This article titled “Roots of a movement: we asked women to read the Declaration of Sentiments” was written by Megan Carpentier in Seneca Falls, New York, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th July 2016 11.00 UTC
Jerry Emmett, the 102-year-old honorary delegate from Arizona who announced that her state was casting 51 ballots for Hillary Clinton at the Democratic national convention, was born before women had the right to vote in the United States.
Donna Brazile, the 56-year-old, Louisiana-raised, newly minted interim head of the Democratic National Committee, was born before African American women were allowed to freely exercise that right, in 1968.
And more than a few of the 2,887 female delegates at the DNC were born before the US supreme court ruled in 1973 that women had a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy, before the US Congress banned discrimination in education based on gender in 1972, before the US Congress in 1974 gave women the right to obtain credit in their own names, before the US Congress in 1978 made it illegal to fire women for becoming pregnant, before the first time a US trial court found – in 1979 – that a man could be guilty of rape if his victim was his wife (though it only became a crime in all 50 states in 1993).
“I was born into a generation where I knew that, when I was 18, I would be able to register and I would be able to vote. I would be able to be a part of the process,” said Abby Rivas, a National Park Service employee at the Women’s Rights national historic park in Seneca Falls. “My grandmother was born into a time when she was not.”
“This was not a right that was given to many of us as citizens. This was something that had to be fought for. And it had to be fought for, for a very long time,” she added. “We cannot take that for granted.”
On the weekend between the Republican and Democratic national conventions, we visited Seneca Falls, New York – the home of the women’s rights movement in America. While there, we asked some of its visitors and even staff to take a turn at the podium in the restored Wesleyan Chapel to read aloud from the Declaration of Sentiments, the 1848 riff on the American Declaration of Independence in which delegates called not only for the right to vote, but for, among other things, the right to custody of their children, the right to equal pay (which is still not enshrined in law), and the right to participate in public life as full equals to men.
Still, even after the Declaration of Sentiments was read at the 19th women’s rights convention, it wasn’t until 1878 that a bill was even introduced in Congress offering women the right to vote – and the 19th amendment, which enshrined that right into federal law, wasn’t ratified until 1920, less than a century ago and, for many women, the ability to exercise that right took far longer.
So perhaps it is easy to view Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic party’s candidate for president of the United States as “inevitable” – even preordained – in 2016. Perhaps it is easy to derisively call her the candidate of “the establishment” and forget that in many women’s lifetimes, the idea that a woman could even be part of the establishment was laughable.
But a woman didn’t even appear on a national ticket for one of the two major parties until 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice-presidential nominee on Walter Mondale’s doomed slate. A woman didn’t appear on a national ticket again until 2008, when Republicans make Sarah Palin their vice-presidential nominee. The first female senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, served for only 24 hours in 1922; the second, Hattie Wyatt Caraway (who was also the first woman elected to the Senate) didn’t make an appearance until 1931. The first African American woman elected to the Senate, Carol Moseley Braun, wasn’t even elected until 1992. Only 46 women have ever served in the currently-100-seat Senate in the entire history of the country – and Braun remains the sole African American woman to ever have served. (And the historical situation wasn’t much different in the “people’s” House.)
A generation ago, the idea of a woman being one party’s presidential nominee (let alone the inevitable one) would’ve been unfathomable. There wouldn’t have been much thought then given to courting women voters, let alone African American women voters, who were crucial to Barack Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012 and are necessary for Clinton to win in 2016. Clinton’s own grandmother wouldn’t have earned the right to vote in the presidential election until 1913, when Illinois passed legislation allowing it; her mother was born before suffrage became a national right.
A woman at the top of the Democratic ticket is new, and it’s historic – but women’s rights aren’t ancient history. The history of women’s “firsts” is the history of our lifetimes, and our mother’s lifetimes, our grandmother’s lifetimes and maybe our great-grandmother’s lifetimes. They will be the history of our daughters’ lifetimes and perhaps even our granddaughters’ and great-granddaughters’ lifetimes. Only one woman who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, Charlotte Woodward (later Pierce), survived to see women earn the right to vote – but she was too sick to use it herself that year. For some women who have fought for equal pay, they may see the day, but be too old to benefit from it.
Because, for many of the rights for which women like Woodward once called, some of us are still waiting.
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