Monday, January 15, 2007

Victorian Women Fight Back, Declaration of Sentiments

In my next book, Stalking Star, the heroine is a woman’s right’s activist in 1886. To fully understand the movement and how she feels about it, I’ve been doing some research. I thought it would be horribly dull, since I’ve never had much interest in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Susan B. Anthony or any of the rest. I’m learning, much to my surprise, that these women were not the cardboard women that I thought I knew, but actually quite intelligent and sometimes pretty funny. I’ll write about that more in a later blog.

For this week, however, I wanted to post parts of the Declaration of Sentiments, which was read at the first Women’s Rights’ Convention held in Seneca Falls, July 1848. It was modeled (as you’ll see) after the Declaration of Independence and was read by Elizabeth Stanton. Most of what they said I already knew, but to “hear” it in their own voices gives, I think, a better understanding of how women at this period in time felt about their societal roles. The movement was not just about getting the right to vote. It was about getting the right to vote (which might sound a little dull to today’s woman) so that they might have some say over their lives and the laws of the time, which were written almost exclusively with men—women’s superior!—in mind.

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; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries on the part of man towards woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

These are some of the grievances that Stanton read: (these, to me, are the most flagrant):

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eyes of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all rights in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master—the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women--the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.

I knew that at this time when a wife committed a crime, if her husband was present, he could be prosecuted for that crime (short of murder), since the wife was subordinate to the husband and by law, required to obey him. This was part of English law, and incorporated into the laws of the U.S.

That children went to the husband in the situation of a divorce I knew on a sort of peripheral basis. It does give us a greater understanding of why women would stay in a horrible marriage even if she had the means, the grounds and the emotional strength to file for divorce. Few women would risk losing her children, and you would imagine that the more brutal the man, the more she would fear for their welfare. I admit, however, that I haven’t any additional information or sources for this assertion. It’s something I’ll probably research at a later date.

In the meantime, for anyone interested in the full Declaration of Sentiments, you can read it at this web site:


Anonymous said...

I love women's rights stuff, Dee! I know a lot of people don't fully appreciate what we have. They don't vote because it's a hassle or because registering to vote will automatically put them in the jury pool. It's amazing how long and hard those women fought - with eminently logical arguments! - for something we take for granted today.

Kristin-Marie said...

Seeing defined roles of the Victorian woman in print is quite interesting as her role was transitioning away from chattal into a fully participating citizen. Great post.

Susan Macatee said...

I'm just always amazed at what these women had to go through just to have what all of us take for granted.