It struck at the most basic of women's human rights, depriving them of economic, physical and intellectual independence and overturned what women internationally had been struggling to achieve for over five centuries.
As John Stuart Mill argued in 1869 in his essay, The Subjection of Women, the question is whether women must be forced to follow what is perceived as their "natural vocation," i.e. home and family — often called the private sphere — or whether, in private and public life, they are seen as the equal partners of men. While the division of spheres, based on sex and known as patriarchy, may have been justified as a necessary division of labor in the early evolution of the human species, the system long ago outlived its functionality and has been challenged by women, and a few men, since, at least, the fifteenth century.
This article will trace the evolution of thought and activism over the centuries aimed at defining women's human rights and implementing the idea that women and men are equal members of society. Three caveats are necessary. First, because women's history has been deliberately ignored over the centuries as a means of keeping women subordinate, and is only now beginning to be recaptured, this is primarily a Northern story until the twentieth century. Second, because of this ignorance, any argument that the struggle to attain rights for women is only a Northern or Western effort is without foundation. Simply not enough available records exist detailingwomen's struggles or achievements in the Southern or Eastern sections of the world. The few records available to Northern writers attest that women in other parts of the world were not content with their status. Third, the oft-heard argument that feminism (read the struggle for women's equality) is a struggle pursued primarily by elite women is simply another example of the traditional demeaning of women. History is replete with examples of male leaders who are not branded with this same charge. , even though much of history is about elite men.
In addition, it is hoped that this article, and the current activism on behalf of women's human rights, will stimulate historians and human rights activists to delve more deeply into the history of women's human rights throughout the world and further develop this neglected half of history. Such historical research would be a contribution to promoting women's human rights because it is from history, whether written or oral, that role models and traditions are created.
As historian Gerda Lerner has written:
[T]he fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women's History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their daring to be different....Every thinking woman had to argue with the 'great man' in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers.
II. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY.
The original contributors to women's human rights were those who first taught women to read and, thus, to explore the world outside the home and immediate community. The idea of women's human rights is often cited as beginning in 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft's book, Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in response to promulgation of the natural-rights-of-man theory. Recent historical research, however, has revealed a much longer gestation period, beginning at least in the early fifteenth century with publication of Le Livre de la Cite’ des Dames [The Book of the City of Ladies] by Christine de Pizan which stimulated what French feminists call the querelle des femmes(translation: debate about women),a debate that continues to the present.
This long debate has been broad and wide ranging because human life has so many facets. Much of the debate involved the traditional demeaning of women: a common, often subconscious, technique of one group seeking to maintain power over another. Demeaning an individual or group over time results in stereotyping and the denial of recognition of that group's accomplishments or contributions to society. As the demeaning becomes customary, discrimination results, establishing a rationale for differential treatment of groups and the individuals within the particular group. With discrimination, the less powerful are deprived of their history, their self-confidence, and, eventually, their legal ability to function as full citizens or members of the larger group. The great irony is that women have been charged with--and have often found security in--maintaining customs and tradition, thus, institutionalizing the discrimination against them through the education and socialization of children.
Breaking tradition, defying custom, and overcoming discrimination requires courage and leadership. Leaders bent on effecting change must develop a new vision of the world, articulate the problems of the status quo and a new theory of social and political order, and, over time, mobilize a critical mass of supporters who share the new vision and new articulation of the problems. For women, taking leadership was a double-edged problem, a contradiction in terms. For most women, especially before safe and effective birth control was available, marriage, home, and family were their means of economic survival and social acceptance. Girls were groomed for marriage, for reproduction and nurturance of the human species. While lauded in the abstract, and often romanticized, marriage and reproduction also have been demeaned throughout history. As Menander said two or three centuries before the birth of Christ: "Marriage, if one will face the truth, is an evil, but a necessary evil."
As the Taliban so clearly understands, the prerequisites for development and implementation of women's human rights are: education; the means and ability to make a living beyond child bearing, homemaking, and caring for families; freedom of movement; and a measure of respect as individual human beings, not prisoners of their sex.
Education involves the ability to receive, create, and disseminate knowledge. Knowledge is power, the foundation of intellectual and political development. It is gained through experience, education, and association with knowledgeable others. Expanded literacy among women allowed those who could not escape the confines of home to learn about the outside world, and through writing, to recount their experiences and express their ideas. Freedom to move in public and to travel independently, even within a limited area, allows both for gaining more experience and for exchanging experiences with others. It took centuries for women to gain the right to education and the oppurtunityto find employment outside the home; it was only after women were afforded these opportunities that they could communicate their experiences inside and outside the home. The resulting education offered new opportunities for women, such as the ability, for sexually active women, to limit childbearing. .
The beginning of women’s education began with literacy. As literacy rates increased, women began to articulate their view of the world. Many wrote anonymously at first in order to have their work accepted for publication. The Industrial Revolution and the concomitant advances in science and technology contributed immensely to women's emancipation. Not only did more women find employment outside the home, but travel and communication became easier and cheaper. A major breakthrough was the development of safe, effective, and legal means of birth control. The fact that distribution of birth control information and devices was illegal in most countries until the early twentieth century, and that the term “family planning” became a substitute for birth control, is additional testimony to the dilemma Mill identified--that men have believed they must control women in order for them to engage in their natural vocation, that of bearing and raising children and maintaining homes.
