Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

A 165 year-long struggle for women's rights continues

By Rosemary Joyce

On July 19, 1848, the Seneca Falls Conference launched a challenge to US society: extend the revolution to encompass women, not just men.

The point was made in a provocative text, the "Declaration of Sentiments" drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Rhetorically, by using the Declaration of Independence as a model, the Declaration of Sentiments sharply underlined the exclusion of women as political actors in the founding of the republic. The beginning of the document needed only minor changes to include women:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Many of the specific wrongs enumerated in the Declaration of Sentiments are gone or moderated today.

It is no longer true that women are, "if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead." Men no longer can take "all right in property, even to the wages she earns" from women, even if the wages she earns are on average only 77% of men's, and even in the best cases, within a few unusual sectors of employment, still lag 9% behind those of comparably educated and experienced men.

Women no longer are relieved of moral and legal responsibility, and far from being able to "commit many crimes with impunity", may find themselves harshly punished by the justice system if pushed to commit crimes against their male partners. Divorce laws may have changed since 1848, but in practice, they favor men financially, at least in part because ideologies of who should have custody of children have shifted but policies to ensure equitable sharing of expenses have not been developed or enforced.

College education is no longer restricted to men, so that "all the avenues to wealth and distinction" are no longer denied women, who form half of many occupations in the US workforce. But women still are under-represented in many fields. Women make up far fewer of the senior science and engineering faculty in the US than would be expected based on the numbers of PhDs granted to women. In 2012 an article in Science estimated it would take a century for women and men to play equal roles in science-- which would be a full 264 years after the Declaration of Sentiments called for opening access to professions to women.

While some Christian denominations continue to insist that only men can be religious leaders, the proportion of women leaders in US Protestant churches rose throughout the first decade of the 21st century. The world may still have "a different code of morals for men and women", but these double standards are openly debated and may be disappearing among younger women.

Yet gains made since 1848 were neither swift, nor are they certain.

It took almost three-quarters of a century to pass a constitutional amendment extending the right to vote to women-- leaving only one of the women who signed the original Declaration of Sentiments able to benefit from the new right. Stanton's insistence on calling for the right to vote in the original Declaration was by all accounts controversial. In her reworking of the Declaration of Independence, the lack of voting rights occupied the core place, as the single offense that led to all the other ways women were oppressed. Stanton wrote:

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 tyrranny 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 of a citized, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.

"He has oppressed her on all sides".

For me, that phrase echoes today, as across the US, state legislatures take votes -- sometimes hastily, sometimes in spite of heroic efforts by opposing lawmakers, that fly in the face of majority opinion, and that fundamentally "compel [women] to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice".

So we see the state legislatures of Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia all voting for laws opposed by the majority of their own citizens-- not women alone, but men and women-- laws that endanger women's healthcare and move us backward.

More than a century and a half has passed since the Declaration of Sentiments started the process of ensuring women's rights in the US. The struggle isn't done.