160 years after Seneca Falls: how are we doing?

Saturday, July 19th, 2008 · 12 Comments »

Elizabeth Cady Stanton July 19, 1848: one hundred and sixty years ago today. In Seneca Falls, New York, 300 women and men gathered to discuss “the social, civil and religious condition and rights of Woman.” It was the first women’s rights convention in American history.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a young firebrand then, sharp of tongue and sharper of wit. She’d spent the week before the convention laboring over a Declaration of Sentiments, modeling it closely on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” she scribbled on a long sheet of foolscap. “We insist that [women] have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.” Her husband was so alarmed he decided to leave town for the duration.

Just as the Declaration of Independence had enumerated the colonists’ grievances with King George, Stanton listed “injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” The Declaration was read aloud at the convention and adopted unanimously, with 100 women and men affixing their signatures to the document. “In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule,” Stanton wrote, “but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.”

One hundred and sixty years later, where do we stand? How many of those “injuries and usurpations” have been fixed? I thought it would be interesting to list the items in a table, a kind of feminist punch-list, as it were, with a status note on each item. Fixed or not fixed?

# “Injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman” from the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments Fixed in the U.S.? Fixed world-wide?
1 He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
2 He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
3 He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men–both natives and foreigners.
4 Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
5 He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
6 He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
7 He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master–the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
8 He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women–the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.
9 After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
10 He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.
11 He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
12 He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
13 He allows her in church, as well as state, but a subordinate position, claiming apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the church.
14 He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.
15 He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
16 He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.



Making this little table was partially an exercise in translating Stanton’s 19th century prose to modern concepts. Item #11, for example: that’s the glass ceiling. Granted, we’ve made immense progress in the professions (though “theology” doesn’t have quite the cachet it used to), but the ceiling is still there. Hence the big red X.

But mostly I’m gratified by how far we’ve come, at least in the United States (and other countries that have experienced the feminist revolution.) All of the legal restrictions listed by Stanton have been removed, and most of the social barriers of her day have fallen as well. Even the unfixed items show significant progress. The women of 1848 would hardly know what to think if they were plopped down in the midst of modern America.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a sharp cookie, though, and she would have quickly grasped that there’s still a world of hurt buried in items #14 and #16. Changing laws is hard; changing hearts and minds is harder.

The tragedy of this little table is in the column for “Fixed world-wide?” Not a single checkmark. Not a single one of those “injuries and usurpations” has been completely removed from the face of the Earth. It’s all red Xs, all the way down.

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12 Responses to “160 years after Seneca Falls: how are we doing?”

  1. ea says:

    Thank you for this summary. FYI I’m not sure #5 is completely fixed in the U.S. I am not up-to-date, but in the 1980s, in the state of Georgia, it was illegal for a married woman to obtain a driver’s license without her husband’s consent. There may be similar laws on the books in various states that simply are not enforced anymore.

  2. simply wondered says:

    i love reading and learning here, vi. now isn’t this better than arguing about some dude who nicked a nomination from a woman – both of whom (as they are politicians) would have crushed your dreams very soon anyway?

    ok sorry – sore point. (and yes i know that is a gross over-simplification…) just being incorrigible; it’s my job after all.

  3. minty says:

    Yes we have made progress, although not enough and not enough compared to other countries. We are about equal to Estonia for gender equality.
    Here is an interesting research article regarding the “gender gap in math scores”. It would seem that in countries that have less of a gender gap, girls outscore boys in math. However, girls still retain the verbal advantage over boys regardless of gender bias in any country.

    Women and Math, the Gender Gap Bridged

  4. Violet says:

    both of whom (as they are politicians) would have crushed your dreams very soon anyway?

    I know you’re just being incorrigible, but that really isn’t the point. It’s really an issue of the direction the Democratic Party is going, which matters because it’s all we have to represent us at this point.

    But you’re right, it is a relief to think about something else for a change. Of course none of this is nearly as thrilling as my novel set in Greenland in 4000 A.D.

  5. Delphyne says:

    # 16 – but they’ve underestimated the true grit and innate power of women. And at their peril.

    Oooh – a thrilling novel set in Greenland in 4000AD? Sounds intriguing – when are you having it published?

  6. Apostate says:

    Thanks for this, Violet. Very interesting. Because of abortion-limiting laws and some bad decisions from the majority-male supreme court (i.e., equal pay), I would say #2 should be a a cross, not a check-mark, for the U.S.

  7. Anna Belle says:

    Oh wow, fantastic approach, Dr. Socks! I love it!

  8. MountainSage says:

    Yes, we’ve come a long way, but not nearly enough has been done to change the hearts and minds. Working to change the mind of a misogynist is difficult. I have one in my family and talking to him is sometimes infuriating and always frustrating.

    Mountain Sage

  9. ea says:

    Thought you might want to know about this. It appeared like I could not post yesterday, but apparently I did. Nonetheless…

    The site you have chosen has been categorized as: Occult
    http://www.reclusiveleftist.com/

    The website you are trying to access has been denied under the British Council’s Internet Policy. If you have any issue with this please speak to a member of staff.

    The proprietary image for Netsweeper is blocked from linking, and I couldn’t get the object to load so you could see it.

  10. Violet says:

    What on earth?

  11. Tabby Lavalamp says:

    Well, you are posting while dead after all. :D

  12. m Andrea says:

    This was a great post, thank you very much.