Posts Tagged ‘Women’s rights’

The Declaration of Sentiments

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…”

This sounds quite familiar, and yet, something in that sentence is not quite “right”.

Just one word. One word is enough to makes this quote not the famous quote from the Declaration of Independence, but a different one. That extra word is the word “women”.

On 20 May 1848, a group of women - and men- approved a Declaration at a convention convened at Seneca Falls, New York on 19 and 20 May 1848 to discuss the rights of women.

Over 300 women and men met and debated the text of a Declaration, which is known as the Declaration of Sentiments.

Two women were the driving force behind this declaration, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who drafted the text and Lucrecia Mott. The two had met eight years earlier, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

Lucrecia Mott had traveled to England with her husband, a Quaker minister, and a staunch abolitionist. They had been chosen to serve as delegates to the Convention because of their abolitionist activities. Such activities included refusing to use the product of slave labour, cotton and cane sugar in particular, as did other Hicksite Quakers. But the Motts also traveled to advocate for abolition, and they sheltered runaway slaves.

At the London convention, no seats were made available to women delegates. It is then that Lucrecia met Elizabeth, who was attending with her husband Henry. Both decided the time had come for a convention to discuss the rights of women.

Born in a wealthy New York family, Elizabeth had managed to convince her father that she needed to go to college, where she studied philosophy and logic.

It is thanks to that education that she was able to draft the Declaration of Sentiments. But it took eight years before the convention could be held.

And it took over eighty years for the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution - granting the right to vote to women - to be proposed in 1919, and ratified on 18 August 1920.

Abigail, Lydia, Amanda, Elizabeth and Sara

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Abigail, daughter of Hazard and Mary Field.

Lydia, Old Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, NY

Lydia, wife of David Knapp.

Amanda  M., wife of Hiram Williams and daughter of the late Jordan McCord.

Our mother, Elizabeth Hart, daughter of Samuel Hart, wife of Martin Brown.

Abigail died in 1874, aged 66 years, 5 mo. & 10 d.s. Lydia also died at 66 in 1853, and Amanda at 28 in 1832. Elizabeth was 52 when she died in 1849. 

Sara Fochee Huisvrouw, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

 

Earlier tombstones sometimes have been engraved in Dutch, such as the one of Sara in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery: Sara Fochee Huisvrouw Van John Enters Geboren Den 20 October 1717 Gestorven Den 26 December 1769… Sara, John Enters’ wife, was therefore 52 year old when she died in 1769. 

Tombstones in American cemeteries reflect the extent to which women of the 18th and 19th centuries were subject to the rules of a patriarchal society.

Elizabeth Hart, mother, daughter, wife, Old Baptist Church Cemetary, Yorktown, NY

Elizabeth Hart, mother, daughter, wife, Old Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, NY

Their identity is always defined in relation to a man: a husband, a father, or their children. Elizabeth Hart’s tombstone is sacred to the memory of our mother, daughter and wife, but is fortunate enough to have her maiden name mentioned. 

Lydia’s tomb stands just next to her husband’s. David Knapp however is remembered as himself, with no mention of his wife deemed required.

Stone Family Tombstones, Sleepy Hollow Cemetary, NY

Stone Family Tombstones, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, NY

Dudley and Mother, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Maybe even more striking is an ensemble of tombstones in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery erected to the memory of the Stone family. Next to Lawrence, Frederick, Sydney and Dudley is a nameless Mother, who will forever rest in anonymous peace next to her identified male relatives.

Women then did not have the right to vote, did not have the right to own property, had no reproductive rights, nor legal rights over their children, but could be taxed. As evidenced by the social testimony borne by their tombstones, they did not have a right to be remembered as individuals either.

If the comparison can be made, one century later, an Eleanor, who did not have to chose to retain her maiden name and is remembered as one of the staunchest advocates of human rights, is honoured on an equal basis to her husband.

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hyde Park, NY

Remember the ladies: last Monday was International Women’s Day

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Today’s post is dedicated to a friend, a long-time advocate of women’s rights, who just passed away this Thursday. When I visited her in Boston last fall, she took me to Faneuil Hall and told me about Lucy Stone.

