Fight for Women's Vote Key to Nation's Identity

By Ruether, Rosemary Radford | National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Fight for Women's Vote Key to Nation's Identity


Ruether, Rosemary Radford, National Catholic Reporter


For 80 years and more, American women fought to win the vote. For contemporary Americans who seem to have so little respect for their own right to vote that (more than half of them routinely do not bother to exercise it, understanding the importance of this struggle may be hard. The laws that Americans inherited from English common law denied women the vote because they denied that women were autonomous persons and citizens in their own right. They therefore could not represent themselves before the law in any civil or legal transactions. These, included voting, buying or selling property, serving as jurors of running for political office.

The 19th century women's movement was engaged in changing this entire profile of the definition of women as lacking legal or civil personhood. Its proponents claimed that women were full human beings who should be legal persons as much as men, exercising the same rights as men in society in legal, political and economic transactions, as well as having access to education and employment. This struggle had its foundational expression in the first-women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. It was organized by Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister from Philadelphia, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a housewife and mother living in Rochester, N.Y., who was just beginning her career as a public lecturer for women's rights.

The founding declaration of that convention began with a rewording of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are creatred, equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights". The declaration went on to denounce the way in which men through the centuries had denied women these basic human rights, criticizing the Christian churches for sanctifying the subordination of women. The declaration ended with ringing demands for equal legal, social, political and cultural rights, including a call to the churches for women's right to preach and to be ordained.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were joined shortly after the 1848 convention by Susan B. Anthony ny, a teacher of Quaker family background. These three would lead the women's rights struggle for the rest of their lives. Lucretia Mott, a generation older than Stanton and Anthony, lectured continually and gave sermons in church assemblies and peace and women's rights conventions until her death at age 87 in 1880.She argued for the equal dignity and rights of all persons, blacks and Indians as well as women. Stanton and Anthony would carry on the struggled into the first years of the 20th century although neither lived to see the winning of the vote in 1920 (Stanton died in 1902 and Anthony in 1906).

The relation of these three women over a half century of struggle was honored by a marble sculpture by Adelaide Johnson that depicted the busts of the three women, with Mott in the lead and Anthony and Stanton behind her. …

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