Feminism's Path from Seneca Falls

By Fields, Suzanne | Insight on the News, August 24, 1998 | Go to article overview

Feminism's Path from Seneca Falls


Fields, Suzanne, Insight on the News


Last month women celebrated the 150th anniversary of a very important meeting at Seneca Falls, N.Y. In July 1848, 100 feminists (68 women and 32 men) met there and signed a Declaration of Sentiments that included the familiar line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal...."

But the document was nothing like the Declaration of Independence because women didn't choose to separate from men, nor did they have any intention of going to war. They were, however, well aware that the skirmishes between the sexes up to Seneca Falls were but simple verbal duels when compared to the arm-to-arm combat that inevitably would follow.

The crowd this year was estimated at 15,000 compared to 300 who met a century and a half ago. The proportion of men to women was considerably smaller this time. It was with some irony as well as sadness that Betty Friedan, on speaking to the contemporary women gathered at Seneca Falls, observed that the daughters and granddaughters of the feminists of her generation miss out on the fun and camaraderie of the women's movement. "They're too busy being the doctors and lawyers ... and [have] no time to go to meetings and plan for the future."

She's right about that. It's also true that so many feminist goals have been achieved that the format for feminism, what Friedan calls the "new paradigm," is exceedingly different today than it was 150 years ago, or even 10 years ago. Women's issues now require a focus on the family.

But the underlying philosophical debate of feminism -- the crucial intellectual argument -- is the same today as it was 150 years ago: Are women and men more or less alike? How we answer that question determines emphasis. Feminists, who emphasize their differences with men, trace their origins to the temperance movement, citing their moral superiority to men. (Carry Nation employed a hatchet to make her point.) They're responsible for bringing attention to issues of harassment and violence against women. The "equality" feminists are more concerned with "rights" guaranteed by law, which demand a leveling of the playing field. To "rights" feminists, day care is the central issue, because it promises, at least in theory, to free women to work outside the home rather than being the primary nurturer of their children.

As in all important intellectual arguments, polarities make the sparks fly, but in the subtler shades of gray are where most people live. What the early feminists couldn't have foreseen were the unintended consequences of their movement, which would hurt certain women, not help them.

Among the casualties in the first stages of contemporary feminism were the full-time mothers who wanted to stay home, but whose identity suddenly suffered over the question of "What do you do? …

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