“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Even the least historically well-versed of American citizens might recognize these stirring words from the Declaration of Independence, issued some 244 years ago this summer. The document outlined the American colonists’ gripes against Great Britain and its king, whose “repeated injuries and usurpations” the petition’s penman, Thomas Jefferson, detailed as “facts…submitted to a candid world.”
Today, for close listeners of current political rhetoric and commentary, it is not unusual to hear a bit of license taken with the entreaty: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” In 1776, the call to action of the Declaration, in fact, asserted only that all “men” were created equal—somewhat vaguely and perhaps generously understood now to mean “mankind.” Practically speaking, it really only referred to white men of property, dismissing as inconsequential poor white or enslaved Black men. Nor were women understood to be members of this body politic; their very bodies, minds, and souls—as well as their earthly possessions—were legally deemed the property of their husbands or fathers.
Some seven decades later in New York State, the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848 heralded the subsequent decline of this demeaning tradition of coverture. That summer, inspired by circumstance and happenstance, outspoken leaders in the causes of abolition and women’s rights met in Seneca Falls upstate to organize a conference to contemplate the large issues of the day concerning women: namely, the lot of their own civil rights.
Gathering their list of grievances into a Declaration of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton retrofitted Jefferson’s revolutionary prose for a new time, specifying that it was self-evident that women, too, were created equal. “He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life,” the new declaration called out. Its affirmations were directed not at a king, but at men and the patriarchal system they had contrived.
There was some trepidation, however, about adopting one particular sentiment: Stanton’s impassioned appeal for women’s right to vote. Although the subject had not been embraced wholesale by the convention’s attendees, Frederick Douglass, the only African American present, spoke eloquently and convincingly in favor. A public intellectual and proud “woman’s-rights man,” he had observed women’s “agency, devotion, and efficiency” in pleading the cause of the enslaved. He, in turn, invoked women’s moral intelligence, among other attributes, as justification for their right to participate in republican government, and “in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws, and thus shape the destiny of all the people, irrespective of sex.”
Stanton was a noted thinker and would-be jurist like her father—were it not for the fact that she was a woman and thus forbidden from studying the law—and she worked tirelessly to keep the topic of woman suffrage on the table and in public consciousness. Decades later, it was her determination and persistence, along with that of her activist colleagues, that revived the flagging movement when it seemed to sputter and stall. When she and Susan B. Anthony launched production in 1876 on what would become the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, they officially established the longstanding gravity of women as political agents and essentially recast the foundational narrative of American history, righting a colossal wrong.
The old adage that “history is written by the victors” may not here apply, given that it would not be until 1920—and many years after Stanton and Anthony’s deaths—that the amendment for women’s suffrage would pass. Even so, it was Stanton’s prerogative to cast herself in a starring role in the suffrage story as per her telling, along with the other players in her orbit. Yet lingering tensions over the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments—granting citizenship to Black men but not to women— hovered over her account. As the once-allied suffrage and abolitionist movements fractured, how was it, Stanton and Anthony argued, that Black men could get dibs on the vote before educated and literate white women would? Calling into question systemic sexism, these 19th-century suffragists also unwittingly embraced structural racism. Ultimately, articulate and accomplished African American fellow suffragists were swept up and cast off from the official record of the struggle, along with other suffragists whose strategies diverged from the authors’. As a result, the creation story of Seneca Falls and beyond persisted without deference to other leaders who would remain largely forgotten—not exactly foes of Stanton and Anthony, but neither were they friends.
We are living in a time of heightened awareness of the inequities of the past. As we tear down monuments and yank one-time heroes and heroines off their pedestals, we layer current perspectives on the American story over freshly discovered and recovered historical narratives. In so doing, the public can experience first-hand the uneasy truth of which historians have always been aware: that history can be messy and not always so easily categorized into distinct columns of good or bad. Even as monuments and myths can be meaningful touchstones within a particular historical moment, evaluating their significance in the here and now is an important exercise.
The long-anticipated centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, removing sex as a barrier to the vote, did not unfold quite as planned for August 2020. COVID-19 had already derailed the year in all respects, but the summer’s focus on the nation’s enduring racial issues, followed by vigorous attention to the upcoming presidential election, took the spotlight away from the remembrance of an amendment which granted a right that in many respects had already long since been taken for granted. And yet, animated perhaps by the lingering specter of #MeToo, the anniversary, for the most part, has given rise to an important examination of the complexities and deficiencies of the 19th Amendment, and the simple fact that 100 percent of women were not represented in its otherwise heroic passage 100 years ago. Many women—African Americans, but also Asian Americans, Native Americans, and American women married to foreigners—still were restricted from voting. Some states, as tolerated by authorities, found ways to keep women voters away, through poll taxes, literacy tests, or the threat of violence.
Current commemorations, from museum exhibitions like our own Women March to public programs to the erection of new statues, have heeded this broader, nuanced history, by recognizing, along with the figures we know, the leadership of many women of color whose names we had never known before. Lost in this mix are still other women who will always remain anonymous—the ones who showed up, marched in the streets by the thousands, and demonstrated the power of small individual acts to yield the epic result of a mass movement for the greater good.
Scholars and public historians have been quick to observe that given this freighted history, the anniversary might be better deemed a commemoration, not a celebration. The grainy footage of marching “suffragettes” who pushed the 19th Amendment over the finish line takes on new meaning when we view them in the related context of the collective action of the women who came both before and after them, and contemplate the road ahead for those who are still to come. Taken together, all this in itself might be cause for celebration, allowing us to consider how far we have come, the tortured path of how we got here, and how much farther we have yet to go. In this season of suffrage and suffering, we salute these women of the past by recognizing their struggle and by ourselves exercising the fundamental right of citizenship for which they fought: the right to vote.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
Written by Valerie Paley, senior vice president, chief historian, and director of the Center for Women’s History at the New-York Historical Society