Along with advances in health, sanitation, and medicine, an increasing number of women began living beyond their child bearing years and more children survived. Men’s fear that women would not reproduce lessened, and the ability of women to participate in economic and political life increased.
By the time the United Nations was formed in the mid-twentieth century, a critical mass of women internationally had been educated, were employed outside the home, and had obtained enough legal and social freedom to participate in public life, even at the international level. Numerous international women's organizations had fifty years of experience behind them. As a result of lobbying by these organizations, and with supportfrom female delegates, the phrase "equal rights of men and women" was inserted in the UN Charter. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, the term "everyone" rather than the personal pronoun "his" was used in most, but not all, of its articles. When the Commission on Human Rights failed to recognize women's aspirations adequately, women delegates and the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) supporting them were politically powerful and astute enough to obtain a free standing Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) . By 1979, the CSW, with the support of women delegates and NGOs and a new wave of feminism underway, had drafted and successfully lobbied the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
The Convention wove together all the ideas discussed during the preceding five centuries of debate and placed a strong emphasis on the concept of equality in family matters. The Convention covered civil and political rights as well as economic and social rights, and, in 1980, with the requisite number of ratifications obtained, the Convention became the international women's human rights treaty.. At the 1993 world conference on human rights, NGOs, focused on women’s human rights, brought the previously hidden issue of violence against women to international attention. “Women's rights are human rights” became the cry. Although the debate, begun in 1405, continues, and the Taliban's edict illustrates that women's position in society can deteriorate, there is now worldwide recognition that the term “women's human rights” is not a redundancy.
The drive to define women's human rights and eliminate discrimination against them can be seen as part of the worldwide democratization effort. The question now is whether women will exercise their political muscle sufficiently at national, local, and international levels to assure universal implementation of the women's human rights treaty. This depends on whether women, in partnership with men, can effectively rationalize the relationships between the private and public sphere -- between work, family, and public life. An important related question is whether women in all countries will redeem their history and use it to validate and support their struggle for equality and justice, or whether, as in the past, new women's movements will have to be organized every few generations to account for the lack of women's history and the traditional education and socialization of girls.
III. THE ORIGINS: DEFINING THE ISSUES
In 1405, Christine de Pizan's book, Le Livre de la Cite des Dames, was published, partially in response to Giovanni Boccacio's earlier book, Concerning Famous Women that described exceptional women of history who had acquired "manly spirit" and other male attributes such as "keen intelligence . . . and remarkable fortitude" and who dared to undertake difficult deeds. Boccacio believed the histories of these women should be recorded just as the histories of male leaders were recorded. De Pizan, a widow supporting her family by writing, responded to Boccacio and other male writers of her day, not only by creating her own list of important women of the past, but also by encouraging women of all classes to look to their own experience and resist being limited and demeaned by men. De Pizanargued for women's right to be educated, to be able to live and work independently, to participate in public life, and be masters of their own fate. One of the leading intellectuals of her day, her extensive published works demonstrate that she was an astute political observer as well as a theorist.
Feminist historian Gerda Lerner attributes de Pizan the first deliberate effort of raising women's consciousness, but laments the fact that, although numerous women later published lists of famous women, few used de Pizan as a reference -- an example of how the lack of knowledge of women's history impedes intellectual development. Joan Kelly, another feminist historian, argues that de Pizan opened the querelle des femmes, or debate about women, by establishing the basic postulates of feminism. (Feminism is used throughout this article in its original meaning: the theory of, and the struggle for, equality for women.) Kelly also asserts that de Pizan and her European successors focused on what is now called “gender” – the concept that the opposition to women is not simply biologically based but culturally based as well..
Four points are important about de Pizan and her work. The first is obvious but merits restatement:. she could not have written her book if she had been illiterate. Like many who followed her, she used the printed word and publication of her ideas to describe women's situation. She not only contributed to the historical record, she analyzed life from a women's perspective, basing her conclusions not only on her own life, but also on the lives of her predecessors. The ability to gain and disseminate knowledge, to record history, and to express new ideas and life experiences in printed form is, as noted above, a requisite for challenging social and political norms. De Pizan used her education and experiences to think, which Wollstonecraft would later argue was a necessity for girls. . The ability to analyze one's circumstances and derive wisdom from that analysis is an important intellectual exercise, especially when the individual, her group, and her work are demeaned by the wider world.
Second, de Pizan directly challenged women's confinement to the private sphere of home and family. She placed herself in the public sphere and demonstrated that women could provide provide for themselves economically, as many women, particularly widows, has done before her.
Third, de Pizan began a tradition of women writing for publication not only to express their ideas, but to offereconomic support for themselves and their families. Finally, she understood that history, whether oral or written, is a political tool used to maintain power, to reinforce the dominant culture, and to record actions that affect the public sphere. History is not merely a record of leadership; it provides role models. As Cicero said, history provides guidance in daily life.
