According to Ellen Carol DuBois in her article “The First Women’s Rights Movement,” those who were involved in writing and promoting the history of women’s rights in the early years were veterans of the suffrage movement. They had the notion that in preserving history, they are contributing to “the cause.” They had a sense of political mission that was an essential part in the history of the women’s rights movement. This was actually a big step in the documentation of the events that happened then and the examination of the link between politics and history which helps people understand the social movements then (DuBois).
This is also congruent to the discourse of Judith Lorber in her article “Night to His Day, The Social Construction of Gender” which dwells on the pervasive meaning of gender in society. She firmly believes that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, emphasizing that the building blocks of gender are actually socially constructed statuses (Lorber, para 9).
The women’s right movement during the Progressive Era was concerned with women suffrage. In the 1800s women were becoming more educated, their roles were slowly shifting as society gradually adjusted to intellectual women who knew politics and other concerns previously under the male’s domain. This awakening period made most of these educated women question the norms, especially their lack of stand during elections. The movement at this time was focused on the right to vote, as the fighters believe that winning suffrage will just be the beginning of other women’s right in the society. It was also a struggle to prove that women can be just as good as men.
As we look back in the 1960s, indeed, we see that women’s right movements cover a broader scope. It was also called the liberation movement. Liberation in a sense that women were deemed as caged by the rules set by society. Gaining suffrage is not enough when a woman’s full potential as an individual is not met. Before the 1960s, women could not pursue a career, nor venture into affairs that were considered unfashionable for a lady, such as politics and business. Her main concern is the home, taking care of the family and always exuding that feminine grace and aura. The leaders of the movements rebelled against this painted picture of the woman, insisting that they have far greater substance to be considered as mere beauty objects and sex objects. It was at this time that male chauvinism was also deeply criticized.
Meanwhile, Mary Wollstonecraft championed the new values of economic individualism and political liberty. One of her earliest essays, “A Vindication of the Rights of Man,” applied Enlightenment ideals of equal opportunity to justify the French Revolution. Consequently, she extended those ideals to women in her work A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Just as Enlightenment thinker rejected the divine rights of kings in favor of the rights of man, Wollstonecraft opposed the divine rights of husbands over their wives, adding gender to the politics of democratic revolution. As kings are tyrants over the people, she argued, husbands can be tyrants over wives. Speaking of women, she explained, “I do not wish them to have power over men, but over themselves.” Yet even for Wollstonecraft, the justification for women’s education remained closely linked to family roles. Education would produce ‘sensible mothers’ and rational wives (Wollstonecraft).
Similarly, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions which was read during the Woman’s Eights Convention held at Seneca Falls in July 19-20, 1848 reminded that they hold “these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed (Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, para 16).
Pondering on the discourses of these women, one sees that although white feminists deny any interest in exercising any power over any group, it is difficult for them to disentangle themselves from embedded power structures of race and class. Indeed some white feminists themselves perpetuate a similar kind of oppression they ostensibly claim to attempt to overcome, only this time the discrimination is leveled against black women and working class women. This bias in the feminist movement—as demonstrated with the way feminist discourse generally addresses the concerns of white, middle class women—reflects differences in power and privilege among women which serve as significant obstacles to their common goal of social transformation.
Although society may be a long way to completely removing the shackles of oppression that make victims out of women—black or white, rich or poor—thankfully, there are many people who remain vigilant about these issues. Leisure limitations of people long disparaged by society remain constricted as social boundaries are maintained. There may be conscious attempts to improve women’s inferior status in society—movements that try to work across racial and class borders. Perhaps DuBois was right that in demanding a change in women’s public citizenship, the suffragists were already taking a radical position and that she belongs to that first new generation of women historians who advocate a new political position of women in the suffrage movement.
Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. Convention held at Seneca Falls, 1848.
DuBois, Ellen Carol “The First Women’s Rights Movement.”
Lorber, Judith. “Night to His Day: The Social Construction of Gender.”
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.”