By Annie Laurie Gaylor
August 19, 2003
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote, turns 83 years old on Aug. 26. People today take it for granted. But 155 years ago, in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, issued a call for woman suffrage, she was greeted by howls of derision and opprobrium. She died in 1902, so she never got the chance to exercise her right to vote under the suffrage amendment, which she herself composed, and which finally passed in 1920. But Stanton, who once edited a feminist newspaper called The Revolution, surely ignited one for women.
Although winning the right to vote took almost four generations of labor by women, and much work is left to achieve full equality, the revolutionary changes for women since 1848 are undeniable.
Stanton, despite her blazing intellect, was, as a woman, barred from enrolling in college during her youth. Today, women comprise the majority on college campuses.
When Stanton adopted Turkish trousers and a short skirt, known as "bloomers," she wrote, ecstatically, that she felt "like a captive set free." Imagine how free Stanton would feel with today's fashion choices: no corsets, and pants of every length: shorts, skorts, capris, slacks.
Stanton believed in "a definite purpose for girls." And she railed against the ethos that women had to "self-sacrifice." She said, "Put it down in capital letters, that self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice." Today, a majority of girls and women in the United States seem to have a "definite purpose."
Still, Congress has refused to ratify the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted 24 years ago by the U.N. General Assembly to help ensure human rights for women. By not ratifying the treaty, the United States finds itself in the company of a handful of countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and the Sudan.
What's more, our right to abortion hangs by a swing vote.
We have never had a woman president, and Congress and the judiciary remain predominantly male enclaves.
And what, I wonder, would our feminist foremothers who worked so hard for the right to vote make of an election process that brought us our current political mess? What would they think of President Bush's Orwellian suppression of civil liberties in the name of freedom, and his war without end in the name of peace?
More than 100 years ago, Stanton's friend and fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony lamented about public indifference toward unjust foreign policy. "I wonder if when I am under the sod -- or cremated and floating up in the air -- I shall have to stir you and others up," Anthony wrote in a letter on Dec. 17, 1898. "How can you not be all on fire? ... I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don't wake up -- and raise your voice in protest against the impending crime of this nation upon the new islands it has clutched from other folks. Do come into the living present and work to save us from any more barbaric male governments."
The anniversary of the 19th Amendment is always worth celebrating. But along with casting our vote, we need to raise our voice in protest, as Stanton and Anthony taught us.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, of Madison, Wis., is co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, working to keep church and state separate. She is also editor of the foundation's newspaper Freethought Today, and the anthology of women freethinkers, "Women Without Superstition: No Gods -- No Masters" (Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997)