shortly after making this statement to a newspaper in Seneca Falls, N.Y., Mead and Stanton published an advertisement in the local newspapers announcing they were hosting, “A convention to discuss the social, civil and religious conditions and rights of women.”

After the convention, the Seneca Falls Newspaper received several letters questioning the publication of Stantons’ ad and the reason for a women’s right convention. Many citizens wrote to the newspaper, anonymously, with threats directed towards Stanton and her movement, but she refused to be intimidated, according to the NWHP.

She continued her crusade for women’s rights and wrote by the “Declaration of Sentiments.”  Her declaration used the provisions under the Declaration of Independence to declare women were indeed being persecuted by the use of tyranny, which had been ruled unconstitutional after the Civil War. 

In her requests she quoted, “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 rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

With the “Declaration of Sentiments” and eighteen examples of how men had obtained absolute tyranny over women, Stanton made the first “movement” in history directed towards the civil rights of women. In her dissertation, she requested rights owned to women, as they were citizens of the United States.

It took more than half a century for Stanton’s cause to make an impact on society. According to the NWHP, the largest impression occurred when the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, started by Stanton, became nationally recognized as the League of Women Voters.

With their invocation, the new league immediately began advocating women’s rights and funding several organizations including the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. The NWHP considered this organization to be a crucial element in Congress passing the19th Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote.

The department also took part in supporting the National Women’s Party, started by equal rights advocate Alice Paul in 1923. The party supports the idea that her battle for equal rights is linked to the 1916 crusade of Margaret Sanger, a public health nurse, who publicized her idea of a woman’s right to control her own body and have the right to take birth control pills.

After the 1930’s, the civil rights movement for women began to slow down. According to the NWHP, this is due mostly to the elderly age of the movements’ leaders.

It was in 1960, when Esthor Deteon, director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department Labor, decided it was the governments’ responsibility to take a role in ending the discrimination of working women, the movement began to appear again. As a result, President John F. Kennedy assisted in forming a commission designed to address the inequalities of the work place for women.

Over the next forty years, Women’s Civil Rights movements changed several laws governing housing discrimination and equal employment and opportunity. According to the Women’s Project, their additions to the codes of law increased the independence of women throughout society. Many changes included an educational amendment that allowed women to attend graduate schools and a financial code that allowed married women to obtain credit cards in their name.

This March, many women will be recognized by the NWHP for their contributions to Women’s History Month. Leaders, such as Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, and Mary Church Terrell, organizer in the late 1800’s of African–American women aiming to abolish suffrage, will be honored at a ceremony in Sonoma, Calif.

This year, the National Women’s History Project has designated “Women Inspiring Hope and Possibility” as the Women’s History Month theme. Residents of the Tri-Command Area can learn more about this national observance and many others at the multi-cultural event scheduled this spring.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supreme court justice, was asked about her opinion on the Women’s Rights Movement she said, “I think about how much we owe to the women who went before us, legions of women, some known but many more unknown. I applaud the bravery and resilience of those who helped all of us — you and me — to be here today.”