40 Years After Seneca Falls, a Litany of Gains and Goals

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Eighteenth in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

Even before she began to speak, she got a standing ovation. It was the morning of March 25, 1888, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton stepped to the podium to welcome women from around the world to the first international conference on women’s rights.

It was a historic occasion for another reason: It had been 40 years since the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. Stanton, a life-long opponent of organized religion, nevertheless turned to the Bible to draw a parallel between the women’s rights activists and the children of Israel, “wandering in the wilderness of prejudice and ridicule for 40 years.”

Stanton didn’t live to see American women get the vote. But as she told her audience, “we have opened a pathway to the promised land.”

“We Who Like the Children of Israel”

By Elizabeth Cady Stanton

International Council of Women, Albaugh’s Opera House, Washington, D.C.

We are assembled here today to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first organized demand made by women for the right of suffrage. The initiative steps were taken in my native state. In 1848 two conventions were held in Central New York, and the same year the Married Women’s Property Bill passed the legislature. Other conventions were soon called in Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and other States, one after another, adopted New York’s advance legislation.

This started the greatest movement for human liberty recorded on the pages of history -- a demand for freedom to one-half the entire race; the keynote struck in this country in ’48 has been echoed round the world. And today, to celebrate our 40th anniversary, we have representatives in person or by letter from nearly every state in the Union, from Great Britain, France, Germany, Finland, Italy, Sweden, India, Denmark, Norway, and Russia. It has been our custom to mark the passing years by holding meetings of the suffrage societies on each decade, but for this we decided a broader recognition of all the reform associations that have been the natural outgrowth of the suffrage agitation in the Old World as well as the New.

In the great national and state conventions for education, temperance, and religion, even 30 years ago, woman’s voice was never heard. The battles fought by the pioneers in the suffrage movement to secure a foothold for woman on these platforms have been eloquently described many times by Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown, and I hope during this Council they will be rehearsed once more, for the benefit of those who, while holding the vantage ground they secured, are afraid of the principles by which it was gained. The civil and political position of woman, when I first understood its real significance, was enough to destroy all faith in the vitality of republican principles.

Half a century ago the women of America were bonded slaves, under the old common law of England. Their rights of person and property were under the absolute control of fathers and husbands. They were shut out of the schools and colleges, the trades and professions, and all offices under government; paid the most meager wages in the ordinary industries of life, and denied everywhere the necessary opportunities for their best development. Worse still, women had no proper appreciation of themselves as factors in civilization. Believing self-denial a higher virtue than self-development, they ignorantly made ladders of themselves by which fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons reached their highest ambitions, creating an impassable gulf between them and those they loved that no magnetic chords of affection or gratitude could span. Nothing was more common forty years ago than to see the sons of a family educated, while the daughters remained in ignorance; husbands at ease in the higher circles, in which their wives were unprepared to move. Like the foolish virgins in the parable, women everywhere in serving others forgot to keep their own lamps trimmed and burning, and when the great feasts of life were spread, to them the doors were shut.

Four years ago, at a reception in Liverpool given to Miss Anthony and myself, the question of an international convention was discussed, and so favorably received that committees of correspondence were appointed to ascertain what the general feeling might be. While the response from the different countries was encouraging, the general feeling seemed to point to America as the country to make the first experiment. Accordingly, the National Woman Suffrage Association assumed the responsibility of calling this International Council.

Though we cannot all share in the honors of the toil that has made this grand gathering possible, we can share in the joy of welcoming to our shores the noble women from foreign lands. We can benefit, too, in the broader interests and more liberal opinions that association with the people of other countries must necessarily bring to us.

“The world is my country and all mankind my countrymen” is a motto that cannot be echoed and re-echoed round the globe too often, to keep our sympathies alive to the weal and woe of the human race. In welcoming representatives from other lands here to-day, we do not feel that you are strangers and foreigners, for the women of all nationalities, in the artificial distinctions of sex, have a universal sense of injustice, that forms a common bond of union between them.

Whether our feet are compressed in iron shoes, our faces hidden with veils and masks, whether yoked with cows to draw the plow through its furrows, or classed with idiots, lunatics, and criminals in the laws and constitutions of the state, the principle is the same, for the humiliations of spirit are as real as the visible badges of servitude. A difference in government, religion, laws, and social customs makes but little change in the relative status of woman to the self-constituted governing classes, so long as subordination in all nations is the rule of her being. Through suffering we have learned the open sesame to the hearts of each other.

