Women’s Rights Movement started with a cup of tea

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Women’s struggle for equality started innocently enough in 1848 when five women sat down to tea in Seneca, N.Y., to discuss inequalities between men and women.

At the core of the discussion was the second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence written in 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

The interpretation of the word “men” is left to the reader. What exactly did Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and others mean by using the word men only? Was this a gender neutral reference or was it just as it read ­— men were to hold all the cards? By 1848, women concluded the Constitution was not gender neutral and began questioning their place in society. Thus, what is referred to as the “awakening” began.

As we bid farewell to Women’s History Month, women today still question why the forefathers referenced only men, for if women were, indeed, created equal to men, there would have been no need for a Women’s Rights Movement that began almost 170 years ago on July 13, 1848 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and four others as they talked about their lack of individual rights while sipping tea. How many of us would have liked to be the fly on the wall then!

And, think of the irony! Tea was at the center of the protest starting the revolution that began with the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the first major step in our history toward independence.

Deciding to exercise their rights under the First Amendment passed in December 1791 “as the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” the first convention of women was held in Seneca Falls on July 19-20, about a month after that fateful tea. The purpose of the convention was to “discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.”

Declaration of Sentiments drafted

Patterned after the male authored and signed Declaration of Independence, the women drafted a Declaration of Sentiments to change the offensive section referring to men only to read “that all men and women are created equal.”

In their Declaration of Independence from England, our forefathers listed 18 grievances, thus the women used this template to list their 18 grievances. Stanton wrote, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward women, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

Within the women’s list of 18 grievances were: inability to cast a vote, lack of property rights once married, the legal power men had over their wives allowing them to beat and imprison them, divorce laws favoring men, lack of equal pay, and the lack of higher education that would allow them to enter professions such as law or medicine. The biggest concern was that women were made totally dependent upon men.

The convention concluded with the hope women would have “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.” Also, worth noting is the sentiment held by those in attendance, “We anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule.”

The male-dominated press was quick to ridicule the new movement. Interestingly, the more vitriolic the press became, the more people became interested in the controversy and thus this first “movement” began, though it took a long 72 years of intense activism for women to gain the right to vote in 1920. Today’s League of Women Voters was formerly the National American Women Suffrage Association and, today, is still very much in the forefront of politics.

Another “movement” was instigated by public health nurse Margaret Sanger who believed women had a right to control her own body, reproduction, and sexuality by advocating birth control education considered by many at that time as “obscene.” She opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 for which she was arrested and brought to trial. Finally, in 1936, the Supreme Court allowed for birth control education, but it wasn’t until 1965 that married couples could legally begin birth control.

The 1960s was the second major wave of the women’s movement and every bit as tumultuous as the first. Though women had the “right” to vote, not much had changed and many of the original Declaration of Sentiments had become overlooked or ignored. Enter President John F. Kennedy, who chose activist Eleanor Roosevelt to chair the Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. The report issued in 1963 “documented discrimination against women in every area of American life.” Once again, often contentious dialogue began.

The Tumultuous 1960s

The winds of change in the mid-1960s blew into the nation’s conscience like the strongest of winds blowing through Washoe Valley.

Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 inspiring armies of women to enter the workplace. She was forced to write the book because no magazine would publish her articles. Her words clearly resonated, for in 1964, it became a best-seller selling over a million copies. She was the first to be publicly disturbed by how women’s magazines and advertisers portrayed women. Just look at those early ads — perfectly groomed “Stepford Wives” cooking or cleaning.

In 1964, the anti-discrimination law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts, passed. The law was intended to prohibit discrimination in the workplace due to race, religion, and national origin. Again, gender was missing. Gender equality was inserted into the final bill draft as a “last-ditch” effort to kill the bill. Upon passage, 50,000 sex discrimination complaints were received in the first five years. The complaints were reputed not to be taken seriously, thus the National Organization for Women, NOW, was organized in 1966. This organized group begat many other groups to address discrimination of any kind.

