LESSON# 2: WORDS MATTER; USE THEM TO NAME THE INJUSTICE AND THEN TO INSPIRE THOSE WHO CAN SET IT RIGHT.
It began at a ladies tea; somehow the polite small talk moved into women expressing their frustration at the lack of opportunity for their gender. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described her feelings this way: “I poured out …the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself as well as the rest of the party to do and dare anything.”
Three days later the very first Women’s Convention was held in Seneca Falls. With so little time to advertise and prepare, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had just met at that tea and started their lifelong collaboration for Women’s Suffrage did not expect many to attend. It was advertised as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” The two-day convention drew over 300 people, some traveling more than 50 miles. The women in and around Seneca Falls were ready to hear the words.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented her Declaration of Sentiments which began with “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” The Declaration went on to list 19 specific “abuses and usurpations” that women had to endure. It included such grievances as women were unable to own property, could not file for divorce, did not have equal opportunities in education or employment. The Declaration of Sentiments finished by listing 11 resolutions that would make women equal to men. The most controversial at that time was the right to vote. If not for a convincing speaker who stood up at that first convention and stated that, “Right is of no sex – Truth is of no color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren.” the right to vote might have been eliminated from the Declaration. That inspiring speaker was Fredrick Douglas who was an avid supporter of women’s rights as well as an activist against slavery. The Declaration of Sentiments became the guiding document of the Women’s Suffrage movement for the next 24 years.
Guiding words continued to play an important part in the Suffrage movement throughout the decades of struggle towards the ratification of the Amendment. For much of their 50-year partnership, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the words and Susan B. Anthony, organized the lectures and meetings where the words would be presented to inspire and get women to join and the government to listen. As Stanton herself put it, “ I forged the thunderbolts and she ( Susan B. Anthony) fired them.”
It’s possible to conclude that any movement towards righting an injustice, can be fueled and fed by inspiring words. No doubt it had much to do with keeping the suffrage movement going. Although the drive waned during both the Civil War and World War I, it never burned out.
Words were important to the very last struggle to win the vote for women. Harry Burns, a young legislator from Tennessee became famous for casting the deciding vote in the last state needed to have two-thirds majority making the 19th Amendment a permanent part of the Constitution. Harry voted for women’s suffrage because of words, his mother’s. She wrote her son a letter in which she stated, “Dear Son: Hurrah and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt…Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catts. With lots of love, Mama.” With his mother’s letter in his suit pocket, Harry Burns cast the deciding vote allowing women the right to vote across the United States. It passed 49-47.
Today we continue the struggle for human rights and true equality for women, people of color, immigrants, people of all religions and sexual orientations. We still have a long way to go and it is easy to despair or become indifferent. I have found it is good to keep inspiring words close at hand to keep me going forward towards justice. Here are two of my favorite speeches, one from the early years of the Suffrage movement, and one from our current struggle.
by Peg Ludtke