There is a language of universal significance, more subtle than that used in the busy marts of trade, that should be called the mother-tongue, by which with a sigh or a tear, a gesture, a glance of the eye, we know the experiences of each other in the varied forms of slavery. With the spirit forever in bondage, it is the same whether housed in golden cages, with every want supplied, or wandering in the dreary deserts of life friendless and forsaken. Now that our globe is girdled with railroads, steamships, and electric wires, every pulsation of your hearts is known to us. Long ago we heard the deep yearnings of your souls for freedom responsive to our own. Mary Wollstonecraft, Mesdames de Staël and Roland, George Sand, Frederica Bremer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Frances Wright, and George Eliot have pictured alike the wrongs of woman in poetry and prose. Though divided by vast mountain ranges, boundless oceans and plains, yet the psalms of our lives have been in the same strain, too long, alas, in the minor key; for hopes deferred have made the bravest hearts sometimes despairing. But the same great over-soul has been our hope and inspiration. The steps of progress already achieved in many countries should encourage us to tune our harps anew to songs of victory.

It is with great satisfaction we also welcome here to-day representatives of our own country — women from 31 different associations of moral and philanthropic reforms. Although all these are the natural outgrowths of the demands made and the basic principles laid down by those who first claimed equal, civil, and political rights for women, yet this is the first time we have met on the same platform, to advocate the same measures in carrying on the varied reforms in which we are mutually interested. I think most of us have come to feel that a voice in the laws is indispensable to achieve success; that these great moral struggles for higher education, temperance, peace, the rights of labor, religious freedom, international arbitration, are all questions to be finally adjusted by the action of government, and without a direct voice in legislation, woman’s influence will be eventually lost.

Experience has fully proved that sympathy as a civil agent is vague and powerless until caught and chained in logical propositions and coined into law. When every prayer and tear represents a ballot, the mothers of the race will no longer weep in vain over the miseries of their children. The active interest women are taking in all the great questions of the day is in strong contrast with the apathy and indifference in which we found them half a century ago, and the contrast in their condition between now and then is equally marked. Those who inaugurated the movement for woman’s enfranchisement, who for long years endured the merciless storm of ridicule and persecution, mourned over by friends, ostracized in social life, scandalized by enemies, denounced by the pulpit, scarified and caricatured by the press, may well congratulate themselves on the marked change in public sentiment that this magnificent gathering of educated women from both hemispheres so triumphantly illustrates.

Now even married women enjoy, in a measure, their rights of person and property. They can make contracts, sue and be sued, testify in courts of justice, and with honor dissolve the marriage relation when it becomes intolerable. Now most of the colleges are open to girls, and they are rapidly taking their places in all the profitable industries, and in many of the offices under government. They are in the professions, too, as lawyers, doctors, editors, professors in colleges, and ministers in the pulpits. Their political status is so far advanced that they enjoy all the rights of citizens in two territories, municipal suffrage in one state, and school suffrage in half the states of the Union.

Here is a good record of the work achieved in the past half-century; but we do not intend to rest our case until all our rights are secured, and, noting the steps of progress in other countries, on which their various representatives are here to report, we behold with satisfaction everywhere a general uprising of women, demanding higher education and an equal place in the industries of the world. Our gathering here to-day is highly significant, in its promises of future combined action. When, in the history of the world, was there ever before such an assemblage of able, educated women, celebrated in so many varied walks of life, and feeling their right and ability to discuss the vital questions of social life, religion, and government? When we think of the vantage-ground woman holds to-day, in spite of all the artificial obstacles she has surmounted, we are filled with wonder as to what the future mother of the race will be when free to seek her complete development.

Thus far women have been the mere echoes of men. Our laws and constitutions, our creeds and codes, and the customs of social life are all of masculine origin. The true woman is as yet a dream of the future. A just government, a humane religion, a pure social life await her coming. Then, and not till then, will the golden age of peace and prosperity be ours. This gathering is significant, too, in being held in the greatest republic on which the sun ever shone — a nation superior to every other on the globe in all that goes to make up a free and mighty people — boundless territory, magnificent scenery, mighty forests, lakes and rivers, and inexhaustible wealth in agriculture, manufactures, and mines -- a country where the children of the masses in our public schools have all the appliances of a complete education -- books, charts, maps, every advantage, not only in the rudimental but in many of the higher branches, alike free at their disposal. In the Old World the palace on the hill is the home of nobility; here it is the public school or university for the people, where the rich and the poor, side by side, take the prizes for good manners and scholarship. Thus the value of real character above all artificial distinctions -- the great lesson of democracy -- is early learned by our children.