Although the first women’s march began in 1916, it wasn’t until the 1960’s women again exercised their right of freedom of speech and organized many marches to express their grievance with Washington, D.C.

Looking back at this historic time still remembered by so many, there was a lot going on. Women declared their independence by starting newspapers for women, opened bookstores and ran cafes offering women a safe haven to discuss issues. They supported battered women by opening shelters and established rape crisis hotlines as well as women’s clinics offering birth control counseling. Child care centers were formed so women could enter the workplace. Women advancing women.

In 1979, Advocates to End Domestic Violence was formed in Carson City (population 32,000) by two formerly battered women who saw a need for a domestic violence program. Starting with a two-bedroom shelter, today the incidence of domestic violence has not abated, and the shelter has grown to 51 beds serving over 4,500 women since the shelter opening in 1981. A sad commentary, indeed.

Finally, in 1972, women were given equal access to higher education and professional schools when Title IX was included in the Education Codes. Women were now “allowed” to play sports in schools. Was “all men were created equal” becoming more gender neutral?

Help Wanted Ads separated by sex

But wait! Even with these advances, women were held back from holding a credit card in their own name and had to have a male co-signer to obtain a bank loan. Women in the early ‘70s earned 59 cents to the dollar earned by their male counterpart. Even the help wanted ads were separated by sex and women could not apply for ads found under “help wanted — men.”

Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled this illegal in 1968, it wasn’t until NOW argued before the Supreme Court to allow women to apply for any job for which she was qualified. Today, what was once considered traditional male jobs are being held by competent women.

Then came the biggest boost to women — the Equal Rights Amendment was finally ratified in 1982 — although Nevada was one of the 15 states not to ratify before the deadline. What the Declaration of Independence failed to spell out, the ERA did, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” There was a backlash movement on this organized by Phyllis Schlafly, but that’s a story for another day. And, within the U.S. Legislature, only 46 percent of the males voted to ratify.

Fast forward to the issues of the 1990s: reproductive rights, admittance to military academies, leadership roles in the religious world, affirmative action, sexual harassment, social security benefits and more. And, then there was the best seller, Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, written by John Gray in 1992 asserting lack of communication between the sexes as the major stopgap. This book sold 50 million copies and more conversation began.

The Conversation Continues Today

Today, the #MeToo movement is putting a glaring spotlight on sexual harassment and whatever side you are on for this issue, sexual harassment is as old as the beginning of history. Secondary to sexual harassment is still the issue of pay gap.

Unfortunately, the conversation started in the second half of the 19th century continues today in the first quarter of the 21st Century. Long dead, what would these initial courageous women think of how far women have progressed? The mantra continues, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights!” Elizabeth Cady Stanton and those who came after her surely have not been at peace and have turned over in their graves many times.

That 1970s Virginia Slims ad tried to convince women they may have “come a long way, baby” during the “second movement,” but as Robert Frost wrote in his poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening, there are still “many miles to go before I sleep.”

The glass ceiling — that intangible barrier keeping women from advancing — is still being talked about since this term was first introduced in 1985 by the Wall Street Journal. Though the list of women heading Fortune 500 companies grew in 2017 to a record 32 — that’s only 6.4 percent of the total.

Disconcerting, nevertheless, is why after all this time, the conversation of equal rights continues in such a heated fashion. Even more disconcerting is that women are still considered part of the minority though they are just over 50 percent of the population and are still being singled out when the discussion centers on diversity in the workplace.

As we bid farewell to Women’s History Month, it is only fitting we honor the women who made history and those who are and continue to make history. Carson City has many women who have made this city what it is today for the kind of city it will be tomorrow.

The author is a woman, not affiliated with any political party or women’s groups, was not part of the organized women’s movements and has always wondered why women were considered less than men since the beginning of time. Research is credited to The Women’s History Project written in 1998 by Bonnie Eisenberg and Mary Ruthsdotter to honor the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Rights Movement.


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