Celebrating Women’s History Month
As part of the Burlington County Bar Association’s celebration of diversity in the legal profession, this month we recognize and celebrate another group that makes up over half of the population in the entire country, women!
Human memory can be short and selective. It’s easy for us all to convince ourselves that the struggle for equal rights between women and men is no struggle at all, that equality has existed for a long time. That is far from the truth, and the advances women have made over the decades were hard fought. The American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776. In their declaration to the king, they stated that “all men are created equal.” That was not a generalization – they never considered women to be equal to men. This was proven time and time again. Early republic coverture laws compelled women to give all of their property to their husbands when they got married. If their husband died before them, ownership went to their sons. Moms needed to get along with their sons or they were rendered helpless! And, of course, they couldn’t vote.
In 1848, seventy-two years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, approximately three hundred women converged in Seneca Falls, New York to address a problem. Often defying their husbands’ wishes by attending, they held the First Women’s Rights Convention to voice their grievances and write their own declaration. Now-famous women including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took the fight to Washington. They marched, they protested, they spent time in jail. They suffered so that they could be treated equally. Their efforts created little change, and women were still without the right to vote. Historians write that the men of those times thought that allowing a woman to vote would corrupt her purity and distract her from her priority in life: tending to the home and raising the kids. Although the end these women sought was not achieved, the way was paved for the next generation of suffragettes.
By 1913, women changed their tactics. Alice Paul of Mount Laurel, New Jersey helped to organize a peaceful march on Washington the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. The women were peaceful, but the onlookers were not. Five thousand women were spat upon, beaten and many of them jailed. The Secretary of War sent troops to quell the chaos. Jailed women went on hunger strikes. Guards force fed them by inserting crude tubes down their throats. Again, women had to wait for the right to vote.
The 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920 – a full seventy-two years after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Only one of the women who had attended Seneca Falls lived to see this success. And it only passed into law by one vote. This is one of my favorite history facts…Shortly before the time limit for ratification, young Tennessee Representative Harry Burns was about to vote against the Amendment, swinging the state against giving women the right to vote, when he received a letter from his mother in which she told him to “do the right thing.” Harry voted yes, and Tennessee became the necessary thirty-sixth state.
Of course, the struggle was hardly over once women received the right to vote. It simply meant they finally had federally-sanctioned representation in the government. Women, and their male supporters of whom there are many, continue to bring awareness to, and fight against inequality, both in the legal realm, in others as well.
During the recent inauguration and peaceful marches, I saw a lot of comments on social media by both genders criticizing the peaceful marchers. Of course, I also saw many comments against the new President. However, the negative comments coming from women toward women were especially sad. Then I came across this message, which is paraphrased:
To all my female friends mocking and complaining about the Women’s March on Washington, a reminder:
Every time you vote, republican or democrat, you are doing so because of women who marched.
Every time you go to a job outside the home to provide for you and your family, you are doing so because of women who marched.
Every time you open a checking account, credit card, or make any independent financial decision, you are doing so because of women who marched.
That women and men can march for equality, or any other reason is a Constitutional right. You don’t have to agree with the motivations of those who hit the pavement to declare their positions, but to name call, mock, spit, criticize or even suggest that protesting should not occur, is…well, you know.