This is the country, too, where every man has a right to self-government, to exercise his individual conscience and judgment on all matters of public interest. Here we have no entangling alliances in church and slate, no tithes to be paid, no livings to be sold, no bartering for places by dignitaries among those who officiate at the altar, no religious test for those elected to take part in government.

Here, under the very shadow of the Capitol of this great nation, whose dome is crowned with the Goddess of Liberty, the women from many lands have assembled at last to claim their rightful place, as equal factors, in the great movements of the nineteenth century, so we bid our distinguished guests welcome, thrice welcome, to our triumphant democracy. I hope they will be able to stay long enough to take a bird’s-eye view of our vast possessions, to see what can be done in a moral as well as material point of view in a government of the people.

 In the Old World they have governments and people; here we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people -- that is, we soon shall have when that important half, called women, are enfranchised, and the laboring masses know how to use the power they possess. And you will see here, for the first time in the history of nations, a church without a pope, a state without a king, and a family without a divinely ordained head, for our laws are rapidly making fathers and mothers equal in the marriage relation. We call your attention, dear friends, to these patent facts, not in a spirit of boasting, but that you may look critically into the working of our republican institutions ; that when you return to the Old World you may help your fathers to solve many of the tangled problems to which as yet they have found no answer. You can tell the Czar of Russia and the Tories of England that, self-government and “home rule” are safe and possible, proved so by a nation of upward of 60 million people.

Since the inauguration of our movement most of our noble coadjutors, men and women, have passed to the unknown land: Garrison, Phillips, Channing, Rogers, Burleigh, Edward M. Davis, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, Josephine Griffing, Clarina Nichols, Frances Gage, Paulina Davis, Abby Foster, Lydia Maria Child, and Richard Mott, and many others, together far outnumbering those who still remain to watch and wait. The vacant places on every side warn us in the sunset of life that we, too, are passing away, and that younger hands must soon take up our work.

To achieve equality for woman in every position in life, and fit her to maintain that position with wisdom and dignity, is a work worthy to unite all our energies and attune our hearts in harmony. Those who, like the children of Israel, have been wandering in the wilderness of prejudice and ridicule for forty years, must feel a peculiar tenderness for the young women on whose shoulders we are about to leave our burdens. Although we have opened a pathway to the promised land, and cleared up much of the underbrush of false sentiment, logic and rhetoric, intertwisted and intertwined with law and custom, blocking all avenues in starting, yet there are still many obstacles to be encountered before the rough journey is ended.

I think, however, you will find in the bound volumes of “The Revolution” and “Woman’s Journal,” and the three huge volumes of the “History of Woman Suffrage,” all the necessary arguments to silence any reasonable opponent. If these fail we shall hope much from the youngest-born of all our papers, “The Woman’s Tribune.” If it finds that arguments fail, with the daring of youth it may use some more powerful ammunition to drive all opposing forces from the field of battle, and overthrow forever an aristocracy based on sex. The younger women are starting with greater advantages over us. They have the results of our experience; they have had superior opportunities for education, and will have a more enlightened public sentiment for discussion, and more courage to take the rights that belong to them; hence we may look to them for speedy conquests.

In calling this council we anticipated many desirable results. Aside from the pleasure of mutual acquaintance in meeting face to face so many of our own country-women, as well as those from foreign lands, we hoped to secure thorough national and international organizations in all those reforms in which we are mutually interested. To come together for a week and part, with the same fragmentary societies and clubs, would be the defeat of one-half the purpose of our gathering.

Above all things that women need today in their reform work is thorough organization, and to this end we must cultivate some esprit de corps of sex, a generous trust in each other. A difference of opinion on one question must not prevent us from working unitedly in those on which we agree. Above all things, let us hold our theological speculations of a future life in abeyance to the practical work of the present existence, recognizing all sects alike and all religions -- Jew and Gentile, Catholic, and Protestant -- to be held equally sacred in their honest opinions.

We sincerely hope that the proceedings of this council as a whole will be as successful and satisfactory as our conventions in Washington invariably have been, and that marked courtesy in public and private will be generously extended to all our guests. We trust this interchange of sentiments and opinions may be a fresh inspiration to us all in our future work, and that this Convention may be long remembered as among the most pleasant and profitable days of our lives. As the character of this Convention must depend in a large measure on what those who call it may do and say, it would be well for us to keep in mind the responsibility that rests on each and all. If it be true that we can judge of the civilization of a nation by the status of its women, we may do much during this Convention to elevate our institutions in the estimation of the world. Our form of government is being studied by leading statesmen in the Old World, as never before; alike in the Chamber of Deputies and the House of Commons the powers of our executive, legislative, and judicial departments have been freely discussed and recommended as worthy of adoption.

