Smashing the Glass Ceiling

Smashing the Glass Ceiling

By Scott Lipkowitz

  1848 was a year of revolution. In France, republicans deposed King Louis Philippe and declared the Second Republic. Nationalist tri-colors flew freely in Sicily and Prussia; and in Austria, new constitutions were promised to the many nationalities subject to its rule. In almost every European nation, democratic fervor took hold, with varying degrees of success. Though divided by language, culture, and nationality, one demand was held in common: universal male suffrage, and an end to the authoritarian rule of monarchs. Suffrage was also one of the issues on the minds of revolutionaries in the United States that year. These American revolutionaries however, did not bear colorful flags, or have princes at the head of their cause; nor did they call for the overthrow of the government of the United States. Instead, these American revolutionaries were demanding the overthrow of something much larger; a world order that had existed for almost 10,000 years. Their demand: the equality of rights for women.

  On July 14th, the 59th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille in France, an American cry for liberty and equality appeared in the Seneca County Courier. It announced a "Women's Rights Convention - A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women," and encouraged all women able to attend to gather at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York on the 19th and 20th of July. Among all those who would address the convention, only Lucretia Mott was prominently advertised. Mott was the daughter of a New England whaler, born on Nantucket island in 1793. A Quaker in her religious persuasions, Mott became a teacher on the mainland, eventually meeting and marrying James Mott while employed at the Nine Partners Boarding School in New York. The Motts eventually resettled in Philadelphia where, at the age of twenty-eight, Lucretia was ordained a minister by her fellow Quakers, providing her with a public outlet for her oratory. Both Lucretia and James became fervent abolitionists, operating a station on the Underground Railroad from their home, while Lucretia played a prominent role in the founding of the first Female Anti-Slavery Society. Though described as gentle and soft, her moral fortitude, ministry, and activity within the abolitionist movement elevated her into the public eye. 

  As a result of her status as a public figure, Mott found herself in the summer of 1840 in London; part of an American delegation to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. While the theme of the Convention may have been an end to the bondage of one man to another, the notion that the bondage of woman to man should also be abolished was anathema: female delegates were barred from being seated. As Stanton would later recount, "after going three thousand miles to attend a World's Convention, it was discovered that women formed no part of the constituent elements of the moral world." The American delegation objected, but to no avail: Mott and her fellow female abolitionists would be relegated to the spectator's gallery. There, as a passive observer of a movement she had done so much to advocate for, Mott was introduced to fellow American Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was born in 1815 in Johnstown, New York, the daughter of a judge, in whose office she learned of the plight of American women. Many of those who came before her father's court were the wives and daughters of rural farmers seeking restitution for lost funds, property, or progeny. However, granted no rights under common law as a result of their sex, almost all of these female petitioners were sent away without any hope of justice. It was a lesson Stanton would not forget as she pursued an education at the Troy Female Seminary outside of Albany. In London, Stanton would watch as her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, a prominent leader of the abolitionist movement, participated on the convention floor. 

  The hypocrisy of a convention dedicated to ending enslavement, discriminating against another portion of the population on account of their sex was blatantly apparent to both Mott and Stanton. They soon began to commiserate, and, returning to the States, continued their correspondence. Working together they helped to shepherd the Married Woman's Property Bill through the New York State Assembly, seeing it become law in early 1848; a small victory in the struggle to establish universal legal rights for women. The high of victory, however, would be dampened by Stanton's personal struggles. When her growing family relocated to Seneca Falls, New York, the rigors of domesticity shook Stanton to despair. "The general discontent I felt with woman's portion as wife, mother, house keeper, and spiritual guide," she stated, "...and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women, impressed me with the strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular." A woman of intellect and action, Stanton felt stifled by the limited role offered to her as a housewife and mother. "All I had read of the legal status of women, and the oppression I saw everywhere, together swept across my soul, intensified now by many personal experiences." 

  Stanton would have the opportunity to vent her frustrations when, at the beginning of July, 1848 Lucretia Mott and her husband visited the nearby town of Waterloo, New York. There, in the home of Jane Hunt, Stanton, Mott, and women's rights activists Martha Wright and Mary McClintock, resolved to call a meeting to discuss the legal and moral plight of American women, posting the notice of their intent in the Courier. Taking the Declaration of Independence as their blue print, the five women restructured the nation's ideological foundation paragraph by paragraph, denouncing not the dominion of a foreign monarch and his many trespasses, but rather the dominion and trespasses of American men over their sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters, stating: 

  We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...

  The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. 

  Chief among those injuries and usurpations was the denial by man of a woman's "inalienable right to the elective franchise." In no state were women allowed to vote, yet they were forced "to submit to laws, in the formation of which [they] had no voice." And those laws, drafted by and voted upon by men "in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man...[gave] all power into his hands." Fourteen years earlier, when petitions were submitted to Congress by the Female Anti-Slavery Societies, their very right to be heard at all was called into question by Congressman Howard of Maryland, who felt that women could best influence politics, morality, and the national character through their duty to their fathers, husbands, and sons. Laws at both the state and federal level were construed to deny married women the ability to own property, to obtain custody of their children in the event of divorce, or to obtain admittance to the halls of higher education. As industrialization spread throughout the United States in the early 19th century, many women were employed as laborers, and as teachers for an ever expanding population; but for their work they received "but a scanty remuneration." Everywhere that Stanton, Mott, and others looked they saw, and rightly so, a world founded upon "a false public sentiment" which gave "to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man." Stanton and Mott's Declaration of Principles would be a battle cry against a society which aimed to "destroy [a woman's] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life." Their Declaration called for universal suffrage, and vowed to use the power of the press, of protest, of the pulpit, and of petition, to obtain the "immediate admission to all rights and privileges which belong to [women] as citizens of the United States."