March 8. For some, the date will immediately evoke formal ceremonies of all kinds, big panel discussions about the rights of women, or maybe images of women receiving flowers. At least, this is my experience, having been exposed (treated?), on that very day for a number of years, to the presentation of a rose handed by a beaming male colleague from one of the former Soviet Republics.

For others, the 8th of March is just another day. On Monday, I jokingly wished a male colleague “Happy Women’s Day” and was met with a totally blank stare. “What is she talking about (again)?”

March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD). When dit it start? What does it mean?

Right to vote, New York City

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Originally observed as a Socialist party event, the day has been marked since the early 1900’s. A National Woman’s Day was observed across the United States on 28 February 1909. A year later, at an International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen, German Social Democrat Clara Zetkin proposed that the day be marked internationally on the same day.  The first official IWD was honoured in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March with rallies advocating the rights of women to work, vote, vocational training, and hold public office.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, in New York, 140 working immigrant working girls lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The tragic event has been commemorated during subsequent IWDs and led to more attention being given to labour legislation and working conditions in the United States.

In 1913-1914, women rallied for peace in Russia and all over Europe, and the date retained to mark IWD was 8 March. With more than two million soldiers dead in the war, Russian women in 1917 started a strike for bread and peace, which four days later resulted in the Czar’s abdication. The provisional government established to run the country immediately granted women the right to vote.

Until the 1960s, IWD was mostly observed in Socialist Europe, when it was revived in the West with the rise of feminism. The United Nations has been officially marking the day since 1975 to recognize the struggles of women worldwide to be granted political and civil rights.

Such struggles have taken many forms. With her famous Remember the ladies, Abigail Adams in 1776 invited her husband, John Adams, one of the Massachussets delegates to the Continental Congress, to take into account the interests of women, when drafting the American Declaration of Independence, or else…

…remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

In last year’s post on IWD, in addition to Abigail Adams, I also mentioned Olympe de Gouges and Mary Wollstonecraft. This year, I would like to feature another early day suffragist: Lucy Stone. 

Lucy Stone, Faneuil Hall, Boston

Lucy Stone, Faneuil Hall, Boston

The first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree (in 1839), Lucy Stone is also the first American woman to retain her maiden name after marriage, leading to the late 19th Century term a “Lucy Stoner”. An abolitionist and a suffragist, Lucy Stone spent her life fighting for women’s rights. She is also the only woman to be honoured in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

In 1858, to protest taxation without representation, she refused to pay property taxes on her home. On the 100th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, in December 1873, she called for a New England Women Tea Party in Faneuil Hall in Boston and told the crowd that attended the meeting:

We are taxed, and we have no representation. We are governed without our consent. We are fined, imprisoned, and hung with no jury trial by our peers. We have no legal right to our children, nor power to sell our land, nor will our money.”

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Almost a century and a half after  the New England Women Tea Party, one decade into a new millennium, where do we stand? This week, a text was given to me by a 23-year old for posting on Rights from the Start.  It is included below and provides a young European woman’s perspective on the status of women’s rights today.

Women’s day.

Today is the 8th of March. Does it mean anything to you? Well, I must admit that it also took me a few years to realize that this was a very special event as it is… International Women’s day!

And every year I ask myself why there has to be a special day to remind the world that women have to be treated equally to men.

In 1791, French activist Olympe de Gouge wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women. Her purpose in writing such a text was not only to affirm that women had/have the same rights as men (article 1) but also to fight to obtain new ones.

This was 219 years ago, and yet it’s impossible to affirm today that women’s rights are respected.

From an historical perspective, we can distinguish between two categories of women in this world. The ones lucky enough to be born with a set of rights recognized to them and the ones that
still have to fight for those rights. But in the end, both categories are threatened.

If the last generations gained many powerful rights, such as the right to vote, to own a bank account, divorce, abortion, birth control or just work, new generations have to fight to retain these rights. This is true for the lucky women category. The other category still has a long way to go. The opportunity to study and work is still a luxury for a number of women. And, being able to represent themselves is to this day only a dream for many others.

