November Dates in Women's History
by Susan G. Butruille

Lifting the Veil and Living the Legacy:
Celebrating Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Birthday

On November 12 we celebrate the birthday of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who fought for women’s rights for more than 50 years. She died in 1902, still not allowed to vote. I believe Elizabeth would be both elated and appalled. I wonder what Elizabeth would think about where we are now. Yes, we have most of the rights she fought for in this country. Yet many women, men, and children, still are denied basic human rights of home, health, and security, in this country and around the world.

Her journey as a formidable women’s rights leader began behind a curtain in London. There, at the 1840 World's Anti-Slavery Convention, male delegates immediately set to work wrangling over the first burning question. It had nothing to do with slavery, but with whether or not women delegates were worthy of participating. Newly-wed Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Quaker minister Lucretia Mott, an elected delegate, watched in astonishment as delegates Stanton called "narrow-minded bigots, pretending to be teachers and leaders of men," refused to seat the women, and banished them to seats behind a low curtain. Infuriated, Stanton and Mott resolved to hold a convention to address the rights of women when they returned home.

Eight years later, 32-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 55-year-old Lucretia Mott were among five women who met over tea in Seneca Falls, New York and planned the world's first women's rights convention. The July 19 and 20, 1848 convention would change the world. It produced two radical documents: the Declaration of Sentiments and the Resolutions, both written largely by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and inspired by the Declaration of Independence.

"The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman," stated the Declaration of Sentiments, "having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her." The Declaration listed 18 areas of "tyranny" and tradition, including laws that barred women from owning property, testifying in court, child custody, access to education and professions, speaking freely in public, controlling their lives and bodies both in and outside of marriage, and a voice in making laws that governed their lives. The Seneca Falls Resolutions demanded that these veils of restrictions be lifted. Eight passed easily with the ninth barely passing because it was so radical: the notion that women should secure the "sacred right" to vote.

Media and clerical reaction to the Seneca Falls Convention was so swift and so savage that Elizabeth Cady Stanton later would write, "If I had had the slightest premonition of all that was to follow that convention, I fear I should not have had the courage to risk it . . .." Newspaper editors had a grand time, labeling the convention a "petticoat rebellion" dreamed up by "love-starved spinsters" and "dried-up old maids." Never mind that between them, Stanton and Mott eventually would have 15 children. Largely due to the demand for voting rights, "[M]ost of the ladies who had attended the convention and signed the declaration, one by one, withdrew their names and influence and joined our persecutors," Stanton wrote. "Our friends gave us the cold shoulder and felt themselves disgraced by the whole proceeding."

It was the beginning of a long and lonely struggle. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, soon joined by Susan B. Anthony, would make a formidable team as leaders of the early movement. Stanton, Anthony and Mott all would die before their right to vote would be recognized. One by one, rights were won -- none without exhausting effort. The struggle for the right to vote took 72 years, until 1920, although women in some western states won the vote before 1920. Men as well as women helped in the struggle, while many men and women fought women's rights as contrary to Nature.

"It is doubtful if any man, even among suffrage men, ever realized what the suffrage struggle came to mean to women before the end was allowed in America," wrote Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler in 1923. "How much of time and patience, how much work, energy and aspiration, how much faith, how much hope, how much despair went into it. It leaves its mark on one, such a struggle."

Many veils have been lifted for women. Yet many women's lives still are shrouded in threats of violence, poverty and disease, and in fear for the lives and well-being of the children and men and women they love.

As we celebrate Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s birthday, we must remember and recognize the work of our foremothers and forefathers for freedom, and of the continuing struggles for justice around the world.

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