Most of us take equality of men and women for granted. It didn’t just happen – nor is it universal, even today. For two hundred years women (and men) worked for the emancipation of women. Many are still working to achieve a more equal world for women. For thousands of years women have been oppressed by all societies:
The freedom of women is the greatest revolution, not just of our own day, but of all time, since it breaks fetters which are as old as the world.
(Louise Dittmar 1848)
Like other movements for human equality understanding how the work was undertaken is likely to provide valuable insights in addressing the gross inequalities of the world today.
The Women Abolitionists
One thread in the story of the rise of the emancipation of women is its connection with the movement to abolish slavery. This connection is captured in the moving words of Abbey Kelly Foster an early emancipist. In speaking of the oppression under which women lived she wrote referring to the work to end slavery:
In striving to strike off his chains, we found most surely we were chained ourselves.
Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony: leaders of the movement to emancipate women in the United States
Lucretia Mott (an abolitionist Quaker) is part of this story. In 1840 she attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London as a representative of United States abolitionists. She and other women were refused the right to speak and were required to sit in an area separate to male representatives. The exclusion was deeply unjust because women had done so much for the abolitionist cause in America (as their election recognised). Mott met a young woman Elizabeth Cady Stanton and they determined that they should do something for the cause of women. This exclusion reflected a predominant view that women had no place in public life and should be silence. As one man put it when trying to silence Abbey Foster at an anti-slavery meeting:
“No woman shall speak or vote where I am moderator. I will not countenance such an outrage on decency. I will not consent to have women lord it over men in public assemblies. It is enough for women to rule at home … Where woman’s enticing eloquence is heard, men are incapable of right and efficient action. She beguiles men and blinds men by her smiles … I had enough of woman’s control in the nursery. Now I am a man, I will not submit to it.”
The meeting voted to silence her.
The Declaration of Sentiments
By 1848, Elizabeth Stanton was a young mother living in the small town of Seneca Falls in the state of New York. She felt excluded from society. Mott and others encouraged her in calling a conference on the emancipation of women. The conference (including both women and men) framed a declaration called the Declaration of Sentiments. It documents the ways in which mid-19th century societies (in this case European and US societies) oppressed women:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men – both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right as a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.
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.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education – all colleges being closed against her.
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.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, – in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.
(extracts from the Declaration of Sentiments)
Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony were two of the leading women in the first generation of emancipationists in the United States. Later generations of women would build on their work.
Video: Elizabeth Stanton
Suffrage: Progress and Opposition
Rather than drawing a positive response from society around them, the women working for emancipation faced trenchant, organised and well funded opposition. Their movement was labelled immoral, their meetings attacked and they became the targets of verbal abuse. The alcohol industry, using its national network of saloons worked untiringly to prevent women obtaining the vote. They feared that women would be supporters of proscription because of the effect of alcohol on families. However society in general (then largely controlled by men) mobilized against women’s emancipation.
It was not as a result until 1919 that women obtained the vote in the United States (after quite a number of countries).
The early work reported above should not lead to an assumption that equality is an established fact. Indeed women continue to struggle for equality, whether in access to decision making, equal wages, freedom in society or access to education, depending on the country or region of the world. No part of the world can be said to have attained to equality of men and women.