What frightens me the most today is not the fact that there’s still a lot to do, because fighting to gain something is always a positive motivation to obtain new opportunities; it is more that we might lose all the chances that we had to fight for over so many years.

Let’s take the right to abortion for instance. If it took a long time to obtain, and mostly to accept, it’s not a given any longer. In Italy, if women can freely ask for an abortion, the physician is always entitled to a « droit de regard » and can refuse to perform such an act if it is against his/her convictions. And I’m absolutely devastated when I hear politicians (and most of the time women politicians) saying that abortion should be prohibited again. Here, I cannot help myself from thinking that, it’s not homo homini lupus but women who are dangerous to women.

When will we stop religion beliefs to influence our choices? When will we be entirely free to dispose of our body?

As for the right to vote or to work, if it is absolutely obvious nowadays, women are still underrepresented, not only in politics but also in the work place. And, when women succeed in reaching higher responsibility jobs they will always be submitted to higher pressure than their male colleagues. Not only should we be clever and efficient, we should also be beautiful, a good mother, a good wife when we shouldn’t also be a good cook or house hostess! And all this without even being guaranteed to have the same salary as our dear males.

But, you got it, this is for group number one, the shiny group. Our second group, as I said, has a long way to go. The right to be educated should be the priority for everyone in this world. This is our only way to have wings and to be able to progress not only in the public but also in the private arenas.

Every woman in this world should have the possibility to be educated, to study, to work, to be a mother, to refuse to be one, in one word: to gain independence. Choice shouldn’t be a luxury.

And for all of these reasons, we cannot use the 8th of March as the only day to claim and fight for our rights. Every single day has to be a fight for freedom and equality.

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Reproductive rights campaign, New York City, 2001

Don’t forget the ladies

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Women watching a march of the Ligue, Paris, 16th Century

Women watching a march of the Ligue, Paris, 16th Century

And what about women’s rights or the human rights of women? International Women’s Day is this week, an invitation to reflect on the rights of women.

Well, since my last post was about the Magna Carta, maybe we can start our quick overview right there.

Women are indeed mentioned, sometimes en passant, as in the article specifying the three exceptional reasons that would authorize the imposition of an aid, one of which being when the King would marry his eldest daughter.

As a matter of fact, it is mainly in relation to the issue of marriage that women are mentioned in early texts dealing with human rights. This is the area where they are allowed, or not - most frequently not -, to exert some level of free will.

The Magna Carta is no exception. Article 8 - we have seen this reflects a strong preoccupation for the subject - rules:

8. No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.

If women therefore have some limited level of freedom when it comes to marriage, their words has little legal value, as evidenced by Article 54

54. No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband.

The age of discovery and Renaissance in Europe allow women to play more important roles. Not all women, but some really powerful women make their mark, a position of power that is frequently the result of their marriage. Marriage is a way to secure alliances, end conflicts, acquire land, protect inheritance, and women are given little choice as to who their husbands - sometimes two or three, as life expectancy is rather short then -  will be.

The discovery of America, and the Reconquista over the Alhambra are associated to Isabella, Queen of Castille. It is in her own right, but together with her husband, King of Aragon, that Queen Isabella allows Christopher Columbus to set on his expedition, and it is in the name of the two Catholic Sovereigns that the Alhambra is conquered. Both events happened in 1492.

It is also in 1492 that Marguerite de Navarre was born, in Angouleme, the daughter of a 15-year old Louise de Savoie who became a widow at 19, after having given birth to a son, Francis, later Francis I, King of France. By decree of French King Louis XII, the highly educated Marguerite is forced to marry a practically illiterate Charles of Alencon, to ensure that the county of Armagnac stays in the family.

After his death, she remarries the King of Navarre, and as sister to the King of France, Marguerite de Navarre became the most influential woman in France. She had her own salon, corresponded with scholars, such as Erasmus, and wrote poems, plays and stories.

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Her most famous work is the Heptameron, but the one that caused her the most trouble was Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, which was condemned by the conservative Sorbonne as heretic. This, she wrote in 1531 shortly after the death of her infant son, the only son she had at the then advanced age of 38.

