The Long, Long Journey to Women’s Equality

The Long, Long Journey to Women’s Equality February 25, 2019
Marc Nozell via Flickr CC BY 2.0

By James A. Haught

For millennia, female inferiority was presumed, and mandated, in virtually every human culture. Through most of history, the brawn of heavier males gave them dominance, leaving women in lesser status – often mere possessions of men, confined to the home, rarely educated, with few rights.

Many were forced to wear veils or shrouds when outdoors, and they couldn’t go outside without a male relative as escort. Fathers kept their daughters restricted, then chose husbands who became their new masters.

Sometimes the husbands also had several other wives. In a few cultures, unwanted baby girls were left on trash dumps to die.

In Ancient Greece, women were kept indoors, rarely seen, while men performed all public functions. Women couldn’t attend schools or own property. A wife couldn’t attend male social events, even when her husband staged one at home. Aristotle believed in “natural slaves” and wrote that women are lesser creatures who must be cared for, as a farmer tends his livestock.

Up through medieval times, daughters were secondary, and inheritances went to firstborn sons. Male rule prevailed. Anthropologists have searched for exceptions, with little success – except possibly some Iroquois tribes in Canada, where women reportedly had some rights.

In the 1930s, the famed Margaret Mead thought she found a female-led group in New Guinea, but she later reversed her conclusion and wrote: “All the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed. Men everywhere have been in charge of running the show.”

As the Enlightenment blossomed in the 1700s, calls for women’s rights emerged. France’s Talleyrand wrote that only men required serious education – “Men are destined to live on the stage of the world” – and women should learn just to manage “the paternal home.” This infuriated England’s rebellious Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, contending that women have potential for full public life. (Her daughter married poet Percy Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.)

Reformer John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote The Subjugation of Women in 1869, after his wife had written The Enfranchisement of Women, calling for a female right to vote. The husband protested: “There remain no legal slaves, save the mistress of every house.” As a member of England’s Parliament, Mill sought voting by women and became president of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.

“The legal subordination of one sex to another is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement,” Mill wrote.

The western world wrestled nearly a century before women finally won the right to vote.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was the bright daughter of a New York state judge. Few schools admitted girls, so her father arranged for her to attend male-only Johnstown Academy.

The daughter grew outraged by laws forbidding women to own property or control their lives. She married an abolitionist lawyer and accompanied him to London for a world conference against slavery. Women weren’t allowed to talk; they sat silent behind a curtain while men spoke.

Back in America, she joined Quakers to organize an 1848 assembly at Seneca Falls, New York, that launched the modern women’s equality movement. Frederick Douglass urged delegates to demand female suffrage. Stanton later joined Unitarians Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Ralph Waldo Emerson in a lifelong struggle for female rights.

Stanton bitterly accused patriarchal western religion with keeping women subjugated. In her 1898 memoir, Eighty Years and More, she wrote:

“The memory of my own suffering has prevented me from ever shadowing one young soul with the superstitions of religion.”

In Free Thought magazine, she wrote: “The Bible and church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation…. The whole tone of church teaching in regard to women is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading.”

She said religions are mere “human inventions” – mostly invented by men – concocting Original Sin to lay blame on Eve and women. She said “the clergy baptized each new insult and act of injustice in the name of the Christian religion.”

The Civil War temporarily suppressed those efforts, but they flared anew when the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, allowed black men to vote, but not women of any color. Demands snowballed for decades. Mark Twain gave a speech calling for female voting. Various suffrage groups took to the streets, some more militant than others. The National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul was toughest, picketing outside the White House, enduring male jeers and physical assaults.

President Woodrow Wilson tried to ignore the clamor. When a Russian delegation visited the White House, pickets held banners saying “America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote.”

The protesters staged Washington parades that were attacked by mobs, sending some beaten victims to hospitals. Women pickets on sidewalks were hauled to jail on absurd charges of “obstructing traffic.” When they refused to pay fines, they were locked up with criminals. Paul was sentenced to seven months. She went on a hunger strike, and was force-fed.

Finally, Wilson reversed position in 1918 and supported female enfranchisement. Congress approved the 19th Amendment, and it was ratified in 1920, letting women vote.

Around the world, various other nations followed, some more slowly than others. In Switzerland, women didn’t gain full ballot rights in all districts until 1991. Saudi Arabian women finally gained only partial voting in December, 2015.

Social struggles never really end. Western women still haven’t gained full equality. Their pay remains below the average for male workers. In some places, American women couldn’t serve on juries until the 1950s. Some Muslim and African cultures remain medieval, with women subjugated, with girls less-educated, with “honor killings” of flirtatious daughters who besmirch a family’s Puritanical standards, and with genital mutilation of girls to subdue their sex drive and keep them “pure” for husbands.

An Amnesty International report said:

In the United States, a woman is raped every six minutes; a woman is battered every 15 seconds. In North Africa, 6,000 women are genitally mutilated each day. This year, more than 15,000 women will be sold into sexual slavery in China. Two hundred women in Bangladesh will be horribly disfigured when their spurned husbands or suitors burn them with acid. More than 7,000 women in India will be murdered by their families and in-laws in disputes over dowries. Violence against women is rooted in a global culture of discrimination which denies women equal rights with men and which legitimizes the appropriation of women’s bodies for individual gratification or political ends. Every year, violence in the home and the community devastates the lives of millions of women.

Obviously, the battle for full equality still isn’t over. When President Trump called women “fat pigs” and “slobs,” the need for more reform was spotlighted.

(Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. This article previously appeared in the Charleston Gazette, September 2016.)

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