De Pizan understood that denying a group their history and to suppressing its record of leadership results in disempowerment of the group. She knew that the record of actions by those who challenge existing power structures is often deliberately suppressed and, unless that group is successful and becomes a new political force, the history is lost. History, as a record of male leadership, has been used, perhaps subconsciously, to reinforce the idea that women are insignificant and insubordinate and, therefore, belong to the private sphere. Espescially in societies where literacy is low and women's organizations are apolitical, male-dominated history and tradition maintain the existing social and political order. De Pizan and many of her successors have been omitted from recorded history, thus, prolonging the struggle for women to achieve their human rights.
IV. THE DRIVE FOR EDUCATION AND INDEPENDENCE
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, increasing numbers of girls, primarily in royal and wealthy families, were educated. More and more women began writing for publication, although often anonymously for fear of being seen as “intruding” on the public sphere. During the seventeenth century, numerous women writers, including Marie de Gournay of France, in her "Egalite des hommes et des femmes" (24) argued for girls and women's education, citing its lack as a major cause of women's inferior status. In 1659, Anna Maria von Schurman's The Learned Maid or Whether a Maid May be a Scholar appeared in English translation, echoing de Gournay. In 1670 Aphra Behn, said to be the first English woman to make her living by writing, had her play The Forced Marriage, or the Jealous Bridegroom, performed in London. While satirizing male behavior, Behn argued in her play for women's education and responded to public criticism of lack of knowledge of Greek and Latin by noting that Shakespeare had not known the languages either. She was one of the first--and still too rare--feminists who used humor and public entertainment to make her point. A generation later, in 1694, Englishwoman Mary Astell, in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, called for institutions of higher learning for women.
De Gournay, Behn, Astell, and others, some still unknown to history, followed in de Pizan's tradition by using their own experiences and skills to expose the folly of women's position in society and to dramatize male condemnation of any deviation from that norm. Behn, a popular, seventeenth-century, English playwright who argued for women's right to marry or remain single, was publicly scorned and her work neglected after her death. At least one historian of the intellectual progress of women, Dale Spender, makes the point that discrimination and sexual harassment are new in name only. Demeaning women took a virulent form in print and in person, not only women of achievement, but all women.
Spender argues that it was Astell who defined patriarchy and its attributes by attacking marriage as an institution that served to keep women subordinate. Astell was succeeded in this attack by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Spender credits Lady Montagu with being the first English woman to directly enter the political arena by publishing a periodical entitled The Nonsense of Common Sense. It is assumed she was also the author of a series signed "Sophia, a Person of Quality." In the series and in her Letters, published a year after her death in 1762, Lady Montagu introduced numerous topics attributed to later feminists, including the rights to education and construction of knowledge based on their own experiences; she also discussed the legal and social constraints of marriage and the influence of custom and its confusion with nature.
During the eighteenth century, educated women who argued women's intellectual equality and promoted expanded education of women became known as "bluestockings." Englishwomen Hannah More and others throughout Europe not only argued for women's and girls' education, but also organized women to establish schools. Even the more conservative women argued that education of girls was important because it meant that they would be better wives and mothers.
Organizing women to promote girls education became socially acceptable, as did writing for publication. As Anne Hutchinson's experience in the colony of Massachusetts dramatically demonstrated, however, organizing for more political purposes was dangerous. In 1637, Hutchinson was charged with heresy for daring to question the religious/political authorities of the colony. Though Hutchinson left no personal written record, the proceedings of her trial for heresy were published. Hutchinson and her husband had emigrated from England as a member of a religious dissident community. A midwife and lay medical practitioner, she organized a series of women's meetings in her home where she expressed the belief that individuals had the right to determine their own beliefs, to read the Bible and talk directly to God, and to not be subject to the explications and interpretations of religious authorities. This open assertion of freedom of conscience and of speech was anathema to the colony's religious and political leaders who asserted only they had the right to interpret God's word. Hutchinson and her merchant husband also hosted discussions in their home about the decisions of the political leaders on business matters in the colony.
Interestingly, at trial, Hutchinson was allowed to testify in her own behalf, a practice that later was abolished in many jurisdictions, leaving representation of women to their husbands or other male relatives. During her trial Hutchinson refused to be demeaned. She held her own in intellectual sparing with Governor John Winthrop, who served as both judge and prosecutor. Her hosting of meetings was considered "a thing not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting for [her] sex." Hutchinson was excommunicated for troubling the church and for drawing "people away from the church." Although she and her family were banished from the colony and moved to Rhode Island, her assertion of her human rights became legendary. American school children, at least those of the author's generation and earlier, in their study of early American history, learned about Anne Hutchinson as a champion of religious freedom.
