It’s well understood that the point of celebrating the 4th of July is its significance to the history of America. Once the Continental Congress approved the resolution on July 2, 1776 that declared the United States separate from England, all attention turned to the Declaration of Independence, the written statement outlining and defining that decision. After two days of writing, editing, debating and tweaking by the Committee of Five led by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration was penned to completion and approved on July 4th; hence, our many and mighty celebrations on that day. But a lesser known fact of history is that it took another 100 years for women – a demographic so underrepresented in American government at the time – to create, approve and disseminate their own Declaration of Rights, but it did happen… exactly 100 years later, on July 4, 1876, and it became as crucial to the growing feminist movement as the first Declaration had been to the country at large.
In the 100 years after that memorable 1776 day in July, female activists were meeting, speaking out, and organizing in their efforts to gain rights on a par with men, something that was unheard of at the time. The first such group, called the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), came into being in 1866. It was a unique group in that it joined women’s right activists and black rights activists in a fight for equality for both groups. While the intent was noble, the collaboration was an uncomfortable fit, with two very divergent goals: both groups were looking to secure voting rights for their members, less focused on the other group. The women involved became embroiled over whether or not they should support the Fifteenth Amendment if it did not include voting rights for women as well as blacks. The strain of that debate – as well as the fact that Republicans in power deemed the amendment to be exclusively focused on the voting rights of blacks – led to a sense of betrayal amongst female activists and the dismantling of AERA three years later.
Emerging from that debacle were two separate feminist groups – the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) created on May 15, 1869, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) formed six months later. The rival groups operated with distinctly different mission statements: NWSA, founded by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed supporting the Fifteenth Amendment without any inclusion of women’s voting rights and believed a federal constitutional amendment was the most effective way to secure those rights. The AWSA was more interested in getting states behind that effort. But Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were a fierce team dedicated to their task; they moved forward aggressively, declaring membership in The National (as the organization came to be called) as available to women only, though men could be affiliated if they agreed to fully support the forward motion towards women’s rights. Their actions were relentless and often framed as controversial, even radical, at the time.
Perhaps one of the most radical elements of their approach came as the country was about to celebrate the Centennial of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1876. From Wikipedia:
In the summer of 1876, the nation celebrated its Centennial with a highly anticipated exposition in Philadelphia, the first of its kind in America. Opening headquarters in Philadelphia, the National Association sought to use the occasion to draw attention to the inequitable position of women, as well as to organize women from all over the country to exchange their knowledge and experiences. When Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, the presiding officer of the July 4th exposition, finished reading the Declaration of Independence, the ladies walked down the aisle and approached the stage where Anthony made a brief speech. Members of the National then presented the presiding officer with a Women’s Declaration of Rights. The Women’s Declaration of Rights listed the natural rights protected by the government as part of the social contract and went forth to state that the government was infringing upon those rights:
Women’s Declaration of Rights:
In response, the authors listed nine rights for women labeled “Articles of Impeachment.” These articles referenced the ways in which women were oppressed and wronged and asked the government to give women the civil and political rights guaranteed to them:
• Bills of Attainder – This pertained to bills that used the word “male” in State constitutions, “denying to woman the right of suffrage, and thereby making sex a crime.”
• The Writ of Habeas Corpus – Protection against unjust imprisonment for women “is held inoperative in every State in the Union, in case of a married woman against her husband,—the marital rights of the husband being in all cases primary, and the rights of the wife secondary.”
• The Right of Trial by a Jury of One’s Peers – Given that women were not represented on juries at that time, they were “being tried in all cases by men, native and foreign, educated and ignorant, virtuous and vicious.”
• Taxation Without Representation – Stanton and Anthony listed the many things women were taxed to support with which they disagreed: wars, “liquor traffic,” etc. “Moreover, we are taxed to support the very legislators, and judges, who make laws, and render decisions adverse to woman.”
• Unequal Codes for Men and Women – This one oddly resonates, still, today: “The fact of sex, not the quantity or quality of work, in most cases, decides the pay and position.”
• Special Legislation for Woman – This addressed many issues of inequality between men and women, making note that “in no state of the Union has the wife the right to her own person, or to any part of the joint earnings of the co-partnership, during the life of her husband.”
• Representation for Woman – “Since the incorporation of the thirteen original states, twenty-four have been admitted to the Union, not one of which has recognized woman’s right of self-government.”
• Universal Manhood Suffrage – “…by establishing an aristocracy of sex, imposes upon the women of this nation a more absolute and cruel despotism than monarchy; in that, woman finds a political master in her father, husband, brother, son.”
• The Judiciary of the Nation – “…the Supreme Court decided that a black man was not a citizen, because he had not the right to vote… the same high tribunal decided that a woman, though a citizen, had not the right to vote.”
[To read the full text of the document, click HERE.]
While the document Stanton and Anthony drafted and the dramatic day of its presentation had undeniable impact, it took many more years for the movement to achieve its goal of women’s suffrage. In 1890, their group, the National Woman Suffrage Association, and their rival, the American Woman Suffrage Association, finally merged to form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Despite Anthony’s and Stanton’s initial stance that the focus should be on a federal constitutional amendment, the new organization, NAWSA, launched a state-by-state campaign to gain women the right to vote. Wyoming was first, Utah was second, with Colorado not far behind. From there other states followed, but it was not until August 18, 1920, that the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified; six days later, on August 26, 1920, women gained the legal and constitutional right to vote across the country, a goal Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had toiled for so relentlessly…
… a goal that was surely aided by the brave march of those two women up to a podium on that July 4th day in 1876, where they took a stand against the prevailing law, the engrained culture, and the sexism that was endemic to their time in history, to declare out loud their rights as equal and active American citizens. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and Susan B. Anthony’s friendship and collaboration became a conduit for both women and equality.
“We were at once fast friends, in thought and sympathy we were one, and in the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work together than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplied the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and together we have made arguments that have stood unshaken by the storms of thirty long years: arguments that no man has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton)
American women are forever in debt to those “two brains.”