Saturday, December 5, 2015

With One United Voice: The First Stirrings of the Women's Rights Movement in 1850

by Nomad

When the Founding Fathers declared that a government earns its true legitimacy from the consent of the governed, they hadn't counted on women taking it to the next logical step. 

The 1850 Women's Rights Convention

Recently I uncovered this interesting quote by an early American reformer/activist named Francis Dana Gage.  The name isn't as familiar to the general public as it should be. Even by modern feminists, she is largely forgotten. 
That's a pity.

As an advocate for the rights of women in an era when modern feminism was in its earliest stages, Gage was far ahead of her time. The quote above comes from a Women's Convention, held in Akron, Ohio. This was, in fact, the second held in Ohio and the third for the country.

A year earlier, the battle for the equality for American women had fired its first shots.
In eastern Ohio, on 19 April 1850, the town of Salem became the scene for a largely forgotten but historically important event. The Quaker town hosted the two-day Women's Rights Convention, held at the Second Baptist Church, (today long gone.)

The Salem Women's Rights Convention was called for April 1850 because a Constitutional Convention was due to open on May 6, 1850, to consider the alteration of Ohio's Constitution.
A strong declaration by women against discrimination had to be made before the Ohio Constitution matter was settled. There were a number of issues that the women demanded to be addressed. 
Some of these included the denial of the right to vote, unequal wages for the same work, unequal educational opportunities, different standards of morality for men and women, married women not having control over their own property and children, and taxation of women's property without representation.
One rule made the convention made this particular gathering somewhat unusual. Men were refused attendance. No man could sit at the platform, no man could speak before the attendees and no man could vote on any of the resolutions.

To open the meeting, letters from influential leaders of the women's rights movement from around the new nation were read. 
In one letter, a leading figure of the early women's rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Seneca Falls, New York boldly wrote:
Men cannot represent us.

A Slave is a Slave

In her letter to the convention, she pointed out that the cause of the American revolution was the crusade against the unjust governance of the British crown and its policy of taxation without representation. 

And yet, at the end of the American Revolution, when a newly independent nation was from, what has that achieved for women? Why had the War of Independence for the new nation meant only the liberty for males?
In forming a new government, they have taken from us the very rights which they fought and bled and died for to secure for themselves.
Stanton listed the ways that women, due only to their gender, were considered in this new "free" nation, to be mere second-class citizens. She made the logical link between slavery and inequality of women, one is a slave of race and a slave of gender.  

In whatever form, slavery was slavery, by definition, a denial of God-given rights. 
A woman cannot follow out the impulses of her own mind in her sphere, any more than the slave can in his sphere. Civily. socially, and religiously, she is what man chooses her to be, nothing more of less, and such is the slave. It is impossible for us to convince man that we think and feel exactly as he does. that we have the same sense of right and justice, the same love of freedom and independence.
This linkage between the women's  and the abolitionist movement grew in the following years. Both represented a direct challenge to the conservative status quo and the idea that power must be kept in the hands of white men.

Wholly trusting male representatives with the rights of women had proved to be a mistake, Stanton said. She put it defiantly and plainly:
Men cannot legislate for us.
It was only logical, she reasoned, that women take control of their own fates in the eyes of the government and the law.
If we are alike in our mental structure, then there is no reason why we should not have a voice in making laws which govern us; but if we are not alike, most certainly we must make laws for ourselves, for who better can understand what we need and desire?
She closed her letter with this unyielding direction to the convention attendees:
It is our duty to assert and reassert this right, to agitate, discuss and petition, until our political quality be fully recognized..
The cause of woman, she writes, is onward. By her own efforts, change must come and women must carve out their future destiny with their own hands.

Revolutions and Resolutions

On the following day, the Convention discussed up several resolutions, primarily regarding the legal rights of women and the laws regarding marriage rights.
They also expressed their demands that state constitutions be written to include greater independence and the state constitution of Ohio be written to include guarantees of the legal equality of women. 

Immediately after the Convention closed at the end of its second day, a declaration to the women of Ohio was published. Among the resolutions ratified by the members was one which stated 
that convention members regarded "those women who content themselves with an idle, aimless life, as involved in the guilt as well as the suffering of their own oppression." 
Resolved, That all rights are human rights, and pertain to human beings, without distinction of sex; therefore justice demands that all laws shall be made, not for man, or for woman, but for mankind, and that the same legal protection be afforded to the one sex as to the other.
Resolved, That we, as human beings, are entitled to claim and exercise all the rights that belong by nature to any members of the human family.
Resolved, That the practice of holding women amenable to a different standard of propriety and morality from that to which men are held amenable, is unjust and unatural, and highly detrimental to domestic and social virtue and happiness.
But they were not finished.
Yet another resolution stated that as long as women are not allowed to hold office, "nor to have any voice in Government" women should not be compelled to pay taxes "out of her scanty wages to support men who get eight dollars a day for taking the right to themselves to enact laws for her."

