Women's Rights 150 Years Later Feminists Highlight Persisting Inequities, as America Charts Its Progress since 1848 Meeting That Launched the Women's Movement

Article excerpt

It all began at a ladies' tea party in upstate New York, on a steamy July day in 1848.

The conversation turned to women's rights - or more precisely, the profound lack thereof - and the outrage poured forth: They had no right to vote, no right to formal education, and virtually no role in church affairs.

Married women had no right to own property or keep any wages or inheritance. Abusive husbands were tolerated, for divorce was not an option. In the eyes of the law, they complained, they were practically nonexistent. The women, with housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the lead, took action. Within a week, they convened the first gathering ever to address women's rights, at a chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Thus was launched the women's movement, issuing a call that reverberated around the world. Fast forward 150 years: In this sesquicentennial year of the women's rights movement, the lives of American women have changed beyond recognition. They can vote, run for president, run a corporation, and command a space shuttle. In all 50 states, it is now illegal for a man to rape his wife. Today, 1 in 3 girls participates in high school sports, compared with 1 in 27 in 1972. But feminists aren't resting on their successes. "We've come far, but not far enough," says Judith Lichtman, head of the National Partnership for Women & Families here. In this anniversary year - beginning with Women's History Month observances all during March - women's rights groups will highlight what they call remaining gross inequities in employment, wages, pensions, insurance, and health care. They also note that some of their gains aren't as complete as they seem; some laws barring discrimination have loopholes or are ignored outright. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be upset," says Eleanor Smeal, head of the group Feminist Majority. "These suffragists weren't just for the vote and equal representation. They believed in equal rights." Indeed, in 1923 - three years after women won the right to vote - suffragist Alice Paul drafted an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) nearly identical to the one Congress eventually passed in 1972. But with the amendment's failure to gain passage in enough state legislatures, the US Constitution still has no provision guaranteeing equal rights for women. Does this matter? Activists on women's issues - liberal and conservative - continue to argue vehemently over what women really want and need. Women themselves are torn. In the research for her 1994 book, "The Deep Divide: Why American Women Resist Equality," author Sherrye Henry found that while nearly all women say they want equality, equal pay, and an end to job discrimination, most weren't willing to work toward those goals. Part of the problem, Ms. Henry found, is that the term "feminist" carries negative connotations, signaling to many an antichild, anti-family attitude. Many women also couldn't explain how equality would make their lives better. …