For Women’s History, It’s Christmas in July

July 19, 2010

For me, the meeting at Seneca Falls on July 19, 1848, is like a holiday story, a tale told and retold, always inspiring a twinge of sentimentality and awe. The story begins with our heroines, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, deciding that there needed to be a conference on women’s rights. Women and men from around the country gathered together, discussed the status of women, and produced the Declaration of Sentiments.

The delegation voted on resolutions to expand women’s roles and responsibilities in American society, yet extending the right to vote was the only resolution that was not unanimously accepted. Nevertheless, for the rest of their lives, Stanton and Anthony both fought tirelessly for such a right, though the 19th Amendment wasn’t ratified until August 18, 1920 — more than 10 years after the deaths of Stanton and Anthony and 72 years after the convention.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony

Clearly, Stanton and Anthony could see what many of their contemporaries could not. They knew that there needed to be a forum to discuss women’s rights. There needed to be a document outlining the current injustices that women were experiencing. And, for the first time, there needed to be a focus on women’s suffrage. Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to categorize Stanton and Anthony’s vision as a “miracle,” but there is something certainly admirable, if not magical, about what took place at Seneca Falls.

As much as I’d like to think of Seneca Falls as a holiday, it is not. No one exchanges presents, lights candles, decorates shrubbery, sets off fireworks, or gets the day off work. On July 19, most people will wake up, drink their coffee, curse the morning traffic, and stare at their glowing computer screens until the clock reaches five. They won’t think about what their lives would be like if a woman still could not retain the wages she earned or the property she inherited. They won’t consider what it would be like if every college was closed to women or if marriage destroyed a woman’s individual legal identity.

It seems ridiculous that, at one time in our history, creating a document stating one’s opposition to such laws was revolutionary, if not offensive. Still, we don’t have a holiday to appreciate how far we’ve come. Of course, we do have obscure coinage with Susan B. Anthony and a bust of a few “first-wavers” mentioned as a footnote during Capitol Hill tours. Page one of the women’s movement is not marked on our calendars — it doesn’t hold the same value as Valentine’s Day or Flag Day.

Therefore, we must find our own ways to celebrate how far women have come throughout the year. Maybe your celebration involves e-mailing your members of Congress about the importance of passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, volunteering for a few hours at a women’s shelter, or simply thinking about all the individuals who were denied the right to vote as you cast your ballot in November. For me, I’m going to keep telling and retelling the story of what happened one very hot day on July 19, 1848, when Americans throughout the country came together and decided that women and men should be treated as equals to my friends, to my co-workers, and, maybe someday, to my children.

This post was written by AAUW Public Policy Fellow Eliza Horn. Eliza is a senior at Vanderbilt University, majoring in Law & Social Justice as well as Creative Writing. Eliza works at the Women and Gender Studies Program at Vanderbilt and has organized and presented her research at their annual conference.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar Rela Edwards says:

    I have read much about Stanton, Anthony and the woman’s movement. This post really gets to the heart of what the woman’s movement was about and still is today.

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