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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a long-time advocate of women’s rights, in a speech to the American Anti-Slavery Society said, “Yes, this is the only organization on God’s footstool where the humanity of women is recognized, and these are the only men who have ever echoed back her cries for justice and equality…” The American Women’s Rights movement was very much a product of the fight for abolition. Early leaders, such a Stanton, began their struggle for social justice with the cause of the slavery and its already well-established movements. Anti-Slavery organizations provided inspiration, a proven set of tactics, and a form of critical analysis that aided the women as they later set off on their own crusade for civil justice.
Early Anti-Slavery conventions brought together some of the brightest, most eloquent men and women of the time. Together they discussed and debated the basic principles of human rights: justice, liberty and equality for all. Women, who had long been metaphorically in the same shackles and chains as black slaves saw these conventions as an important building block to their own emancipation. As Emily Collins wrote, “All through the Anti-Slavery struggle, every word of denunciation of the wrongs of the Southern slave, was, I felt, equally applicable to the wrongs of my own sex.” However, many clergymen that supported abolition were firmly against women having any part in the struggle and lobbied extensively to have them barred. Stanton points out the ironical situation in saying, “Many a man who advocated equality most eloquently for a Southern plantation, could not tolerate it at his own fireside.” This action caused a formal vote to be taken in the Anti-Slavery Society, which by a large majority decreed that women be allowed to take part in the proceedings. Still, the issue of women in the abolitionist movement was so divisive that a major rift occurred between proponents of William Lloyd Garrison, who felt that women should be equal and the Liberty Party that thought woman speakers would jeopardize the abolitionist movement.
The attempts to silence women at Anti-Slavery conventions made it clear to Stanton and Lucretia Mott that they were in the same unfortunate position as the slaves they were trying to free. Bolstered by the idea of unity against tyranny gleaned from Abolition, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19-20 of 1848. At the landmark convention, Stanton and others proposed a Declaration of Sentiments, largely based on the Declaration of Independence. In it they presented a list of facts that outlined their social inequality and a set of resolutions to mitigate them. Of particular importance was Resolution 9, which demanded the vote for women. It is interesting to note that this resolution was the most hotly contested and barely passed with the urging of Stanton and Mott. This was troubling to women’s rights leaders who knew from their abolition experience that there could be no divisiveness within their group as they pushed forward. Soon the demand for the vote became a centerpiece of the women’s rights movement.
During the Civil War, women’s rights were eclipsed by the war effort and movement for the abolition of slavery. While annual conventions were held on a regular basis, there was much discussion but little action. Activists such as slave-born Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony lectured and petitioned the government for the emancipation of slaves with the belief that, once the war was over, women and slaves alike would be granted the same rights as the white men. At the end of the war, however, the government saw the suffrage of women and that of the Negro as two separate issues and it was decided that the Negro vote for the Republican Party could produce the immediate political gain, particularly in the South, that the women’s vote could not. Abraham Lincoln declared, “This hour belongs to the negro.” With the side-stepping of women’s rights, women activists became enraged. The inequalities that they had fought to defeat were rearing their ugly heads again. But at the same time they realized their emancipation goals had been reached and the only way to further the struggle for women’s rights was to unite again. The American Equal Rights Association was established by Stanton and her colleagues in 1866 in an effort to reorganize the fight for women’s rights.
However, in 1868, the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment proved to be another affront to the women’s movement, as it defined “citizenship” and “voters” as “male”, and raised the question as to whether women were considered citizens of the United States at all. Instead of a strong partnership that would simultaneously fight for black and female suffrage, the two groups became bitterly divided over the issue of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It soon became clear that the abolitionists were fully committed to the Republican Party (whom had been very influential in the ratification of the later Fifteenth Amendment, which gave the vote to black men) and believed that this was the “hour of the Negro”. Stanton as well as her supporters were forced to accept that there was no hope of reconciliation with the abolitionist movement and that if the vote was going to be won, it would be won by women, for women. At this point it had literally come full circle for women’s rights activists. No longer dependent on the relationships and alliances that their affiliation with abolitionism had previously brought allowed the movement to move in its own independent direction. Unfortunately, the Equal Rights Association would not maintain itself long enough to see women gain the vote. Just four years after its inception, and a full fifty years before women would earn the right to the vote, The Equal Rights Association dissolved.
In 1919, after years of petitioning, picketing, and protest parades, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by both houses of Congress and in 1920 it became ratified under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. A century old dream had finally come true for the brave patriots of women’s rights. Even after their bitter split from the abolitionists, women had wisely continued to utilize the valuable knowledge and resources gained from them. Throughout their struggle they came back to the fundamental principles of justice and equality first discussed in the American Anti-Slavery. In addition, the basic organizational structure of abolitionism aided women’s rights activists in forming their own groups to combat tyranny. That their struggle continued a full 60 years after abolition was reached is in no way reflective of a less cohesive group.
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