  Stanton was tasked with creating the final draft of the Declaration in the days before the convention. Henry Stanton, however, was less than enthusiastic; threatening to abandon his home if the clause calling for votes for women was presented to the convention - a threat he made good on. Yet, despite Henry Stanton's hostility, and a worry by Mott that turnout would be low, the convention opened on July 19th to a packed church sanctuary. In total more than 300 women and men crowded into the pews; among them Frederick Douglas, former slave and abolitionist, who lent his considerable weight to the equal rights cause; "Right is of no sex, truth is of no color," being one of his most firmly held beliefs. Although Mott would be the convention's keynote speaker, it was Stanton, delivering her first public address and playing a prominent role in leading the convention, who would emerge as one of the movement's national figures. The clause calling for women's suffrage was passed, though not unanimously as had every other; and in the end the Declaration of Sentiment was adopted and signed by 68 women and 32 men.

  The convention's proceedings and aims were publicized by Douglas, who used his printing press at the office of his paper, the North Star, to issue a report on the meeting. News of the Declaration's adoption would be derided in the popular press; but its force and implications began to galvanize a growing women's equality movement. Over the following years Stanton began a partnership with Susan B. Anthony, organized subsequent conventions across the northeast, and wrote articles on temperance, divorce, and the legal obstacles to women's rights and equality. During the Civil War, in 1863, Mott, Stanton and others petitioned for the immediate passage of the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, and suspended the annual meetings of their convention in deference to the war effort. When the battlefields had cleared and the war ended, Stanton, Anthony, and others created the first national women's rights organization the American Equal Rights Association; hoping that in the new political climate of racial equality, rights and suffrage would also be extended to women. The passage of the 15th Amendment in 1865 dashed any such hopes, eliminating voting restrictions due to race, but not sex. Undeterred, Stanton and her organization pushed for voting rights on the national level, and when, in 1878 an Amendment was put before Congress, Stanton was there to testify on its behalf. Again she was met with opposition. The Declaration of Principles, it seemed, was destined to fight a longer war than the Declaration of Independence. 

  On the state level, the Equal Rights Association appeared to have equality only in their inability to amend state constitutions. 480 campaigns were launched between 1870 and 1910 in 33 states; the results of which were a mere 17 referendums put before voters. Only two, Idaho and Colorado, achieved their objective. Colorado's adoption was a significant victory. There male voters, for the first time in the nation's history, voted in favor of enfranchising women. Slowly but surely, the cause was achieving victories, no matter how small they may have been. Further ballot initiatives achieved success, while the new states of Wyoming and Utah were admitted to the Union with universal suffrage as part of their constitutions. The goal of a Constitutional Amendment, and the attainment of one of the Declaration of Principle's core objectives, however, remained elusive. The Women's Suffrage Amendment was proposed every year following 1878; but for more than a decade following 1893 it failed to receive a favorable report in Congressional committee. Year after year Stanton and other Equal Right's leaders would testify before the House and the Senate, pushing and campaigning for the Amendment's adoption. Victory would finally be achieved on August 18, 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which stated that the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It was a victory that only one of the signers of the Declaration of Principles would live to see. Stanton died in 1902 in New York City, Mott 22 years earlier in 1880; but one woman, Charlotte Woodward, who had heard the revolutionary call of 1848 and had, as a nineteen year old, attended the very first Women's Rights Convention, cast her vote in the presidential election of 1920.

  Suffrage however, was only a part of the Declaration's list of goals. Struggle to attain full equality under the law, of compensation, and of access to education and resources continues even to this day. It is tempting to view the nomination of Hillary Clinton for the presidential office by a major political party as the penultimate crack in the "glass ceiling", and certainly Stanton and Mott would have been proud to see a world in which women had no say in the government which presided over them transformed into a world in which a woman's voice lead the way, but the true promise of their vision has yet to be fully realized. Unlike the European revolutionaries of 1848 who were eventually subdued by a return to monarchy and arbitrary rule, Stanton, Mott, and the other leaders of the Equal Rights movement did not abandon the fight; making good on their battle cry's final impetus to carry the struggle to every corner of the nation. Their unyielding fight for equality reminds us that progress is not demarcated by a single accomplishment, beyond which vigilance may be relinquished. Rather, only through constant pressure, toil, and dedication, can progress be achieved and maintained. 

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Notes:

The Revolutions of 1848. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/event/Revolutions-of-1848

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Atheneum. New York. 1973. 

Declaration of Sentiments. 1848. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/rightsforwomen/DeclarationofSentiments.html

Women's Rights National Historical Park. Essays on the Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglas. https://www.nps.gov/wori/index.htm

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joselyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), 53-54, 61-62.

 

 

 

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