Remembering the Legacy of Seneca Falls

On this day 170 years ago, a group of women gathered in Seneca Falls for the first women’s rights convention in the United States.  The Convention, which propelled the long fight to pass the 19th Amendment, revealed the Declaration of Sentiments, a list of women’s grievances modeled after the Declaration of Independence. In the years following the convention, women fought, across the country, for the right to vote.

White women dominated the Seneca Falls Convention and the following movement, many of whom ignored the oppression and disenfranchisement faced by black women. After the 15th Amendment was ratified granting the vote to black men, the racial divide was only further entrenched. In one speech, Anna Howard Shaw, the President of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, stated that “you have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”

Her statement mirrors many of the sentiments from white feminist leaders of the time. Black feminists, like Soujourner Truth, had to fight even harder to get the right to vote because they were excluded from the era’s mainstream media. In 1867, Truth argued that “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”

The 19th amendment did not protect all women in the United States from disenfranchisement, as discriminatory poll taxes, literacy tests and other degrading practices, coupled with terroristic intimidation by white supremacists, restricted black women from equal access to voting for another 45 years. Additionally, Native American women, as well as Asian American women, were often denied their right to citizenship in the courts and state law, and therefore were also barred from voting in many elections.

Voter disenfranchisement still exists today. At the time of the 2016 election, 31 states had voter ID laws on the books, which were estimated to disenfranchise a potential 21 million Americans who did not have access to any acceptable government-issued photo ID. That is 11 percent of US citizens. The majority of these people are low-income, people of color, and the elderly, who are hindered for a number of reasons, including lacking the necessary funds needed to obtain the documents required to secure an ID.

While some states have passed laws aimed at suppressing voter participation, other states have passed automatic voter registration bills. Alaska, California, Oregon, Colorado, Georgia, West Virginia, Connecticut, Vermont, the District of Columbia and Illinois have all implemented an automatic voter registration system, and twenty other states have introduced legislation to implement a similar process.

Today, women hold the voting capability to decide national elections, especially women of color, who are the fastest growing voter block in the country. 63.3 percent of registered female voters turned out in the November 2016 election as opposed to 59.3 percent of registered male voters. Women tend to vote differently than men because of their respective life experiences, a phenomenon that has been termed “the gender gap.” Far from voting the same as their husbands, women frequently take more seriously into consideration a number of issues including care giving responsibilities, the pay gap, and domestic violence and sexual assault.

Unfortunately the 19th amendment is still the only explicitly guaranteed constitutional protections women have. This narrow view of women’s protections under the Constitution have left many women’s right advocates concerned that Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court would be complicit in eventually overturning Roe v Wade.

That’s why the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a federal Constitutional amendment that would prohibit sex discrimination and guarantee equal rights for women and girls, has picked up steam recently. In May, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the ERA. If one more state ratifies the amendment, a fight to add the amendment to the Constitution will begin.

The ERA is far from symbolic; it would help women in cases of discrimination in education, employment, wages, insurance benefits, scholarships, military service, social security, violence against women, and so much more. Without the passage of the ERA, women have been forced to try to gain equality law by law. If the ERA was ratified by 38 states and became the law of the land, there would be a Constitutional provision against the Supreme Court, Congress or state legislatures gutting equality on the basis of sex.

The Library of Congress, Wesleyan University, Boston University School of Theology Anna Howard Shaw Center, Teen Vogue 08/18/2017, Society for the Study of American Women Writers, Feminist Newswire 11/03/2016, Feminist Newswire 11/04/2016, Feminist Newswire 06/05/2017, Pew Research Center 05/12/2017, Feminist Newswire 07/17/2018, Feminist Newswire 03/20/2017, The New York Times 05/31/2018

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