What is the relationship between women's rights and the question of freedom?

There is an absolute relationship between women’s rights and the question of freedom. The authors of the Constitution specified “all men” as being created equal, an assertion that, intended or not, served to disenfranchise women, which would not be rectified until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Until women were guaranteed the right to vote, they could not be considered totally free.

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The Founding Fathers were men raised, as were most before them, in cultures in which the male was the dominant figure. More than that, in the case of Europeans and, later, North American colonists and revolutionaries, they were white males. This approach to humanity was not universally held. Whether through the words of African slaves transported to distant lands or from distinguished freed slaves, those of African heritage recognized the subordinate positions they held in society. Women were no different. They could see quite well the disparity between the ideals of the declarations of freedom espoused by male leaders and their own subordinate and often demeaning treatment by those same men. The relationship between women’s rights and freedom, in other words, was fraught with controversy and dissension from the republic’s founding in the late eighteenth century through much of the twentieth century. Women were treated differently than men and their freedoms and opportunities were severely limited, both institutionally and culturally.

The women’s suffrage movement was born of the feelings among many women that, despite the ideals expressed in the Founding documents, they were not vested with the same freedoms as those ascribed to men. The movement was considered formally founded in 1848 with the convening of a large gathering of suffragists, including men, in Seneca Falls, New York. The Declaration of Sentiments that was issued at the close of the convention was deliberately modeled on the Declaration of Independence, with language drawn directly from Thomas Jefferson's words but modified to reflect the inherently contradictory nature of that earlier document:

“We 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;”

Note in this opening passage from the 1848 convention the insertion of the words “and women.” The original document reads merely “all men.” The insertion of these two words was a direct response to the inequalities institutionalized in the Republic’s founding era. The relationship between women’s rights and freedom was absolute in that freedom did not exist if certain categories of the citizenry, including African Americans, were deliberately marginalized or basically left out of the equation.

Just as one cannot help but be struck by the fact that, a century after the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery African Americas were still struggling for civil rights, so it would be more than half a century before women were guaranteed the right to vote. Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States on August 18, 1920—72 years after the Declaration of Sentiments and 133 years after the Constitution of the United States was presented—women were finally guaranteed the right to vote:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

To the extent that women’s rights could said to have begun with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, then that could be considered the beginning of the recognition of the equation between basic voting rights and the exercise of freedom. Susan B. Anthony offered the following much-cited quote on the prevailing sentiment among suffragists:

“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people—women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democratic-republican government: the ballot.”

Legally, the equation of women’s rights to freedom was finally institutionalized with the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. Culturally, it would be many more years before other manifestations of prejudicial conduct were finally acknowledged, including in the workplace.

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