V. WOLLSTONECRAFT AND THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN
By 1792 when Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she only reiterated what numerous women, and a few men, before her had already written. Wollstonecraft had previsouly written Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, as well as an autobiographical novel entitled Mary, based on her own experience as the daughter of a violent father and as a governess and teacher. In her Thoughts on the Education of Daughter Wollstonecraft urged that girls be taught to think and their curiosity stimulated, revolutionary ideas for her time. She also responded to Edmund Burke'sReflections on the French Revolution with her own pamphlet entitled Vindication of the Rights of Men , in which she ridiculed his oversight of poverty in England, an issue that other female writers would discuss in the nineteenth century. Drawing attention to other less powerful groups and analogizing their situations to those of women was a path numerous leaders would later follow.
As a political commentator and translator working for Joseph Johnson and his Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft was familiar with the intellectual currents of Europe and was a friend of the American revolutionary writer, Thomas Paine. She was undoubtedly familiar with the work of Frenchwomen Madame de Genlis, who promoted girls' education and, that of Olympe de Gouges, a well-known pamphleteer on behalf of women's political rights and equality in law. Whether she knew of Condorcet'sSur l'admission des femmes au droit de la Cite, published in 1790, or of German legal scholar von Hippel's revised views on women calling for political, educational, and professional rights for women is unknown but both von Hippel and Wollstonecraft acknowledged Englishwoman Catharine Macaulay'searlier work on women's education. A well-known English historian and an early bluestocking, Macaulay was a correspondent of George Washington and an advocate of the American experiment. Her reputation as a historian was tarnished when her Letters, in which she bemoaned women's lack of political rights and particularly married women's legal rights were published . Both Wollstonecraft and Macaulay lived their beliefs by undertaking unconventional marriages or none at all. Yet, while Wollstonecraft's reputation among feminists survived, Macaulay's did not -- despite Wollstonecraft's acknowledgment of her debt to her.
Feminist historians argue that what distinguishes Wollstonecraft is that she was the first to put her theories in the context of a broader liberationist theory, modern human rights theory. In addition, she wrote in a more modern style, defining and describing women's limitations in public and private life in short, declarative sentences full of fury at both men and women. Wollstonecraft seems to ask readers, “Have you no integrity, no sense of self?” as she regales against their coquetry and submissiveness to men and their general irresponsibility toward themselves, their children, and society.
Another Wollstonecraft contribution was her emphasis on women's health, promoting exercise ofbody and mind. Her predecessors made similar arguments for women's education, against the legal disabilities of marriage, and against women's lack of participation in politics, but only Wollstonecraft argued that women should be more active physically and more knowledgeable about health, anatomy, and medicine. She also was a precursor for the discussion of violence against women. In this area, she was almost two centuries ahead of her time: "The being who patiently endures injustice, and silently bears insults, will soon become unjust, or unable to discern right from wrong....Nature never dictated such insincerity,--and though prudence of this sort be termed a virtue, morality becomes vague when any part is supposed to rest on falsehood." 
Although Wollstonecraft agreed with Rousseau on his rights-of-man theory, his views on women incensed her. Hobbes and Locke had argued that the rights-of-man theory encompassed woman. Rousseau, on the other hand, followed the traditional, paternalistic line of thought: "In the family, it is clear, for several reasons which lie in its very nature, that the father ought to command." Later, in his book, Emile, he forcefully asserted the common view that woman's purpose in life was to serve and entertain men. Wollstonecraft devoted an entire chapter to Rousseau's idea that the
Education of women should be always relative to . . . men. To please, to be useful to [them] , . . . to educate [them] when young, and take care of [them] when grown up, to advise, to console [them], to render [their] lives easy and agreeable:. these are the duties of women at all times."
=Wollstonecraft dismissed Rousseau’s views as nonsense while strongly criticizing women who taught their daughters, and practiced obedience to, such views.
Meanwhile, in America, Abigail Adams was expressing similar ideas. A respectable married woman and wife of an early president of the United States, Adams is portrayed indulgently by historians for her "don't forget the ladies" letter to husband John while he was off helping draft the new country's constitution.
Do not put such unlimited power in 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 determine [sic] to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any law in which we have had no voice, or representation..."
These are distinctly personal political sentiments, based on women's experience. What most historians ignore is that this letter was only one example of her outspoken irritation at the legal constraints on women.
In other letters, Adams lamented the fact that, although she managed the farm and other family enterprises while her husband was off on political ventures, she could not make contracts or sell any of their property without his signature. Adams was also concerned about women's education, lamenting her own lack thereof, and inquiring about Macaulay in correspondence with an English cousin.
The pleas of Abigail Adams' and other women did not move male political leaders. Women were not considered citizens in the new US Constitution. On the European continent, the Allegmeines Landrecht of 1794 and the Napoleonic legal code of 1804 declared married women legally subordinate. Yet, in 1808,Charles Fourier of France, whom some have called the inventor of feminism, asserted:
As a general thesis Social progress and historic changes occur by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and decadence of the social order occurs as the result of a decrease in the liberty of women . . . [T]he extension of women's privileges is the general principle for all social progress."
Fourier's ideas also found few adherents. In 1832, the English Reform Act, in extending voting rights, limited those rights to "male persons."