It might sound excessive, but then the women had a very good argument in favor of this revolutionary notion. 
From the Founding Fathers.

The Meaning of the Word "Inalienable"

One thing the founders of the nation agreed upon was the source of the rights of man. They firmly believed that such rights are not based on birthright privilege. 
These rights are, as the phrase in the United States Declaration of Independence states, inalienable, (that is, not subject to being taken away from or given away by the possessor).

Therefore  as the final Address to Women of Ohio points out, "every human being, no matter what color, sex, condition or clime, possesses those right upon perfect equality with all others."
Government do not have the power to grant or withhold rights. In fact, it is only by the consent of the people that government have any legitimacy whatsoever.
Inalienable rights means:
The monarch on the throne, and the begger at his feet, have the same; man has no more, woman no less. Rights may not be usurped on one hand, nor surrendered on the other, because they involve a responsibility that can be discharged only by those to whom they belong, those for whom they were created; and because without those certain inalienable rights, human beings cannot attain the end for which God the Father gave them existence. 
The members of the Women's Convention understood that a respectable government belongs to the people. As a free people, we must elect our own representatives, regardless of class, gender or race. Moreover, those representatives must be held accountable to the people. 
All people, not only the majority and not only the minority but a certain middle ground between the two.  

These inalienable rights are a natural result of belonging to the same family of humanity. 
And that's really a revolutionary concept if you consider the full implications. For many nations, this is still an idea that their governments refuse to recognize. However, we see in those words of 1850, the fundamental conception of human rights. 

This idea was to reach its zenith on 10 December 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thanks in large part to Eleanor Roosevelt
As one member of the drafting committee later wrote:
“I perceived clearly that I was participating in a truly significant historic event in which a consensus had been reached as to the supreme value of the human person, a value that did not originate in the decision of a worldly power, but rather in the fact of existing—which gave rise to the inalienable right to live free from want and oppression and to fully develop one’s personality.

Consent of the Governed

The Salem Convention statement points out another phrase from the Declaration of Independence:
"Government were instituted by men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
When did women give their consent? When, without a vote, were women even allowed to voice their opinions on the governments instituted by men? Either to demonstrate their approval or rejection of government policy?

The writer notes, the government of this country- like all other government composed of men- has "never recognized or even attempted to protect women as persons possessing the rights of humanity." 

Women under such governments are mere "appendages of men, without independent rights or political existence, unknown to the law except as victim of its caprice and tyranny."

The statement turns fiery too, calling such politicians "dough-faced serviles without independence or manhood" and priests who supported the patriarchal system were "time-serving" and sycophantic."
If men would worthy of the name, they must cease to disenfranchise and rob their wives and mother; they must forbear to consider to political and legal slavery their sisters and their daughters.
Nothing can be morally right for a man, the statement declared,  but morally wrong for a woman.

The Convention's statement concludes with a word of advice to women. The destiny of women isn't, and must not be in the hands of men. If there is a tyranny over women, it is because women have accepted the injustice.
If.. we remain enslaved and degraded, the cause my justly be traced to our own apathy and timidity. We have at our disposal the means of moral agitation and influence, that can arouse our country to a saving sense of the wickedness and folly of disenfranchising half the people.
Male or female, a lazy people can never be a free people. Equality rights that are not defended are  disregarded by governments. Such rights are left to the whims of tyrants and inevitably lost.

For the angry but determined ladies at Salem in 1850, the issue of women's rights was simply an exercise of their duty as a responsible citizen.   

Those Brave Women

Too often we forget, too often we ignore the lessons of the past and fail to appreciate those that struggled for equality.  
As one young academic, Ms. Sabine Mann recently wrote:
Thanks to the relentless efforts of some very courageous women, we, the modern American women, have rights and privileges that were unheard or unsought of in the beginning days of the United States of America...Fortunately, there were some courageous women from the beginning in the United States. Today, we take our rights for granted and until recently, I never gave a thought to all those brave women who fought for my rights.
Today, with so much at stake, there will still be women who opt-out of voting in the next presidential election. As Ms. Mann points out:
The right to vote is the most important right in a democracy. It took nearly one hundred years for the black man to gain this right and almost one hundred and fifty years for women after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Seventy-four years after that historic signing, in a tiny town in Ohio, we witnessed the first stirring of the movement that declared the independence of the other half of the nation.