Thursday, July 19, 2012

Seneca Falls

I grew up in a home that placed a high value on knowledge and equality. History, especially the so-called "forgotten" histories, were sought out. As a child, I knew about the founding mothers, and their work for women's rights. In fact, when I was in high school, we visited Seneca Falls on a family trip. I don't recall very much from that trip (not surprising, I have a memory for snapshots and feelings, rather than events), but what I do remember is standing at Elizabeth Cady Stanton's desk, and wondering what it had been like to sit at it and write such important works.

The first Women's Rights Convention in America was held in Seneca Falls, New York, July 19 and 20, 1848. It was here that the attendees, including such notables as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Catt, and Frederick Douglass, re-wrote the Declaration of Independence, entitled the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.

According to my copy of Susan B. Anthony Slept Here: A Guild to American Women's Landmarks, by Lynn Sherr and Jurate Kazickas:
One the first morning of the convention, a beautiful July 19, some 300 people, including 40 men, from as far away as fifty miles away, came in horse-drawn wagons and by foot to the little chapel for the meeting. On the second day, 100 people signed the combined Declaration of Principles, and by unanimous vote eleven of the twelve resolutions. The twelfth resolution was Elizabeth Cady Stanton's bombshell: "Resolved, that it is the sacred duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." The first public declaration of women's right to vote barely squeaked by. But the women's movement, a stirring awareness in the minds of many, was alive and growing.
The First Wave, by Lloyd Lillie - statues of women's rights leaders,
at the Women's Rights National Historic Park. Photo: NPS

It never fails to amaze me that these women couldn't vote. They couldn't give speeches without having their morals called into question. They couldn't attend college (remember, this is before Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Stowe), hold decent-paying jobs, retain their earnings, or own property.

This is so foreign to me. I know it really hasn't been that long ago since a woman couldn't have a credit card in her own name, but not being able to own land? Not being able to keep her pay? Try telling any young woman today she has to turn over her paycheck to her father, her brother, or her husband, and she'll likely laugh in your face. And yet, there are other points in their Declaration that strike me as still needing work.
Resolved, That the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state, should also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.
We still hold women and men to different standards of behavior. "Boys will be boys" and all that. While it isn't necessarily a great trend, at least in my opinion, the fact that it took until 2011 for there to be a mainstream movie showing women acting in many of the same dude-bro behavior we've see men act in so very many movies makes it clear that there are still different socially acceptable ways for men and women to act.

Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill-grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in feats of the circus.
Women in public life are certainly aware of the difference in treatment they receive as compared to their male counterparts. Inappropriate comments about appearance, body shape, and personality aren't exclusive to women, but they are far more common. And tend to be far more vicious. Just think of the difference in treatment male presidential candidates receive as compared to that given Hillary Clinton. How many comments about her pantsuits and hair cuts and general appearance did we have to endure?

And, conversely, think of women who purposely seek public attention? Why do you think the women on those dreadful realities shows act the way they do? Are they like that in everyday life? I highly doubt it. Instead, I believe they act that way because it sells ads. But look at how we treat women who act this way. Look at how we denigrate the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, and the others. The criticism they receive is far worse than anything they would get if they were male. Culturally, we seem to revel in our hatred of them. Why is that? Is it because we still expect women to act differently?

The fact that there were 40 men attending, and among them Frederick Douglass, is also amazing. This is not to dismiss the contribution men make to overturning patriarchy. I know there are many who are working to end inequality. But it is still striking that 164 years ago, there were so many men who were at least supportive enough to attend these meetings. Although it shouldn't be as surprising, once I think of the number of radicals living in upstate New York at the time -- religious reformers, abolitionists, and teetotalers. Seneca Falls was a stop on the Underground Railroad, a home for Quakers, and social progressives, so it's only natural that the Declaration would focus on social, civil and religious inequalities. They wanted to change the all the forces that worked to keep women dependent on men.

Frankly, I think we owe it to them to continue the work. We have come a long way, baby. But we've got so very much further to go. We need to make sure that there is equality in all aspects of life. Equality across the board.


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