However, by the end of the eighteenth century, strong feminist arguments were being made on both sides of the Atlantic, although no major social or political women's organization existed to promote feminist views except that of education. Before organizing for political purposes, women articulated their experience and ideas through written publications, and only gradually broke the tradition that good women did not address public audiences. A new political movement, the abolition of slavery, gave women experience in organizing and moved them into the political arena and onto public platforms.
VI. MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN
While women's rights in the public arena received some attention, it was discrimination in the private sphere that was the more compelling issue. In the 1830's, the Caroline Norton case in England captured public attention. A member of the well-placed Sheridan family, Caroline married George Norton, a lawyer and member of Parliament, only to find he was a brutal drunk who expected her earnings to support the new family. A writer and magazine editor whose income, under law, belonged to her husband, Norton refused to be quiet, as women of her time were expected to do, about her frequent beatings at his hands. Abjuring feminism and using her social contacts, Caroline Norton argued for justice in marriage, putting her case before the public when the couple separated and her husband filed for divorce and took the children. The case generated immense publicity because of the Nortons' social standing. Like all other English women, she could neither legally appear in court nor be represented. A jury disallowed the divorce and, under law, Norton’s husband retained custody of the children. This drove Caroline to a study of English law and of cases similar to hers. She not only wrote and distributed a pamphlet, The Separation of Mother and Child by the Law of Custody of Infants Considered, in 1837 to Members of Parliament and to the public, but she also got the attention of a young barrister interested in child custody cases. As a result, in 1839, Parliament passed an infant custody reform bill allowing children under seven years of age to remain with their mother if the Lord Chancellor agreed and if the mother was of good character.
This, however, was not the end of the matter for Caroline. George next sued for access to her trust monies and other inheritances to pay his debts. She contracted with him, assuring him an allowance if he gave her a legal separation, forgetting that as a woman she had no legal right to contract. Although she was allowed in court as a witness this time, she lost the case. Again, her response was to go public, achieving immense notoriety. In 1854, she published English Laws for Women in the 19th Century. In a private letter, Norton, while disavowing feminism, admitted that she was seen "as a cross 'between a barn actress and a Mary Wollstonecraft.'" At this point, an avowed feminist, Barbara Leigh-Smith (a.k.a Barbara Bodichon) brought out her own pamphlet on women and the law in England and organized a women's petition drive for reform of the laws regarding married women, obtaining more than twenty thousand signatures.
In 1857, the British Parliament passed an omnibus bill that allowed wives to directly inherit and bequeath property; permitted a wife deserted by her husband to keep her earnings; empowered courts to direct payments for separate maintenance; and gave a separated wife the right to sue, be sued, and make contracts. Only in 1882, with the Married Women's Property Act, did married women achieve the same rights as unmarried women.
Almost as if to prove the point that women--and especially married women--had little power either in the public sphere or in the home, it took a distinguished Englishman and member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill, to put the question of marriage on the international map. His 1869 essay, “The Subjection of Women" drew tremendous attention in England and was almost immediately translated and distributed throughout the Europe and the United States. Susan Bell and Karen Offen, in Women, the Family and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, argue that Mill's essay "forced thinkers to grapple with fundamental issues of political and social theory." Mill argued that men took contradictory positions by believing that women's "natural vocation" is that of wife and mother, while also believing that women must be forced or controlled in order that they engage in this natural vocation. If natural, why was force necessary? Mill thought too many men were afraid of equality in marriage. In that case, he argued, men should never have allowed women "to receive a literary education. Women who read, much more women who write, are, in the existing constitution of things, a contradiction and a disturbing element . . . ."
In his essay, Mill argued that marriage should be thought of as a voluntary association, a contract between equals similar to any business partnership. The partners could be assumed to settle issues of control amicably, each taking those responsibilities at which they were most efficient to perform. He also argued that it was in the interests of children and of society that equal rights within the family be the basis of marriage, otherwise, the family would become a school of despotism [when it ought to be] the real school of the virtues of freedom . . . The moral regeneration of mankind will only really commence, when the most fundamental of the social relations is placed under the rule of equal justice, and when human beings learn to cultivate their strongest sympathy with an equal in rights and in cultivation.
Mill's arguments were exactly what an incipient international women's movement needed. Bell and Offen point out that Mill's essay and the ferment it caused, were significant in mobilizing women to push for legal, economic, educational, and political rights in virtually every country in Europe. Yet, it was not until 1923 that English women gained equal rights in divorce, and it took fifty more years, until 1973, before Parliament allowed English mothers to have legal custody of children equally with fathers.
VII. THE CONTRIBUTION OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY WOMEN WRITERS
Denied direct access to the world of politics by custom -- it was unseemly for women to speak in public--and subordinate under law, many English, French, and American women took to literature and writing political commentary as a way of intruding on the public sphere and, not incidentally, like de Pizan and Wollstonecraft, as a means of economic independence. During the nineteenth century, numerous women writers became noted literary figures, often using the novel to express political sentiments. According to Ellen Moers in Literary Women, these writers gave voice, directly and indirectly, to the feelings and aspirations of women. They pitted the conservative, traditional woman against the feminist through literature and indirectly encouraged feminist views in many of their readers. As Wollstonecraft before them, they became spokeswomen for the underprivileged, whether slaves, factory workers, the poor, or women.
Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte are now the best known novelists of this period, but Fanny Burney of England and Mme. de Stael of France were among the early popular writers who described the world from a woman's perspective. Much more famous and widely read in her time was a novel not about women but about slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe'sUncle Tom's Cabin brought her to international attention. The millions of copies sold not only helped her family survive economically, but contributed to the US Civil War and a change in public policy. What is not mentioned by most literary historians is that novelist George Eliot not only portrayed girls' lives as stifling, but she was also so moved by Harriet Beecher Stowe's portrayal of slavery that she confessed in a letter to Stowe that she "felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge could attain to," which resulted in her novel, Daniel Deronda.
Mrs. Gaskell'sMary Barton, published in 1848, is, according to Moers, the earliest, most notable novel about factory workers, although it was not the first written by a woman on this subject. That distinction belongs to the aforementioned Caroline Norton, who, left in penury by her dissolute and violent husband, published A Voice from the Factories in 1836 and The Child of the Islands on child labor in 1845.
Another English writer of this period was Harriet Martineau, well known for her writings on political economy and one of many European female writers to tour the United States and write -- along Francis Wright and Frances Trollope, Anthony Trollope’s mother – about conditions in the United States. During the 1820's and 1830's Francis Wright became notorious for espousing women's and worker's rights, anti-slavery sentiments, free thought, and public education for both girls and boys. An intimate of General Lafayette of France, Wright's personal life and radical ideas made her persona non grata among many, like other women before and after her whose non-traditional personal lives have been denigrated in an attempt to lessen the impact of their ideas on the public mind. One of the things that interested Wright, as it did de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America , was the position of American women as pragmatic, thinking beings, who knew, or learned, how to organize -- a requirement for survival on the frontier.
Another woman, also writing under a man's name, was George Sand of France who achieved international fame, not only for the proletarian political views expressed in her numerous novels, but also for her life of political activism and defiance of social mores. Sand is often remembered as a woman who dressed in men's clothing in order to move more freely around Paris. Widely recognized as the Muse of the 1848 Revolution, she lived out her
beliefs. Defying convention, she separated from and divorced her husband; lived with a series of notable men without marriage, demanded custody of her children,inheritance, and property; earned her living by writing while expressing revolutionary thoughts; and became a role model--albeit a highly controversial one--for women as well as men. She also became one of her age's most popular as well as prolific writers, gaining praise from peers such as Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Henry James, Walt Whitman and, not incidentally, John Stuart Mill.
Perhaps as important, in terms of women's human rights, as the writings and ideas of the noted women is the interaction between the writers and female activists. In today's parlance, this would be called “networking across international borders.” Sand was beleagured at times by visitors. Margaret Fuller, American journalist and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, enroute to Italy to cover its independence movement, was only one of many who called upon Sand. By this time, more women were traveling internationally. Flora Tristan, Sand's contemporary, went to Peru in an attempt to claim her father's inheritance, and then came home to write Peregrinations d'une paria 1833-34, followed by Promenades de Londres in 1840, and later, in 1846, L'Emancipation de la femme ou la testament de la Paria.
Networking among women who had attracted public attention was taking place, not only across international boundaries, but within borders, too. According to Moers,
George Eliot knew Barbara Leigh-Smith (founder of the Association for Promoting the Employment of Women); Mrs. Gaskell knew Bessie Parkes; and Charlotte Bronte knew Mary Taylor (early settler and businesswoman of New Zealand), who wrote home . . . denouncing the author of Shirley as “coward” and “traitor” for the hesitant ambivalence [Miss Taylor] sensed in Charlotte Bronte's attitude toward work for women.
Ernestine Rose is a prime example of the networking that took place between European and American women who became women's rights activists. Rose, like many others, became interested and active in a variety of progressive movements and the object of a great deal of publicity in her day. Born in Poland, escaping an arranged marriage and, in court, defended her inheritance claim. She later emigrated to Germany, where she supported herself by selling her own invention, a household deodorant; moved on to Paris during the 1830 revolution; and subsequently moved to England, where she became associated with Robert Owen and other reformers. By 1840, she and her English husband moved to the United States.where Rose lobbied for passage of a married women's property act in New York. The legislative act allowed women to hold property in their own name and be legal guardians of their children. A forceful orator and leader in the numerous state and national women's rights conventions held in the eastern United States between 1850 and the onset of the U.S. Civil War, Rose kept in touch with European women working on women's rights issues. She often used the term “human rights” in her speeches and in at least one instance sponsored a resolution stating that "by human rights we mean natural rights."
Women leaders on both sides of the Atlantic were not deterred by resistance to their ideas. At the 1853 New York City Women's Rights Convention, Lucretia Mott, discussed later, introduced Mathilde Francesca Anneke, editor of Die Frauenzeitung, who had fled Germany when her husband was tried for treason after supporting the 1848 revolutionary movement. Rose was Anneke’s translator, although translation services were not needed when an unruly mob entered the hall and brought the meeting to a halt -- not an event for women's rights meetings. Before the meeting was disrupted, however, the convention had adopted a resolution stating that their movement was "not of America only" and had formed a committee to communicate with women of "Great Britain and the Continent of Europe." Rose, who was made a member of the committee, was also active in peace, free-thought, and social reform movements and kept in touch with European feminists, reading letters and other communications from them at other women's rights conventions.
