We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
These words from the Declaration of Independence have been echoing through my head in recent weeks. They are particularly present for me today on the 4thof July. The anniversary of the Declaration and the founding of our country.
Particularly as the rights of pregnant women are under imminent threat. And the human rights and well-being of immigrants are presently being violated and abused in this country.
Democracy as revolutionary ideal
In 1776, the idea of democracy was risky. The idea that people could rule themselves was an affront to the traditional monarchic system that had governed Europe for hundreds of years. Tradition and law held that the right to rule was ordained by God and passed down to one’s descendants.
Government of the people, by the people, and for the people was a new political experiment. It was rooted not in the divine right of kings but in a recognition of human dignity and equality.
We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal.
Even so, the founding fathers struggled over what it meant to proclaim that all men are equal before God. Who should actually have access to the rights and privileges of governance? Who would be allowed to vote? Who could serve in elected office? Many of the early patriots were concerned about the consequences for propertied men of allowing all men the right to vote. In considering these questions, James Madison mused in 1787:
Allow the right [to vote] exclusively to property [owners], and the rights of persons may be oppressed… . Extend it equally to all, and the rights of property [owners] …may be overruled by a majority without property….
The founding fathers decided in favor of the privileged. In the first U.S. Presidential election in 1789, only white men who owned property were allowed to vote.
Before we dismiss these actions too quickly as merely a reflection of the cultural attitudes of the time, let us remember the words that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in March of 1776 as she eagerly awaited to hear if independence had yet been declared.
Remember the Ladies
The letter to her husband, John Adams, makes clear that Abigail was no wilting flower. In fact, she was clearly a force to be reckoned with. Like many women throughout history, she had significant responsibilities for the household, she had strong thoughts about society and politics, and she had a healthy relationship with her husband.
In the midst of updating Adams on what was happening in their community and with their own household, she took the opportunity to offer him some political advice as she knew he would play a key role in setting up the new government:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency — and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable 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 perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
Abigail’s words make it clear that she and other women in the new republic sought a new world for women just as the male founding fathers sought a new world for themselves. Women were developing new ideas about their lives and this included the size of their families. During the Revolutionary Period, women began to take some measure of control over their fertility. Fertility peaked in 1760 with eight to twelve children not uncommon. But this number dropped to seven by 1800, five by 1850, and three and a half by 1900.
Protecting the Rights of US Women
Just as Abigail called her husband to account on how the new country would address the health and well-being of women, it is time to ensure that all women of this country have access to the same rights that are protected for men.
The Declaration of Independence identifies Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness as unalienable Rights. These rights cannot be abridged by the government. This means that these rights cannot be taken away.
Women’s ability to be the architects of their own lives requires ensuring that women have the ability to decide when or if they will have children.
For women to pursue happiness in the same ways that men are able to pursue happiness in their lives demands that women are able to determine the timing and the wisdom of bearing children.
Women’s access to the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness cannot be subject to the whims of political and electoral change.
Either we ensure these rights for all people or we fail as a democracy.
Right now, we are on the brink of failure.