Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Every Right Women Has Today Took Centuries of Struggle

Some of the few books available when I started 
teaching the University of Toledo's first women's 
history course.  Since then Women's Studies 
has flourished, and so has the scholarship. 
Most young women today, my kids' generation and their kids, the millennials, do not know women's history.  They do not know and frankly don't seem to care about what it took for them to enjoy the rights they have. They simply take these rights for granted.

Yet every right we have today, every one, was fought for tooth and nail, inch by inch, fiercely and over long periods of time.  It took centuries of struggle to get the right to speak in public, legal rights, the right to an education at all levels, the right to enter professions, the right to vote.

It's a shame this story remains hidden, because the history of women is rich and powerful, and knowing about it would help women grow as women and as citizens.  It would help them appreciate the brave shoulders on which they stand, open their eyes to a whole new way of seeing America and themselves.

 "There was a mountain of prejudice to climb," Lucy Stone put it in the early 1840s, when male privilege was at its height and women were "femme couvert," that is legally dead, in the eyes of the law. That's when women joined the Abolitionist movement againt slavery, first spoke out in public, and became victims of painful patriarchal attacks.  In fighting for the freedom of slaves they began to see they needed to fight for their own rights, beginning with the right to speak in public. "What's morally right for men to do, is morally right for women," Sarah and Angelina Grimke argued in the face of vicious attacks.

The abolitionist women then dared to take another step; they dared to question their status and they began to fight for their own legal and property rights, the right to their children in divorce, and the right to an education beyond elementary school.  The first women's rights convention, the historic and pioneering Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, embodied their grievances and laid out publicly for the first time the women's rights agenda for the ages.

It's a shame young women are unaware of their history, too, because there's still a way to go in achieving all the rights spelled out in Seneca Falls in 1848, starting with equal pay for equal work and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. There's a way to go in changing stereotypes and attitudes. There's a way to go in creating social structures and public policies that acknowledge the different life cycle experiences of men and women, and that support working women and mothers.

"A lot of women think the fight for women's equality is done.  It's not done," says Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, a brilliant woman whose vast experiences inform her views.

It's a view women leaders like Gloria Steinem and the women of our generation understand.  If only those younger than us did as well.  Then they would better understand the context in which today's political battles are unfolding. If only younger women understood their history, and cared, America would continue to evolve into the promises of our democratic ideals.

I think one of the best basic histories of the fight for women's rights and the vote is still Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle (Harvard University Press, first published in 1959, and with several editions since then). It was one of the few texts available when I began teaching women's history at the University of Toledo in 1975.  I wish every student would read it in high school or college, or at any point along their journey of self-discovery.  It's a great text for adult discussion groups too.

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