Her daughter Jeanne d’Albret is married against her will at 13. The story goes that she had to be bodily carried to the altar. After four years, the marriage is annulled and she later remarried Antoine de Bourbon. As Queen of Navarre, she declares Calvinism the official religion of Navarre. Her son, King Henry III of Navarre, later to become King of France as Henry IV,  married another Marguerite, Marguerite de Valois, sister to three kings of France. It is on the occasion of their wedding, that a large number of Protestants who had came to Paris were murdered during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, on 24 August 1572, along with several other thousand Protestants in Paris and throughout the country.

While these women, as daughters or sisters of kings, benefited from excellent education, they enjoyed limited freedom, being made to marry in the interest of the kingdom. Marguerite de Valois is featured in Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel, named after her, Queen Margot.

At some point in the novel, Queen Marguerite agrees with her mother, Queen Catherine de Medici, about how fortunate men are to be free to run, while women have to stay in the palace and wait. She then explains that it is not her personal fate she is so concerned about, but more the general condition of women.

This would seem to be more of a 19th century comment, attributed to a 16th century woman, similarly to the transposition I described with Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park.

It is difficult to know what the feelings of women were at the time, as the writings of female authors, such as Marguerite de Navarre reflect the feelings of exceptional women, exceptional in the sense of their fortune and education, at a time when education was for the most part reserved to men, although Renaissance certainly brought a change to this.

These exceptional women evolved in a limited circle, frequently related through the marriages arranged between member of the royal families of Europe. Queen Claude de France, Marguerite de Navarre’s sister in law is another example. The daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne de Bretagne, Claude was to inherit the Duchy of Brittany from her mother. With the intention of keeping Brittany separate from the French crown, Anne decided to marry her daughter to Charles of Spain who was to become Charles V. French nobles reacted and convinced King Louis XII to marry Claude to Francis, later Francis I of France. At 7, she became engaged, and married at 15, thus ensuring that Brittany would remain part of France.

Education for women was perceived to be necessary to ensure a good marriage. It is to further her education that Ann Boleyn is sent to the French court, where she becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude. There she meets Marguerite de Navarre, who is said to have given her a copy of the Miroir de l’âme pécheresse.

It is seldom that women could refuse the marriage that had been arranged for them. Even more difficult was it to refuse to become the King’s mistress. Back at the court of England, Anne refused to become King Henry VIII’s mistress, which prompted the King to secure an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Following a long dispute and the refusal of the Pope to grant an annulment, the King decided to break with Rome, and took control over the Church of England.

Anne became Henry VIII’s second wife and in 1533 gave birth to Elizabeth. After she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne, the King had her arrested and executed, in 1536. Twenty-two years later, in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded the Catholic Mary Tudor, her half-sister, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, as Queen of England.

Princess Elizabeth’s education had been extensive: she studied Italian, Latin, French and Greek, and at age 11, she translated Marguerite de Navarre’s The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, from the French, and presented it to Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. A powerful queen, Elizabeth was able to resist repeated petitions from the English Parliament for her to be married, and became known as the Virgin Queen.

Other powerful women have helped shape European history: queens, regents, King’s mistresses, intellectuals have proven that women can think and act independently. It is not until the 18th Century, however, that women of more modest origin have fought directly for the recognition of the rights of women.

Women Political Club, French Revolution, 1790

Women Political Club, French Revolution, 1790

In my view, three women in particular defined women’s rights in the 18th Century. In the British Colonies, in a famous letter of March 1776, Don’t forget the ladies, Abigail Adams, threatened her husband of a rebellion if women’s interests were not taken into account at the time John Adams represented Massachussetts in the Continental Congress.

In 1791, Olympe de Gouges posted all over Paris her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, a version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that she had adapted to represent the rights of women.

And in 1792, in England, Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman where she argues that if women had access to education, they could show themselves to be equal to men.

The fight for equal rights continued well into the 20th Century, with the passionate English suffragettes, as well as later fights, some countries recognizing the right of women to vote as late as 1979.