Throughout America’s history courageous women have struggled to achieve social and political freedom and equality. They have fought against laws and cultural and religious traditions assigning them subservient roles in American society. This long struggle has produced many heroines.
Colonial American Anne Hutchinson defied laws forbidding women to speak publically and interpret the word of God. Forbidden the right to defend herself, she was tried and convicted of heresy, and banished from Massachusetts Colony. Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, over her frustration regarding the inferior role of women in America. This meeting, attended by 68 women and 32 men, marks the birth of the women’s rights movement.
19th century America women were not allowed to inherit property, sue for divorce or retain custody of their children. Brave women who spoke publicly against cultural and legal restrictions on their freedom were persecuted and labeled unfeminine. Gradually, their cause gained support from mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Women exerted pressure on male lawmakers and by the end of the century these legal restrictions were eliminated.
Another heroine, Susan B. Anthony, began working for women’s rights in mid-1800. Her struggle to gain the vote for women continued until her death in 1906. The 70 year long crusade for women’s suffrage became a reality with the passage of the 19th Amendment. No political party can take credit for this victory. It came about because dedicated women worked tirelessly, putting pressure on male legislators and vigorously campaigning against elected officials who opposed women’s right to vote.
Women have struggled for centuries for equality in the workplace. The Lilly Ledbetter Act was passed in 2009, guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work. Responding to corporate lobbyists, Congress later rejected legislation requiring disclosure of workers’ pay by business owners. Inequality continues when women can’t know if their pay equals that of their male counterparts.
Today women are fighting for the right to control decisions regarding their own bodies. Male dominated legislators pass laws restricting women’s right to choose. Lingering cultural and religious attitudes view women as being emotionally and intellectually inferior, not to be trusted with their own reproductive decisions. Introduction of the “pill” freed women to make choices about family planning. Middle and upper class women can afford good medical care. Many poor and often single women cannot afford this. Planned Parenthood fills this need providing many services including reproductive counseling and cancer screening.
Most women and men understand women are capable of making responsible choices regarding their bodies without government intervention. Some current legislators, including Jim Davis, hold contradictory attitudes about a woman’s right to affordable health care. They argue poor women shouldn’t have children while opposing funding for Planned Parenthood providing women access to responsible health care. Concerned voters must examine the position on women’s rights of candidates running for elective office. Today’s women owe a great debt to the courageous heroines from our past. We must carry their torch to the finish line.
Margery Abel — Franklin, N.C.