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From the Green Valley News, Sunday 8 July 2012, page A13

Genealogy Today, by Betty Lou Malesky, CG

The History of Women's Rights

The Bill of Rights is one of the most important documents in the United States' history. It established our system of democratic government and defines the rights of people under that government, i.e., the right to freedom of religion, to bear arms, to trial by jury, etc.

Perhaps that is why individual rights are so important to Americans. How well I remember my teenage step son angrily protesting, "I have my rights!" when we destroyed the pot plants he was growing in his closet. His definition of rights was a little skewed, but certainly expressed the American mindset.

One hundred fifty years ago, women's rights were the "hot topic" and rightly so. Women were second class citizens, put on the earth to meet the needs of men, keep their mouths shut, and do what they were told. Okay, perhaps not in so many words, but in fact a woman had no rights unless she had a husband, father, son or brother to act for her. Women began vocalizing their rights before the Civil War, taking an active role in anti-slavery and temperance rallies in New York. They believed when the U.S. Constitution stated, ". . . all men are created equal . . . ," the meaning encompassed all citizens, not only those born male.

The first women's rights convention in the U.S. grew out of a social gathering honoring Lucretia Mott on 9 July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Ten days later an estimated three hundred women and men attended the Convention, including Mott and the great black orator, Frederick Douglass. At the conclusion, 68 women and 32 men signed the "Declaration of Sentiments" detailing the "history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her."

In 1850 Mott published Discourse on Woman, a pamphlet based on the text of a speech she gave about restrictions on women. The first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts the same year attracted over 1000 participants. Susan B. Anthony was so inspired she started publishing the women's rights weekly journal, The Revolution in 1868 under the motto: "The true republic—men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less."

Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 with the primary goal an amendment to the Constitution providing voting rights for women. Women also campaigned for a variety of other issues, including equality in marriage, the right to keep their own earnings and property, and the same right to divorce and custody of children granted to men.

The suffragettes were disillusioned when black males obtained the right to vote in 1879 under the fifteenth amendment but it was still denied to women. Women over 21 were first allowed to vote in Wyoming in 1869 and in Utah in 1870, but it wasn't until the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in time for the 1920 presidential election that equal suffrage was extended to all women in the U.S.

Today Elizabeth Cady Stanton's home is part of the Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Also open to the public are the Wesleyan Chapel where the first Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848, two additional homes, and a Visitors' Center.

No statistics seem to exist as to the number of women who were involved in the women's rights movements. With meetings and rallies held across the nation through 1920, undoubtedly the number must total hundreds of thousands. Many of us likely have a mother, grandmothers or aunts who were in part responsible for the historic advances that women earned due to the suffragette's efforts.

To determine whether your ancestors were involved, look for badges, banners, pamphlets, newspaper clippings and photographs related to the women's rights movements among your family memorabilia.

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