This is the second post in a series on feminism. Click here to read the intro post.
Remember, feminism isn’t a single ideology. There are several different kinds of feminism. To quote any one feminist author/speaker/anything as the stamp of feminism and then applaud or abhor feminism based on that one person’s quote is not the best informed of actions. That’s review number one. Secondly, what all feminist branches share in common is a fight against various forms of oppression against women. Feminists throughout the past have used various tactics. The overall goal is simply equal rights for women.
The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is generally regarded as the start of organized women’s movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were two of the initiators of the event, women who had some years prior been denied entrance to an abolition event because of their gender. They, along with several other women, sought to address women’s utter lack of representation in government and their lack of freedom in society in general. Stanton, in her address, stated that womankind is “[r]obbed of her natural rights, handicapped by law and custom at every turn, yet compelled to fight her own battles, and in the emergencies of life to fall back on herself for protection.”
Other women, Mary Ann McClintock and her daughters, composed a Declaration of Sentiments which addressed their concerns and provided solutions. It was read, discussed, and signed during the convention by many of the 300 attendees (including men). I encourage you to read it here.
The Declaration states that “mankind’ has made women “in the eyes of the law, civilly dead…”, denying them “the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges begin closed against her” and that by law, husbands have the power to “deprive her of her liberty, and administer chastisement”. Married women could not own property, could be made to commit crimes by their own husbands, and were generally confined to the home, with little to no alternative means of providing an sustainable living for themselves. A woman was expected to endure anything her husband wanted, all while maintaining her saintly posture. The law made obtaining a divorce difficult for a woman, even if the husband was abusive or alcoholic; even if she could obtain a divorce, there was little chance of gaining custody of her children, however endangered they may have been.
The only solution or resolution of the Declaration that was challenged regarded a woman’s right to vote. Frederick Douglass argued in favor, and the resolution was passed, the only one not be be unanimously accepted.
Many newspapers regarded the convention as humorous. For women in the 19th century who were regarded as weak, simple, and sentimental, change wasn’t going to happen overnight. The participating women and men had challenged misogynistic views springing from the likes of Aristotle, who believed that women were the result of a deformity occurring in utero. If you are a result of deformity, and therefore less than what nature intended, why should you be treated as equal? Confucious is credited many places as having said “a hundred girls aren’t worth a single testicle”, but the origins of that saying may be more obscure. Martin Luther said, “Girls begin to talk and to stand on their feet sooner than boys because weeds always grow up more quickly than good crops.” The English poet John Donne wrote, “The souls of women are so small, some believe they have none at all.” Numerous church fathers, believing that Eve was to blame for the sins of mankind, taught that women should be avoided, shamed, and silenced. (See the last resource below for quotes from some of these guys.)
(As an aside, I can’t help but think of what fictional characters such as Hester (The Scarlet Letter), Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), and Fantine (Les Miserable) experienced. Their struggles and limitations weren’t literary anomalies, folks.)
Stanton, Mott, McClintock, and those that stood with them had started the fight for women’s recognition under the law. All but one of those present at the Seneca Falls Convention would pass away before witnessing one concrete victory: the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage in 1920, allowing women the right to participate in government by voting.
To learn more, I highly recommend these resources:
Early Nineteenth Century Attitudes Towards Women (USA, Massachusetts specifically)
Gender Roles in the 19th Century (United Kingdom)
Basic feminist FAQ’s at Finally Feminist 101.
Exploration of misogyny’s history, and current repercussions in Diary of an Autodidact
The next post in this series will tackle a Biblical basis for fighting oppression against women. (Hint: it exists, despite much of the church’s history demonstrating otherwise.)