March is Women’s History Month and is dedicated to remembering and celebrating the extraordinary variety of women who have contributed so much to our country. At the same time, women around the world celebrate International Women’s Day Tuesday.
The Women’s Rights Movement began July 13, 1848. On that sweltering summer day in upstate New York, a young housewife and mother, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was invited to tea with four women friends. When the course of their conversation turned to the situation of women, Stanton poured out her discontent with the limitations placed on her own situation under America’s new democracy. The American Revolution was fought just 70 years earlier to win the patriots’ freedom from tyranny, but women had not gained freedom even though they’d taken equally tremendous risks through those dangerous years. Surely the new republic would benefit from having its women play more active roles throughout society? Stanton’s friends agreed with her, passionately. This was definitely not the first small group of women to have such a conversation, but it was the first to plan and carry out a specific, large-scale program.
Within two days of their afternoon together, the group had picked a date for their convention, found a suitable location, and placed a small announcement in the Seneca County Courier for “A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” The gathering would take place at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls July 19 and 20, 1848.
Today we are living the legacy of this afternoon conversation among women friends. The Women’s Rights Movement has brought about measurable changes. In 1972, 26 percent of men and women said they would not vote for a woman for president. In 1996, that sentiment had plummeted to 5 percent for women and to 8 percent for men.
In the world of work, large numbers of women have entered the professions, the trades, and businesses of every kind. We have opened the ranks of the clergy, the military and the newsroom. More than three million women now work in occupations considered “nontraditional” until very recently.
But perhaps the most dramatic impact of the women’s rights movement of the past few decades has been women’s financial liberation. Do you realize that just 25 years ago married women were not issued credit cards in their own name? That most women could not get a bank loan without a male co-signer? That women working full time earned 59 cents to every dollar earned by men?
Many people who have lived through the recent decades of this process have come to accept blithely what has transpired. And younger people, for the most part, can hardly believe life was ever otherwise. They take the changes completely in stride, as this is how life has always been. The staggering changes for women that have come about did not just happen spontaneously. Women themselves made these changes happen, very deliberately in the most democratic ways: through meetings, petition drives, lobbying, public speaking and nonviolent resistance. They have worked to create a better world, and they have succeeded hugely.
The 2005 Women’s History Month theme, “Women Change America,” honors and recognizes the role of American women in transforming culture, history and politics as leaders, writers, scientists, educators, politicians, artists, historians and informed citizens.
Throughout March we hope to highlight just a few stories of women “heroes” right here in the KMC.