Mr. Gladstone says, “The American Constitution is, as far as I can see, the most wonderful work ever struck off by the brain and purpose of man” ...

Lord Salisbury says, “The Americans have a Senate. I wish we could institute it here. Marvelous in its strength and efficiency. ... Their Supreme Court gives a stability to their institutions which, under the vague and mysterious promises here, we look for in vain.”

Such writers and historians as Sir Henry Maine, Mackenzie, Froude, and Matthew Arnold have commented on our democratic institutions in most complimentary terms. Indeed, the whole tone of English writers and travelers has entirely changed since they amused the world with ridicule of our people fifty years ago. It is the dignity of the Republic, as viewed to-day, we are here to represent. Closer bonds of friendship between the women of different nations may help to strengthen the idea of international arbitration in the settlement of all differences, that thus the whole military system, now draining the very life-blood and wealth of the people in the Old World, may be completely over turned, and war, with its crimes and miseries, ended forever.

The question is continually asked: If women had the right of suffrage how would they vote on national questions? I think I might venture to say that the women on this platform would all be opposed to war. As to the much-vexed question of the fisheries we would say, in view of our vast Atlantic and Pacific coast, thousands of miles in extent, do let Canada have three miles of the ocean if she wants it. If the cod is the bone of contention, as it is the poorest of all fish, let the Canadians eat it in peace so long as we have oysters, shad, bass and the delicate salmon from our Western lakes and California.

Upon other questions now up for consideration we should probably be of one mind. As to a treaty with Russia to send back her political prisoners to be tortured in her prisons and the mines of Siberia, our verdict would be no, no.

America must ever be the great university in which the lovers of freedom may safely graduate with the highest honors, and under our flag find peace and protection. The able statement by Stepniak, the Russian nihilist, laid before our Senate, should be carefully read by all of us, that our influence may be used intelligently against all treaties, compromising, as they would, the honor of a nation upholding the right of free speech and free press in the criticism of their rulers by the people.

As to international copyright, we should no doubt say let us have a law to that effect by all means, because it is fair and honest. Moreover, since we now have our own historians, philosophers, scientists, poets, and novelists, and England steals as much from us as we do from her, it is evident that sound policy and common honesty lie in the same direction. As to the overflowing Treasury that troubles the conscience of our good president, our wisest women would undoubtedly say, pay the national debt and lighten the taxes on the shoulders of the laboring masses.

As to the amendments of the Constitution now asked for by some reformers, and a body of the clergy, to recognize the Christian theology in the Constitution and introduce religious tests into political parties and platforms in direct violation of Article VI, clause 3, of the national Constitution, I think the majority in our woman suffrage associations would be opposed to all such amendments, as they would destroy the secular nature of our Government, so carefully guarded by our fathers in laying the foundation of the Republic. This freedom from all ecclesiastical entanglements is one of the chief glories of our Government and one of the chief elements of its success. We can not too carefully guard against all attempts at a retrogressive policy in this direction. If there is one lesson more plainly written than another on the institutions of the Old World it is the danger of a union of church and state, of civil and canon law, of theological speculations in the practical affairs of government. If the majority of women on the suffrage platform would vote thus wisely on five questions, they may show equal wisdom on others that may come up for future legislation.

On questions of land, labor, prohibition, and protection, there would, no doubt, amongst us, be many differences of opinion, but I think we should all agree that that system of political economy that secures the greatest blessings to the greatest number must be the true one, and those laws which guard most sacredly the interests of the many rather than the few, we should vote for. When woman’s voice is heard in Government our legislation will become more humane, and judgments in our courts be tempered with mercy. Surely the mothers who rocked the cradle of this Republic may be safely trusted to sustain their sires and sons in all their best efforts to establish in the New World a government in which the sound principles of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence may be fully realized, in which there shall be no privileged classes, but equal rights for all.

Under a government and religion recognizing in rational beings the rights of conscience and judgment in matters pertaining to their own interests, above all authority of church and state, it needs no argument to prove the sacredness of individual rights, the dignity of individual responsibilities. The solitude of every human soul, alike in our moments of exaltation and humiliation, in our highest joys and deepest sorrows, into which no other one can ever fully enter, proves our birthright to supreme self-sovereignty. As in all the great emergencies of life, we must stand alone, and for final judgment rely upon ourselves, we cannot overestimate the necessity for that liberty by which we attain our highest development and that knowledge that fits us for self-reliance and self-protection. 

Source: Report of the International Council of Women Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888. (Washington, D.C.: Rufus H. Darby), 1888, pp. 31-39.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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