Braving Scorn And Threats

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Women have come a long way —and have a long way to go

CONVENTION. A feminist once wrote that when a woman hears a slighting remark about her role in life, she sometimes also hears a remarkable sound: click. That is the moment of recognition, the sound of things falling into place. Just like that: click. Geraldine Ferraro probably heard the sound when a New York law firm's senior partner, who had been interviewing her for a job, finally said, "You're wonderful, but we're not hiring any women this year." Click. Or perhaps when her employer explained why other department heads were getting higher pay: "But, Gerry, you have a husband." Click.

The principal founder of the movement that ultimately brought Ferraro to the Democratic ticket must have experienced a similar moment one day back in 1840. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 24, newly married to an Abolitionist Orator named Henry Brewster Stanton, had accompanied him to London, where he was to be a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. There she learned that this meeting to combat slavery was barred to all women. Click.

While in London, she met a young Quaker woman from Philadelphia, Lucretia Mott, who had also been barred from the slavery convention. The two of them talked of staging a meeting of their own some day to protest discrimination against women. Eight years passed; then Stanton, living in Seneca Falls, N.Y., heard that Mott was visiting near by. The two got together and decided to organize their meeting. As an agenda, Stanton boldly updated the Declaration of Independence as drafted by Thomas Jefferson. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," said the Stanton version, "that all men and women are created equal..."

As Jefferson had done, Stanton and her fellow rebels set forth their grievances against the tyrannies of the authorities. A respectable married woman of that day could not, in general, own property, testify in court against her husband, sign a contract or keep her earnings. The tyrant responsible for her plight, according to the Declaration of Seneca Falls, was Man, who "has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life."

Such complaints were not unprecedented, but Stanton added a demand that was radical indeed. Over the protests of Mott and several other delegates, she introduced a resolution (which just narrowly passed) declaring that it was women's duty "to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise."

No matter how strongly some women felt about voting, though, the overwhelming issue of that era was the abolition of slavery, and Stanton's associates eagerly joined the battle. They made speeches, raised money, collected signatures—often braving scorn and even physical threats—because they believed that abolition implied equal rights for all, Black and White, men and women. But when the Civil War was fought and won, they were appalled to learn that the newly drafted 14th Amendment guaranteed full citizenship to Blacks but only to "male inhabitants."

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