Although little of women's writings or their leadership in Eastern and Southern nations during the nineteenth century was common knowledge in the Western world, in 1905, "Sultana's Dream," a patently feminist story, was published in the Indian Ladies Magazine by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. It described, in good humor, a world in which men's and
women's positions were reversed and noted the lack of women's education and the strictures of the veil.
VIII. ORGANIZINF FOR POLITICAL ACTION – FROM ANTI-SLAVERY to WOMEN’S RIGHTS
While Europe produced most of the writers who depicted women's experience, organizing for political purposes was the major contribution of American women to the development of women's human rights. Organizing, as pointed out by de Tocqueville, was a necessity in America. Pioneers in a new land had to organize to survive, especially those who settled the northern sections of the United States where the winters are severe. It was the abolition of slavery --and later the civil rights movement--that provided the impetus for US women to organize to eliminate discrimination and promote women's rights just as the French and American revolutions had contributed to Wollstonecraft's and Abigail Adams' thinking.
Two sisters from the slave-owning South of the United States turned their experiences with slavery first into anti-slavery advocacy and then to advocacy for women's rights. Sarah Grimke’, daughter of a leading South Carolinian judge and political activist, became deeply frustrated by her family's refusal to allow her to study law with her brother. She had hated slavery from childhood when she was severely reprimanded for secretly teaching her own slave servant/companion to read, an illegal act. Refusing marriage and the traditional life of a Southern lady, she moved to Philadelphia after her father's death and later was joined by her younger sister Angelina. Both found a measure of personal freedom in Quaker society, but soon found even the Quakers and male abolitionists too conservative. As agents for the American Anti-Slavery Society, they were in charge of organizing women. Later, Angelina's 1836 anti-slavery pamphlet, An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, brought her to national attention. Angelina frequently spoke in public on the abolition of slavery and was often heckled by unruly mobs – at one such speech, a mob burnt the new Philadelphia hall in which she spoke to the ground.
According to Lerner, “the Grimke sisters [came] to represent in the public mind the fusion of abolition and woman's rights . . . [and] precipitated an ideological crisis among reformers." Like Anne Hutchinson before them, Sarah and Angelina refused to be demeaned by religious leaders who resented their interference with doctrine, \their organizing of women parishioners, and their daring to speak to audiences of both sexes. Sarah Grimke's incisive Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, issued in response to a Pastoral Letter to Congregational Churches, referred to Cotton Mather and witchcraft, a reference to Hutchinson's fate; demanded equality in education and equal pay for equal work; and drew analogies between women's lives and those of the slaves. An intellectual far ahead of her time, Sarah Grimke used language in an essay on marriage similar to that used in the 1993 world conference on human rights: "Human rights are not based upon sex, color, capacity or condition. They are universal, inalienable and eternal and none but despots will deny to woman that supreme sovereignty over her own person and conduct which Law concedes to man."
Action at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery conference in London spurred two women to organize. Lucretia Mott, a Pennsylvania Quaker, who reputedly kept a copy of Wollstonecraft's book in the foot of her babies' cradle, was an organizer of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, consisting of black and white members. Mott, with her husband, attended the 1840 World Anti-Slavery conference in London, as did newly-married Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Upon reaching London, they discovered they were barred from participating in the conference despite all their anti-slavery organizing at home -- women at the World Anti-Slavery Conference were only allowed to listen from behind a balcony curtain. Although some male delegates--not including Mrs. Stanton's new husband--argued in favor of women's participation, the ban remained.
This manifest discrimination in a cause dedicated to freeing individuals from bondage shocked Mott and Stanton into action. Earlier, Mott, as a school teacher, had unavailingly protested male and female pay differentials, while Stanton had complained to her father, a lawyer and judge, about women's legal subordination. While in London, theyounger Stanton, a rebel by nature, found Mott "a suitable female role model and a willing mentor." Mott told Stanton “of Mary Wollstonecraft, her social theories, and her demands of equality for women." In London, the two women decided to organize a women's rights meeting when they returned to America. It took eight years before their idea came to fruition. Family duties, abolition activities, Stanton’s child-bearing, and limited means of travel constrained both women, although they remained in correspondence. In 1848 when Mott was visiting upstate New York, Stanton and Mott called their now-historic Seneca Falls meeting.
By 1848, a strong foundation of thought and advocacy for women's rights had been built, but it had not won public favor. Most of the principles that would appear a hundred years later in the Universal Declaration and the Women’s Convention -- the rights to education; to employment outside the home with wages paid directly to the woman; to custody of their children; to hold and inherit property; to contract and be represented in court; and to participate in the world of public affairs. What was required was to put these in a theoretical framework. The framework, in addition to demanding the right to vote, organizing women, and giving women a different vision of the world, was Stanton's contribution. She had spent the eight years between meeting Mott and calling the 1848 convention reading and studying while raising children.
