Did you know that July 19-20th marks a 166-year birthday for North American boss ladies?
That’s right. With the aid of Wikipedia and a few other sources, let’s take a little walk down memory lane to explore the origins of Girl Power.
In 1840, Lucretia Coffin Mott (a teacher who got her start in activism when she discovered that her male counterparts were being paid 3x more for the same work) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (a newly married, well-to-do, and extremely well educated housewife) traveled with their husbands to London for the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. They were to serve as two of six female delegates during the convention but, upon their arrival, the male delegates held a pre-conference vote to ban the women from any meaningful participation. As a result of this ruling, the female delegates were prohibited from speaking or voting on any subject and were forced to listen as spectators in the gallery only.
As you can imagine, Mott and Stanton became fast friends during this visit to London. I can just imagine them back there, hidden from view by the heavy dividing curtain meant to segregate them from the main conference room and simply bursting from their corset stays with indignation at such a display of blatant sexist snubbery. We must remember that this was long before a ball gown-wearing, stair-tripping, Oscar-winning Jennifer Lawrence popularized the middle finger as an endearing expression of girlish defiance.
So, shunned from the very discussion that they had traveled so very far to attend as invited delegates in the first place, they did what any well educated, female social reformer would do when deemed “constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings” by a group of self-important male politicians: they hatched a brilliant plan to form their own convention for the advancement of women’s issues. Their convention would focus on women’s voting rights, access to education, income equality, and abuse of power against women (physical or otherwise).
And that, gentle readers, is how I like to imagine the North American origins of girl power… over petit fours, perhaps a half-eaten cucumber sandwich, and delicately hand painted porcelain cups of the Queen’s best Earl Grey, by two rebel boss ladies in petticoats who turned their oppression into the birth of one of the great social reform opportunities in our history.
Eight years later during July 19-20, 1848, they made good on their aspirations and the Seneca Falls Convention finally materialized “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Although the abolition of slavery was an important concern for the group, chief among the concerns discussed at the Seneca Falls Convention was the passage of laws that would give suffrage specifically to women (the right to vote).
There was no shortage of opportunities to level the playing field for women and their sacred rights and, in fact, one of the greatest achievements of the convention was the introduction of the “Declaration of Sentiments” authored primarily by Stanton herself. The text provocatively itemized the injustices dealt to women and deliberately drew a parallel to the original American Declaration of Independence. As a testament to its controversial contents, the document would only manage to be signed by 68 women and 32 men (roughly ⅓ of the convention’s actual attendees) and one news publication went as far as to describe the text as “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.”
Ruffled feathers or not, the Declaration of Sentiments and the monumental gathering famously provided a catalyst for other women’s rights assemblies including the formation of an annual National Women’s Rights Convention. It too would unite both male and female leadership to share their perspectives on a variety of subjects including wages, education, career opportunities, property rights, marriage reform and even temperance (that wildly unpopular idea to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol).
While boss ladies were barnstorming the nation with radical ideas about the rights of women, President Lincoln was making headway on the issue of slave ownership. When the north and the south went toe-to-toe during the American Civil War in 1861, it was a bit of a buzzkill that dampened the female fire temporarily, but luckily the movement rekindled again in 1865 with the war’s conclusion. Unfortunately, even as membership for the women’s rights movement continued to grow, the competing demands of maintaining one’s home, family obligations, the restrictive nature of travel, financial limitations, and another equally critical campaign to pass the 15th amendment prohibiting voter discrimination based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, would keep the realization of women’s equal rights just out of reach for a few more decades to come.
Years passed and with slavery abolished and all men now being “equal” in terms of voting rights, many of the most passionate white reformers turned their attention to a growing concern that America was plagued by an “epidemic of alcoholism.” This shift in focus led to political disagreements among the leading women activists as well, forcing the movement to fracture and reorganize as the campaign for temperance distracted from the campaign for suffrage. The women’s rights movement officially split into multiple camps in 1869, and this inability to unify on a single platform resulted in yet more delays for women’s suffrage that would persist throughout the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Ultimately, however, it was the undeniable contribution by the fairer sex to American participation in the First World War that cemented the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 and gave women the right to cast a vote and run for political office themselves. After 70 years of struggle, social reform for gender equality was finally ours!
Quite a lot has happened in history since the passage of the 19th amendment, but we owe a debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who initially came together 166 years ago to advance the social, civil and moral rights of women, and (if we are being completely honest with ourselves) without whose pioneering efforts there would be no #selfie to speak of. And what kind of world would that be really?