March is Women’s History Month – so maybe it’s not a bad time to reflect on each of ours ! Since the MWC is a women’s organization, this (admittedly too long) post is about women’s history, milestones being observed this month, and related activities and events.
Some of our mothers were born in a United States where women were not allowed to vote. -Which makes one realize that, from a historic perspective, women’s rights are still a new idea.
THE FIRST WAVE: Our grandmothers or maybe great grandmothers may well have participated in the latter part of this. As New Yorkers, we should know that the birthplace of the women’s rights movement in the US was in Seneca Falls, NY – a small-ish town in the Finger Lakes region upstate (road trip, anyone?). Growing out of the abolitionist movement (and thoughts about what constitutes slavery) and given prominent support by both Frederick Douglass and large Quaker communities in upstate New York, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was a landmark event. Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were all there (and a statue of these three women was recently moved from the Capitol crypt into the rotunda) and they drafted the famous “Declaration of Sentiments” which, using language borrowed largely from the Declaration of Independence, definitively claimed basic rights for our sex. And although many issues were tackled during the Seneca Falls convention, the focus for more than the next half century would be on voting rights.
This issue picked up a head of steam as the century progressed, fueled by reports of the suffrage movement in Britain, by settlement of western states in the US – many of which included women’s right to vote in their original state charters, the growing industrialization of many US cities where cheap (aka … female) labor was needed and, of course, the US Civil War – during and after which there was a re-orientation of many traditional norms. As America steadily urbanized there was more of a concentration of upper middle-class, better educated women in cities and towns who were able to gather together and organize more easily. These are the women of popular imagination – women in white, often wearing their purple-white-and green suffragette banners (symbolizing dignity, purity and hope). At the beginning of the 20th century, women’s rights efforts were often tied to the developing labor movement , especially after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in March, 1911 where 146 people died, most of them young women. Suffragists stepped up their efforts leading into World War I feeling that their rights at home should be addressed if the US was going to fight for democracy in other parts of the world. They organized the then-enormous 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington DC.
First drafted in 1878, the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified 42 years later in August, 1920 – just in time to allow women to vote in the November, 1920 elections
THE SECOND WAVE: Depending on how old you are, this is the women’s rights era some of us remember. Starting with Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” (in 1949), continuing on with Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication this year), this was the time of bra-burning, militantism and the effort to establish an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. In 1972 the ERA failed to meet its ratification deadline by two states. This was a period of great social upheaval and unrest, encompassing activism against the Vietnam War and also the protests of the legions of baby boomer women who were coming of age who wanted to put the theories of women’s rights into practice across a broad range of issues, including workplace and educational equality, family life, reproductive rights, violence against women, pornography and sexual and gender identity. Legislative strides were made with the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, Title IX, the extension of Affirmative Action to women, the Educational Equity Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the still vehemently contested Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision. This was an exhilarating period for some women but bruising for others who felt disaffected as the “mommy wars” raged and they felt their personal decisions were being attacked.
THIRD WAVE: And How Many Are There, Anyway? If the first wave was political, and the second was practical, the third wave seems to be ultimately personal. So far at least, this seems to be a time which focuses on self-definition, diversity, representation, international issues and history. We’re living in this time, now – and the interest is in institutionalizing gains made previously. While there are currently more women represented in national office than ever before, the percentage is still only about 20 percent of Senate and House seats. There are only five women governors. And in a ratio that hasn’t changed much in the last ten years, women make up almost 50 percent of law school students, but they’re still not quite 20 percent of the equity partners in firms.
THE NATIONAL WOMEN’S HISTORY MUSEUM: A Place at the Table and One on the Mall? The National Women’s History Museum (NMWH) has existed for more than 10 years, consisting primarily of a website and traveling exhibits. The NMWH wants to re-purpose a government building at 12th St and Independence Avenue to create a permanent location, but this requires Federal approval and legislation supporting this (and earlier variations) has been stalled in the House since 2005. The Museum is not asking for government funds, only for permission to acquire the building. If you are interested in supporting this effort, go to the NMWH website (http://nmwh.org) to contribute and find out about the Museum’s exhibitions and outreach events.
HAPPENING THIS MONTH: March 3 – A 100th Anniversary March in Washington DC, commemorating the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade (if you want to go, check out the National Women’s History Museum website – http://mwhm.org – for details) …. March 8 – International Women’s Day … MAKERS: The Women Who Make America – a 3-part PBS Series, airing now (check your local listings) or available for streaming on http://pbs.org …. The New Museum in NYC has an exhibition of Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia. There are most likely more … if you know of some, please send us an email. For more pictures of the women’s suffrage and rights movements, go to the “Gallery” on our website.