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Analysis - Trainor
American Women and the Battle for Equality
Author: Mary Trainor
Instructor: Sue Lape
Class: English 2290
From the first colonial governments, American women have sought to prove themselves equal to men in their ability to think logically and to make decisions on the same plane as men. The same spirit of liberty that brought settlers to America and made American patriots fight for independence also urged women to fight for their own liberty. The battle for women's rights evolved over the centuries, in much the same way that the fight for American freedom evolved. As American women learned from the struggles of women who had come before, the language of women's rights became more outspoken, until it matured into the unashamed demand for equality that we know today.
An example of the early fight for equality is Anne Hutchinson, a Puritan woman who began hosting meetings for women at her home. She was knowledgeable in her faith and wanted to teach other women (McMichael & Leonard 29). Hutchinson faced opposition from leaders of her community because publicly instructing others was considered a man's job. In 1637, Governor John Winthrop put Hutchinson on trial at the court at Newton for "troubling the peace of the commonwealth" (29). When charged with activities "not tolerable nor comely in the sight of God nor fitting from your sex" (29), Hutchinson answered with cool logic and arguments from the Bible (31). However, her arguments were dismissed by the court, and she was effectively silenced by banishment (33).
Hutchinson represented many women who felt unjustly silenced and who were unable to speak out. A little over ten years later, in 1650, Anne Bradstreet wrote her poem "The Prologue." Bradstreet accepted her "traditional role of wife and mother" (152), but questioned why that should make her less intelligent than a man. She used her classical education and her wit to hint subtly at the problems with the popular view that women could not succeed in the same areas as men, such as literature and poetry. Bradstreet feigned apology, appealing to the prevailing notion that "men have precedency and still excel" (38). In language that could not be questioned by possible critics, she seemed to admit that her writing would not match any man's. Yet, even with language that would seem to indicate acceptance, Bradstreet called attention to the fault of popular opinion. She lamented, "If what I do prove well, it won't advance, / They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance" (29-30). Bradstreet criticized that however much women accomplished, they would still not be granted the recognition they deserved, but did so in appeasing wording.
Over a century later, after the United States had fought for independence from Britain to uphold ideals of liberty and justice, women became more forthright in their arguments for social and political equality. At a time when their male counterparts were granted freedom, women wondered why they should be left out. Proof that from the very beginning of the nation women wanted freedom is found in a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams. Adams used much more straightforward and less apologetic language than either Hutchinson or Bradstreet. On March 31, 1776, she asked her husband to "remember the ladies" in new laws (349). Adams then went further to warn, "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation" (349). In this statement, Adams employed the very argument used by American patriots against the British government, proving herself both involved and intelligent.
However, as clear and forthright as Adams' arguments were, they were still written privately to her husband, for him to argue on her behalf. Women, although making small strides in their movement for equality, still hadn't brought their grievances to the public. Their discontent was not yet united. It wasn't until 1848 that the first uniting document in the women's rights movement was written. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men drafted the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention to "declare the causes" that impelled them to advocate women's rights ("Declaration"). The Declaration imitated the Declaration of Independence in its form and choice of words, stressing the injustice that women had been left out of the United States' freedom. It declared that "all men and women are created equal" ("Declaration"), yet women had been denied their share of rights under the United States government. Seneca Falls united the many complaints of women over the centuries. It concluded:
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, - in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States. ("Declaration")
The language of the Declaration of Sentiments was much stronger than any used by Hutchinson, Bradstreet, or Adams. The difference was not so much a drastic change of opinion, but the result of accumulating disappointment of women over many years.
This disappointment grew as the now public arguments of women continued to be ignored. Movements for equality began to focus on suffrage. Women had long since been granted equality in certain parts of the work force: namely, in the factory (Schneiderman 123). Women chafed at the view that politics would make them lose their "delicacy" and "charm" (123), while they were gladly given jobs working long hours at factories. Efforts to gain suffrage for women reached their peak by the early twentieth century (123). Rose Schneiderman was one of the many working women who spoke out in response to comments questioning women's strength to handle politics. Schneiderman, a Polish immigrant who worked in a cap factory, was an organizer of the women's trade union movement (123). On April 22, 1912, Schneiderman made her speech "Working Women and the Vote" at a meeting with New York legislators (123). Schneiderman declared that women were already proving themselves as hard workers, capable of handling difficult situations.
Schneiderman's position was different than the women who had come in the years before. By 1912, women weren't just asking for equal positions as men. In some areas, they were achieving them. Women had gained more opportunities to work hard outside the home, but were still denied the vote and positions in leadership. Women had the opportunity to prove that they were willing to work hard, and that is what Schneiderman wanted to accomplish. She explained, "we are not afraid of work, and we are not ashamed to work, but we do decline to be driven" (124). Because women had become workers, they demanded the vote "as an economic necessity" (125). Schneiderman was confident that the vote would come soon, and she was right. It is this type of language that demands social and political equality, yet the desire and the struggle came well before the language. Without the many brave women who have developed the fight for women, we would not have the understanding of women's rights that we have today.
"Declaration of Sentiments." National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web.
13 Feb. 2015.
McMichael, George and James S. Leonard. Anthology of American Literature. 10th Ed. Vol. 1.
Boston: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Schneiderman, Rose. "Working Women and the Vote." For the Record: A Documentary History
of America. Vol. 2. Eds. David E. Shi and Holly A. Mayer. NY: Norton, 2013. 123-126.