American women today often speak of women's rights in terms of advances made in the last few decades that have allowed women to serve as politicians, ministers, and work in professions usually relegated to men. But in the mid-19th century, they had almost no rights at all. They were not allowed to vote, they could not hold public office, they were not given custody of children if they divorced, and they could not serve on juries. Nearly all colleges and other institutions of higher learning were unavailable to them, and they could not work in the top professions of the day. Women who did work always earned much less than their male counterparts, and while men were the masters of the public arena, a woman's primary domain was in the house. When they women got married, they were by law under the control of their husbands. They could not sign contracts, and they could not claim personal possessions or property that they brought with them into the marriage.
In July 1848, a group of women organized to protest the oppression of American women and demand change. Their first public convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York. The document that contained their mission was titled, "The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments,", and it offered a challenge to the wording used in the Declaration of Independence by stating that "All men and women are created equal." After that first Seneca Falls convention, a group of women then worked hard against enormous odds and challenges to help ladies all across the country claim the rights they believed they were entitled to, as citizens of a country that espoused belief in democratic ideals.
Most of the women involved in the protest held paying jobs, but they faced daunting issues and made choices that still impact their lives. One of the principal organizers of the protest, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was one of the most intellectual and radical leaders, but after bearing seven children she pulled out of the movement, claiming that her children were her first priority. Although she wasn't directly involved during the formative years of the movement, she contributed her thoughts and ideas by sharing letters and essays at the conventions. Her husband and her father sharply criticized her involvement in the movement.
Another important contributor to the woman's suffrage movement was Lucy Stone, a committed abolitionist who at first rejected the notion of marriage, criticizing laws that legally bound women to their husbands. But at the age of 37, she fell in love and married Henry Blackwell, who promised to support her in her efforts to participate in movements against slavery and in support of women's rights. Two years later, when her daughter Alice was born, Lucy gave up her public persona temporarily in order to raise her child.
One of the most noted female protesters, Susan B. Anthony, never had to face the challenges experienced by mothers and wives because she never married. Therefore, she was able to devote all of her time to championing women's rights, but she was notably impatient with fellow protesters who were pulled in different directions by their obligations. When Stanton kept having children and Stone wasn't as attentive to the movement because of her domestic and maternal obligations, Anthony expressed irritation and criticized them publicly for not being as committed as she was.
Nevertheless, women continued to work individually and together in groups to expand life's opportunities and break down traditional barriers to achievement. Elizabeth Blackwell wanted to attend college to become a doctor, but found that all medical colleges were closed to women. Undeterred, she submitted numerous applications anyway. Geneva College finally admitted her, believing that her application was just a joke. However, Blackwell attended and graduated with her medical degree in 1849. Around the same time, Lucy Stone was the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree after working multiple jobs to put herself through school. In 1870, she joined with others to publish The Woman's Journal, a weekly newspaper focused on women's issues. The paper was later credited by suffragists as having an incredible impact on the women's movement.
Women began to challenge social norms and break laws that prevented them from enjoying the same rights men had. They began wearing bloomers rather than confining corsets and restricting undergarments; they refused to pay property taxes; they petitioned Congress and lectured in support of women's suffrage; and they challenged regulations that prohibited them from becoming lawyers. In the 1872 presidential election, nine women cast ballots, including Susan B. Anthony. When she was arrested for breaking the law, she refused to pay the fine.
There was significant opposition to the women's suffrage movement, from audiences throwing rotten vegetables at women lecturing to ministers quoting scripture advocating the silence and subservience of women as second-class citizens. Congressmen and state legislators insisted that if women were allowed to vote, marriages would fail and families would fall apart. Politicians claimed that women were not able to make sound political judgments, because they were not intelligent and well-informed.
The most discouraging roadblock to achievements during the movement was the fact that many women were indifferent or actually opposed to the idea of equal rights for women. Many were too busy, overwhelmed, or just plain exhausted to have the energy to work beyond the normal obligations of their everyday lives. But by the late 19th century, the movement began to gain steam and throughout the next century, little by little, the rights became closer and closer to being equal to men's. Although gender equality is still not perfect, the women who fought so valiantly for equality a century ago would be proud of how their beginning protests led to the advancements we realize today. Women across America need to recognize and applaud the indelible strength and determination of these women who first called attention to the oppression of females and devoted their entire lives to changing America into a democratic society for all.