Maybe if the history of women’s oppression and denial of rights was taught as more than a few glorified sidebars, this wouldn’t be the case.
It’s ok. Admit it. You really don’t care that much about gender and racial equality. Today, for example, is Women’s Equality Day, something, I imagine, maybe 1% of the country is even remotely aware of. It would help if there were fireworks, or flags or a day off, but everyone’s too busy and it’s hot out.
This year’s Women’s Equality Day marks the 95th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which secured the right of American women to vote, mainly white women. (Some of them, by the way, actually had the right to vote after the American Revolution, but it was taken away a few years later). Discrimination within the suffrage movement, meant that that women of color were effectively barred from voting until the 1960s. In a 1913 parade, for example, black suffragettes were asked to march as a unit behind white suffragettes, something Ida B. Wells refused to do. They were also asked to do that at the 1963 March on Washington.
The decision to allow women to vote came down, in 1920, to 24-year old Harry Burn, in Tennessee, whose mother wrote him a letter telling him, not joking, to “be a good boy” and secure her right to vote.
However, women were “given” nothing in 1920.
Today is essentially a celebration of what was then considered a capitulation to political extremists. It was accomplished after decades of women’s political agitation, violently suppressed by the government and resisted by the culture. Many women were ostracized, beaten up, shackled, imprisoned, force fed, starved, and extorted for their efforts. If they were women of color they also had to face intimidation and the constant threat of lynching.
None of this would have come to pass if it weren’t for another event that happened more than 150 years ago: the Seneca Falls Convention, a pioneering women’s rights meeting held in 1848. The meeting culminated in the writing and signing of a landmark document that most people wouldn’t recognize if it fell on them and squashed them flat: the Declaration of Sentiments. This statement of women’s rights used the Declaration of Independence as its starting point. It essentially acknowledged that women exist, are human, have rights, and live in this country (here’s a point by point comparison of the two documents). That set of ideas—that women exist, are human, live in this country and have rights—is a fact that still challenges many people and major institutions.
“This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity,” announced a local newspaper, The Oneida Whig, in 1848. “If our ladies will insist on voting and legislating, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners and our elbows?”
This Declaration was, in turn, preceded by a defining document of the abolitionist movement, the 1833 Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Convention. The Seneca Fall’s gathering came about after organizers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionists who met in 1840 when they traveled to London to attend the first World Anti-Slavery Convention, found that they, as women, could not participate because they were women. Relegated to the balcony where they could watch the men, they became fast friends. Their work more explicitly drew a soon-fraught connection between women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement.
OK, so, the dustbins of history maybe, but here’s the 2015 rub: 12 of the original 18 items identified as women’s rights problems in the Declaration of Sentiments are still problems today.
This was the finding of Sentimental, a project conducted between 2013 and 2014, conceived by artist, writer, and editor Anne Elizabeth Moore. Moore became intrigued by the Declaration and brought together hundreds of contemporary artists, journalists, thinkers, writers, organizers, and activists to reconsider the meaning, legacy, and relevance of the document.
“Of our many findings, the first was the most frustrating: that 12 of the original 18 sentiments required no substantial change whatsoever, 165 years on,” explained Moore.
For example, the Declaration stated: “He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.” Today’s persistent, gendered and raced, pay, wage, and wealth gaps are a testament to their concerns. Out of the Bureau of Labor Statistics 534 job categories, men’s wages exceed women’s in 527.
“He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction,” the women wrote in 1848, “which he considers most honorable to himself…” Today, the lowest paying jobs are those in which women make up the majority of workers. Women constitute the bulk of minimum wage earners and the top three jobs for women continue today to be those in which they provide assistance and support to children and men.
“Single women have only 32 cents for every dollar of wealth owned by single men,” explains Professor Mariko Change, author of Shortchanged, in a recent study on wealth disparity. “The historical legacy of the racial wealth gap in combination with the women’s wealth gap leaves women of color with the least amount of wealth. Single black women have a median wealth of $200 and single Hispanic women $100, less than a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by single white non-Hispanic men.”
Securing the vote in 1920 was one of the six items that have been addressed. When you consider the history of suppressing black, immigrant, and Native American voters, it has, for most of the past 95 years, been insufficiently applied. For example, it was not until 1956 that Native American women could vote in Utah. Today’s voter ID laws continue to threaten the 32 million women’s votes due to issues around name changes, a cultural habit that almost entirely affects women.
You can even, once in a while, still come across people who really believe women shouldn’t be able to vote. And, while they may be in a minority, a huge percentage of the population still believes men are better leaders. This resistance to female leadership is so entrenched in the culture that even young children exhibit a deep distrust of women as authoritative and competent.
Today the U.S. ranks 78th in the world for women’s political representation. White men, those being petitioned in 1848, today make up 31% of the population, but 65% of political representatives. Last month, Representative Donna Edwards, speaking at Netroots Nation, noted that the last black woman in the U.S. Senate was Carol Mosely Braun in 1999. The result, in state after state, is that, “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.” That may have been a legal truth 167 years ago, but it is a cultural one today when we see Congress and state legislatures repeatedly holding all-male panels on women’s health care.
In 1848, perhaps the most startling aspect of the Convention, and the Declaration, was that the women explicitly assigned responsibility to men, as a class, for their oppression. They described their oppression as an abuse of male power. They didn’t have to qualify with race, since black men had no power. When I spoke to her last year, Moore noted that finding non-binary, inclusive language and focusing on issues that disproportionately affected women of color, historically marginalized by a white women’s movement, were centrally important.
“Could there be a connection between the way contributors to the original were overlooked and the way that the women’s rights movement can overlook intimately interconnected issues of oppression? Is it possible that these blind spots in our founding texts and figures are self-perpetuating flaws that impact the potential efficacy of the movements that grew out of them? If we had the chance to do it again what would the Declaration of Sentiments say, how would we rewrite it?”
The Sentimental project resulted in a rewriting of the original Declaration, the 2014 Report of the Congress to Address The First Woman’s Rights Convention. It included a new list of Resolutions that touch on political representation, socialization, taxation, prison culture, racism in the criminal justice system, food security, and more.
When I talk to younger people about national ideals, it’s hard for them to understand the significance of the 19th Amendment, a document like the Declaration, or a day like today, which, after all, doesn’t include fireworks, a day off of school, a football game, or a family celebration. When I explain that Women’s Equality Day, marking a positive change, is actually about women’s continued and diverse inequalities, it becomes even more difficult, because for many teenagers, very little in their direct and conscious experience fits what they’re taught to think of as discrimination, often understood and portrayed as overt and ugly acts, perpetrated by goons, instead of, for example, the benevolent teacher, paternalistic school, or hostile employer or government.
The idea that inequality is real is also particularly unpalatable for the “our-women-are-so-much-better-off…” and “if-you-just-work-hard-we-live-in-a-meritocracy” crowds. Besides, consciousness-raising isn’t high on anyone’s dinner topics of conversation, or end-of-summer to-do lists. It might actually threaten to disrupt power structures that everyone wants to pretend don’t exist.
Maybe if the history of women’s oppression and denial of rights was taught as more than a few glorified sidebars, on a couple of pages out of hundreds in text books, this wouldn’t be the case. But, in a country where fewer than 14 states make it a requirement that sex ed classes include medically accurate health information, why would anyone expect history lessons to be factual and informative?
In the meantime, you can mark Women’s Equality Day with the Daily Caller’s mocking celebration of hot women who have no equals. And they mean that in the nicest possible way, for people who willfully chose to ignore what entitled, smug, puerile, and thoroughly institutionalized sexism looks like.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.