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Women Behaving Radically: Recalling Historic Battle For Rights


August 29, 2010

When I married on Aug. 26, 43 years ago, I was unaware that I was tying the knot on what came to be called Women's Equality Day, the anniversary of the passage in 1920 of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Nor did I know that movements to reform the laws governing marriage and divorce were closely linked with the demand for suffrage.

The women's movement and the transformation that would occur in publishing and teaching women's history was several years in the future. My education had been almost exclusively a study of the achievements of men.

As we mark the 90th anniversary of women's suffrage, it is useful to look backward to acknowledge the pioneers of suffrage and forward to see how far we have come. Some prominent Connecticut women weighed in on the suffrage debate, including three of Lyman Beecher's daughters: Catherine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker. Characteristically, they did not agree.

Catherine, the eldest and most conservative, published her opposition to women's suffrage. Harriet supported suffrage and watched with interest in 1869 as the Connecticut General Assembly prepared to debate amendments drafted by her brother-in-law John Hooker that would revise the marriage and property laws. If adopted, the amendments, in Stowe's words, would "set [women] free."

Although Harriet published articles supporting women's suffrage, only Isabella Beecher Hooker, ably assisted by her lawyer husband John Hooker, was active in the suffrage movement.

By 1869, the suffrage movement had split. Isabella joined the more radical branch led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who had convened the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. That convention issued the "Declaration of Sentiments" saying that men had prevented women from exercising their "inalienable right to the elective franchise."

In 1871, noting that the Constitution did not define "citizen," nor did it include the word "male," Stanton and Anthony adopted a strategy for circumventing the state laws that prevented women from voting: They simply assumed that under that the highest laws of the land women were entitled to vote. Accordingly, they encouraged women to register.

As Isabella Beecher Hooker wrote to Stanton, "whatever the male people of the States may have to say in regard to woman's voting the people of the United States are not Males are no where recognized as such in Declaration and Constitution." Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot in 1872 and was arrested for "illegal voting." When she was found guilty and fined, she refused to pay. Rather than incarcerate Anthony indefinitely and give the suffrage movement a cause celebre, the judge remitted the fine.

My students are always struck by how "modern" the demands of the 19th-century women sound. Most of the 18 specific grievances in the 1848 "Declaration of Sentiments" have been addressed; women in the U. S. have suffrage, more balanced marriage and divorce laws, child custody rights, the right to property, access to education and to most occupations (though not equal access).

But women's pay still lags men's. In the 42 years since the beginning of the Second Wave women's movement in 1968, women's pay has inched up from 69 cents to the male dollar to around 77 cents (lower for women of color). Unlike Great Britain, Ireland, Israel, Pakistan, India, the Philippines and a host of other countries, we have never had a female head of state.

Unlike countries that mandate equal representation in government, the preponderance of our laws are made by men. Until 1992, no more than two women had ever been elected to serve in the U.S. Senate at the same time. Now, 17 of the 100 senators are women. Only 76 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives are women.

Unlike countries that ensure women's equal opportunity to participate in both government and the workforce, we have no reliable, affordable day care. There is no barrier to providing state-sponsored universal day care except custom and the privileges that men still retain. During World War II, Congress passed the Lanham Act to fund day care centers so that women could man the factories. After the war, the act was repealed to, as one man said, "drive the women back to their homes."

Just as the suffragists petitioned, organized and protested in order to exercise their rights as citizens, it is likely that only with such concerted action will women's remaining grievances be met.

Joan D. Hedrick of Middletown is a professor of history at Trinity College and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her biography, "Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life".

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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