In the Declaration of Sentiments that Stanton wrote for the 1848 meeting, she expressed strong resentment against the fact that, throughout history, men had established "an absolute tyranny" over women. Women were required to abide by laws they had no hand in making, and were thereby deprived, viewed "if married, in the eye of the law, [as] civilly dead." Stanton wrote that, without rights to property or the wages they earn, women become “morally irresponsible in marriage, can be chastised by the husband, are discriminated against in the laws of divorce, and if single and the owner of property taxed to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable [for the government] . . . . " Kept from most profitable employments and professions such as law and medicine, she is paid low wages, when employed, and denied good education, with colleges not open to her. Thus, her confidence is destroyed, her self-respect lessened, and she is subject to a different code of morals, all of which, Stanton continued, made her willing to lead a dependent and abject life, depriving her of her citizenship. She concluded with a prophecy and call to action: "We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf [and] hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every party of the country.:"
The resolutions adopted at this historic meeting echoed sentiments expressed by earlier feminists and were reminiscent of Olympe de Gouges’ 1791 Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen. Whether Stanton, a well-read intellectual, knew of de Gouges' work is unclear. What is known is that the 1848 meeting was attended by many of the nation's leading reformers -- black and white-- and received extensive, primarily negative, publicity.
Although her resolution on women's suffrage -- the only resolution not passed unanimously -- has attracted the most attention from historians, feminist and non-feminist alike, its significance is sometimes over-estimated. "The right to vote is an empty right if power within the home resides in the male," Marsha Freeman of the International Women's Rights Action Watch correctly asserts. In its time, however, the call for the right to vote was for the legal right to participate in the public sphere. Suffrage was the metaphor for equality in public life, for full citizenship. Public discussion of the husband's right to chastise or beat his wife, perhaps, had greater contemporary impact, although that would not be discussed widely, or used as an organizing tool, until the late twentieth century when violence against women became an international organizing effort and united women of all classes and nationalities.
What was important in 1848, and is still important today, is the full legal and de facto capacity of women to act as free, independent, equally empowered citizens in both the private and public spheres. It was this 1848 call to action on all fronts --public and private-- that spurred women's organizing nationally, and then internationally, and ultimately led, not only to women achieving the right to vote, but to their increasing political activity. A widely publicized series of state and national women's rights conventions, interrupted by the Civil War, gathered converts to every issue in the Declaration and, after intense organizational efforts, ultimately led to American women finally achieving the vote in 1920. These early conventions could be called a first wave of organized consciousness-raising because they brought a wide range of women's issues to public attention and spurred individuals and groups of women to action on many fronts.
Another important step was the struggle of women to enter acknowledged professions such as law, medicine, and science. Among the most notable early trail-blazers were Elizabeth Blackwell of the United States and Florence Nightingale of England, who both broke barriers for women in medicine. Blackwell is recognized her fight to enter medical school and become the first certified female doctor, whileNightingale is remembered not only for her pioneering efforts in modern nursing, but also for her research and advocacy in the field of public health. In the same period, women also broke the college entrance barrier. Lucy Stone, the first American woman to attend college, is known for her leadership in the suffrage movement as well as her insistence on keeping her own name upon marriage and for her strong advocacy of education of girls and women.
The resistance to women's participation in public life as professionals in the United States is illustrated by an 1870 decision of the State of Illinois' Supreme Court refusing Myra Bradwell admission to the bar on the grounds that
God designed the sexes to occupy different spheres of action, and that it belonged to men to make, apply and execute the laws . . . This step, if taken by us, would mean that . . . every civil office in this State may be filled by women . . .governors, judges, and sheriffs. This we are not yet prepared to hold."
However, in 1874, the Illinois legislature passed legislation preventing discrimination in bar admissions on the basis of sex, and in 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Belva Lockwood to appear before it. In spite of these victories,, it took until 1973, when the U.S. Congress adopted Title IX of the Education Amendments, which, among other things, was designed to eliminate discrimination against women in education, to open US law schools to more than a small quota of women, and to encourage school girls to participate in sports.
XI. ORGANIZING INTERNATIONALLY
Women's organizing was not limited to the United States, nor were women's suffrage leaders the only leaders organizing women for political action. Although the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) is remembered, often jokingly, for its crusade against the evils of alcohol, its primary emphasis, under the leadership of Frances Willard, was local political action in the name of motherhood and home. Willard's "do everything" policy for local WCTU units encouraged women to improve their communities. Many units established kindergartens, libraries, and other community institutions. This local activity brought new recruits to the suffrage movement. Later, Willard formed an international WCTU with units in other countries, including Japan.
In March 1888, forty years after the Seneca Falls meeting, an International Council of Women meeting, organized by Stanton and her friend and colleague, Susan B. Anthony, was held in Washington, DC.. Anthony had been active in the temperance movement and proved herself to be the consummate organizer, while Stanton was a theoretical politician. The International Council of Women meeting was co-sponsored by the WCTU. In addition to
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