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AAUW on women’s rights movement

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POTSDAM - July 19-20 marks the 165th anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.

That historic two-day event signaled the beginning of the active women’s rights movement in America. A movement who’s promise remains unfulfilled in 2013, despite the equally historic joining of 850 state organizations - including AAUW - into the Women’s Equality Coalition to rally for the 10-point NY Women’s Equality Act.

New York state was a logical place to begin the fight for equality. On April 7, 1848, in response to a citizen’s petition, the New York State Assembly passed the Married Woman’s Property Act, giving women the right to retain control of the property they brought into a marriage, as well as property they acquired during the marriage. It meant that creditors could not seize a wife’s property to pay a husband’s debts, leaving her and her children destitute.

Five women met later that year on July 13 to plan the convention. They were: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Jane C. Hunt, and the sisters, Lucretia Mott and Martha Coffin Wright. They advertised the meeting as “A Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July, current; commencing at 10 o’clock, A.M.”

The response was enthusiastic. Over 300 people attended on the first day - women and men alike - to discuss the issues. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had prepared a Declaration of Sentiments, based on the Declaration of Independence, which outlined the concerns and goals for the meeting.

An even larger crowd gathered on day two to vote on and pass 10 resolutions, which focused on women’s economic, property, educational, religious and legal equality. With more discussion, an 11th resolution calling for woman’s suffrage was passed. The right to vote was seen as the key to ensuring that equality was possible and guaranteed.

Suffrage was first achieved in the west, where territories were eager to claim enough citizens to qualify for statehood. Women were granted suffrage starting with the Wyoming Territory in 1869 and the Utah Territory in 1870. Utah later rescinded that right in 1887, but by 1896 both states allowed women to cast votes in federal elections.

Colorado passed women’s suffrage in 1893; Idaho in 1896; Washington on 1910; California in 1910; Oregon, Kansas and Arizona in 1911; Alaska in 1912 and Nevada in 1914. New York State passed it in 1917; and Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma in 1918, with all remaining states in 1920 by federal law.

Of course the road to suffrage was neither smooth nor without major difficulties. Anyone who rocks the boat of privilege can expect to get wet and have the outrage and fear of the privileged class directed at him or her in the cause of expanding human and civil rights.

Nearly 59 years to the day from when the Seneca Falls planning committee met, 16 women from the National Women’s Party were arrested on July 14, 1917 while picketing the White House demanding universal women’s suffrage. They were charged with obstructing traffic and sent to the prison at Occoquan on July 17.

As a result of the suffrage pickets in the Washington D.C. area, approximately 168 women, most from the National Women’s Party, were detained and mistreated at the medium security Occoquan from June to December. The women, including the wife of a sitting US Senator, suffered under unsanitary and inhumane conditions.

The 2004 film, Iron Jawed Angels, portrayed their lives while in the prison. Many of the NWP’s members went on hunger strikes and some were force-fed by jail personnel as a consequence. The resulting scandal and its impact on the US’s international reputation at the time reflected badly on President Wilson, who was trying to build a reputation for himself and the nation as an international leader in human rights.

Woodrow Wilson eventually called publicly for the United States Congress to pass the Suffrage Amendment. The right to vote was universally granted with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. While voting qualifications in the U.S. are set by the states, this amendment prohibits states from discriminating on the basis of sex.

It took 75 years for the movement begun in Seneca Falls to finally achieve women’s suffrage. The convention’s other objectives, including full economic, social and political equality, remain elusive. And while New York boasts many firsts in women’s political history, still only 22% of our state legislators are women.

In 2013 the NY Assembly passed the 10-point Women’s Equality Act omnibus bill, while the Senate acted to pass only nine of the 10 individual bills making up the Women’s Equality Agenda. The Senate did not act upon the reproductive health provision. The failed Senate Majority Coalition leadership resulted in a move familiar in history—the continued segregation of women’s health from the other aspects of their lives.

It is becoming increasing clear as women’s equality and rights are eroded and stymied in state after state across the nation, that the right to vote is not enough to ensure equality. True equality will only come when all of the state houses and Congress are reflective of women politically in terms of numbers and when the leadership of those legislative bodies is equally reflective of gender, cultural and racial parity.

Membership in the St. Lawrence County Branch is open to anyone who supports the mission of AAUW. AAUW advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research.

AAUW, with its nationwide network of more than 150,000 members and supporters, more than 1,000 branches conducting programs in communities across the country, and 500 college and university partners, has been a leading advocate for equity and education for women and their families since 1881.

For more information about AAUW in St. Lawrence County, contact President Jennifer Ball at 268- 4208 or jball@clarkson.edu or Public Policy Chair Kathleen Stein at 386-3812, kstein1@twcny.rr.com, or visit the branch website, http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/index.html.

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