July was the month the world of women began to change forever. It is hard to believe that for centuries before July of 1848, women had been, with rare exception, treated as the property of the men in their lives, incapable of serious thinking, unworthy of participation in government or education, and excluded from almost all professions.
There had been scattered, short-lived bright spots in the history of women, but no serious, widespread, sustained effort until July of 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and a small group of Quaker women broke all convention and called a public meeting to discuss the status of women.
Writing with a very sharp pen, Stanton laid out the women’s grievances in detail in a format fashioned after the Declaration of Independence. To this day, many of the grievances have not yet been fully resolved (i.e., equal pay for equal work), but the most controversial of all—the right to a voice in government—has now been secured for us for 103 years.
The struggle for that right took hundreds, if not thousands, of campaigns on the national, state, and local levels. They faced the opposition of powerful, wealthy businesses who were threatened by the thought of women voting (manufacturers, railroads, liquor interest, to name a few). They faced severe criticism and opposition from many churches who insisted that women must at all times pay for the sin of Eve. The political headwinds were enormous—even sympathetic men were afraid to show support for the cause. Promises made to secure the suffragists’ support in elections were instantly abandoned once the candidates won. The women’s issues were just too unimportant or scary for the politicians to deliver on their promises.
The struggle raged for a full 70 years before the most fundamental right in a democracy was finally shared with women. But much remained then (and does now) to level the playing field and recognize women as fully functioning human beings. As a dear friend once told me: “We will not have equality until the mediocre woman can go as far and earn as much as the mediocre man.”
Know that your position in life was hard won by those who devoted years of their lives, and endured the slings and arrows of criticism, intentional misunderstanding, and distortion of their motives and actions so that you could be on a level playing field to influence the lawmakers of your time. Now we are in a position to finish their work.
As suffragist, Abigail Scott Duniway explained:
THE YOUNG WOMEN OF TODAY, FREE TO STUDY, TO SPEAK, TO WRITE, TO CHOOSE THEIR OCCUPATION, SHOULD REMEMBER THAT EVERY INCH OF THIS FREEDOM WAS BOUGHT FOR THEM AT A GREAT PRICE. IT IS FOR THEM TO SHOW THEIR GRATITUDE BY HELPING ONWARD THE REFORMS OF THEIR OWN TIMES, BY SPREADING THE LIGHT OF FREEDOM AND OF TRUTH STILL WIDER. THE DEBT THAT EACH GENERATION OWES TO THE PAST IT MUST PAY TO THE FUTURE
We must preserve the history of these inspiring women, not only because they deserve it but because history is not just about the past—it teaches priceless lessons that can serve us well in our lifetimes.