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sojourner truth
Library of Congress/AP
Sojourner Truth

Women’s History Month: American Women Fight for Their Rights

March 09, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Since the dawn of our nation, there were American women advocating for equal rights. Although women couldn't vote until 1920, pioneers like Abigail Adams were drawing attention to women's rights as early as the 18th century. The following Web sites offer resources about other heroines of the era and the words and actions that paved the way for women's equality.

Challenging the Status Quo

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American women were advocating for their rights at least as early as 1776, when Abigail Adams wrote her husband John Quincy Adams and asked him to “Remember the Ladies” while working on the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Adams and other feminists were working within a cultural framework that specifically associated women with the home and clearly defined male and female roles. The social and cultural landscape of the era would later come to be known as “The Cult of Domesticity.”

By 1848, a storm was brewing: the Declaration of Sentiments, written at the Seneca Falls convention by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, set the stage for a series of documents and events leading to universal suffrage. The statement is formulated after the Declaration of Independence, to illustrate the need for equal rights among all American citizens. The document reflected upon the entire history of women up to that moment: "The history of mankind is a 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."

Further steps were taken in 1854, when women in the state of New York signed the Woman's Rights Petition claiming, "that for males to govern females, without consent asked or granted, is to perpetuate an aristocracy, utterly hostile to the principles and spirit of free institutions."

The movement continued to gain momentum over the years, until a Constitutional Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920.

Voices for Change

The women’s suffrage movement was created and sustained by women willing to fight against injustices deeply engrained in society and taken for granted by many Americans. Susan B. Anthony was especially active in her crusade for women’s rights: in 1872 she cast an "illegal" ballot in a presidential election, was fined, and refused to pay the fine.

The following year Anthony delivered a controversial speech in defense of her actions, which cited the Constitution. She argued, "this oligarchy of sex, which makes father, brothers, husband, sons, the oligarchs over the mother and sisters, the wife and daughters, of every household—which ordains all men sovereigns, all women subjects, carries dissension, discord, and rebellion into every home of the nation."

Some early feminists had a particularly tough battle to secure their rights.  Sojourner Truth, an African-American woman born in 1797, explained the magnified injustices of her situation as a black woman. During a Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, she gave a speech that pointed out that even if they didn't have equal rights, white women had advantages and were offered courtesies never granted to black women. Truth’s speech, entitled, “Ain’t I a Woman?” was an important development both for the antislavery movement and the women's movement.

Sites for Women's Rights

A great way to learn about women’s history is to visit important sites firsthand. Many women’s museums still exist to commemorate important moments and events in the suffrage and feminist movements.

The Women’s Rights National Historical Park in New York offers tours of Seneca Falls, N.Y., the site of the First Women’s Rights Convention. The museum also has exhibitions of the underground railroad as well as the M’Clintock House and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House.

You can visit other similar historic sites throughout Washington, D.C., with help from the National Women’s History Museum. Locations that were pivotal to the suffrage movement are listed on the museum Web site, as is a wealth of information about the history of the suffrage movement.
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