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Women's Rights and Human Rights


August 26th of each year is designated in the United States as Women's Equality Day. Instituted by US Representative Bella Abzug of New York and first established in 1971, the date commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Women's Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave U.S. women voting rights in 1920. (For more information about Bella Abzug, go here.

The beginnings of the movement to achieve full voting rights for women in the U.S. dates back to July 1848. Inspired by the antislavery movement, more than 260 women and 40 men assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, for the nation's first women's rights convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton drew up a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, most of which passed with enthusiastic support. But many participants considered one declaration too radical: "Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise [the right to vote]."

In the great debate that followed, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, a former slave, stood with Stanton, arguing forcefully for women's right to vote. In the end, 68 women and 32 men adopted the resolution, and the struggle for women's right to vote began.

Between 1848 and 1920, women of all ages and ethnic backgrounds in communities across the country spoke out for women's right to vote. In 1851, Sojourner Truth (ca. 1797-1883) combined anti-slavery and the rights of women in an address to the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. Writer Frances Gage later recalled and reported Truth's powerful words:

"Well, children," Truth said, "where there is so much racket, there must be something out of kilter... That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! Look at me! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man -- when I could get it -- and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? ... If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!"

Sojourner Truth used the power of her words to change attitudes toward both women and African Americans. On April 28, 2009, she became the first black woman to be honored in the nation's capitol when a statue of her was placed in Emancipation Hall.

Despite the eloquence of Sojourner Truth and many after advocates, after the Civil War, leaders of the struggle for women's right to vote in the US divided over strategies, tactics, and whether or not to join forces with the struggle for African American men's voting rights.

In the early 1900s, women in Great Britain were also campaigning for the right to vote. Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) combined her training as an artist with her dedication to direct political action to become a leading suffragist there. She and women in the Artists' Suffrage League, formed in 1907, and the Suffrage Atelier, formed in 1909, created posters, postcards, banners, and organized parades to attract attention and support. The banners not only demonstrated female design skills, but also provided order, visual interest, and photographic opportunities during the parades. Pankhurst became an international leader for women's rights; her travels and work included participating in a major meeting held at the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville. When World War I began, however, she turned her attention to supporting the British war effort.

The Great War divided the suffragists and galvanized some women's rights activists, led by Jane Addams (1860-1935), to found the Women's Peace Party. The Women's Peace Party became a focal point for pacifist suffragists in Europe and the United States, where women effectively adapted visual images and demonstrations to support peace. In the spring of 1916, for example, the New York Women's Peace Party organized an art exhibition in Brooklyn entitled War against War, attracting 6 - 8,000 viewers in its opening days. The women also organized a procession in downtown Manhattan, featuring horse drawn wagons with large signs and images proclaiming the importance of peace. After the war, Addams became the first president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).

It was not until after the end of World War I, on August 26, 1920, that the 72-year struggle ended. The ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S. granted women the right to vote nationwide.

The actual text of the amendment reads:

Section 1. The right of the 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Only one woman who participated in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, 19-year-old Charlotte Woodward, lived long enough to cast her vote. Even after the 19th Amendment passed, African American women and men were prevented from exercising their right to vote by poll taxes, intimidation, and violence. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer continued to fight and suffer for the right to vote until the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which at last secured voting rights for all African Americans.

Women's Rights and Human Rights
Even though Bella Abzug introduced the legislation that established Women's Equality Day, she did not believe the struggle for women's equality ended with the right to vote. Abzug insisted that women deserved equal pay for equal work and required affordable child care to achieve economic equality in the US. She also extended her work to women around the globe and became a founder of the Women's Environment and Development Organization.

In 1995, Hillary Rodham Clinton underscored the powerful point that women's rights are human rights. Speaking at the 4th International Conference for Women in Beijing in 1995, Clinton said:

Our goals for this conference, to strengthen families and societies by empowering women to take greater control over their own destinies, cannot be fully achieved unless all governments -- here and around the world -- accept their responsibility to protect and promote internationally recognized human rights. Tragically, women are most often the ones whose human rights are violated. Even now, in the late 20th century, the rape of women continues to be used as an instrument of armed conflict. Women and children make up a large majority of the world's refugees. And when women are excluded from the political process, they become even more vulnerable to abuse. I believe that now, on the eve of a new millennium, it is time to break the silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.

As Clinton noted, global peace is an important component of security for women. In 2000, the UN Security Council reaffirmed the essential role that women play in peace-building in its historic Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. UNIFEM called for women's full participation in all aspects of peace-building, from negotiations to post-war reconstruction.

Women's Equality Day celebrates the courageous activists who won the right for women to vote today. Yet it is also a time to reflect on lessons learned from this 72 year struggle. The difficulty of telling the story of "women's rights" is that it is not the same for white and African American women. The story is too often told from white women's perspectives which not only discounts the contributions of African American women but also turns a blind eye to the prejudices of some of our most iconic women's rights leaders.

To truly understand the history of the long struggle for women's right to vote, we must consider the sources of the deep divisions in the women's rights movement among some suffragists, abolitionists, and peace activists. Reviewing this history makes us think about the challenges, past and present, of being pro-woman, a feminist, an artist, supporting peace, and standing up for racial and economic justice in our country and around the world.

Today, some feminist activists call this approach intersectionality, a theory that asserts that various forms of oppression in society (such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, etc.) are not only interrelated, but are bound together and overlap, or "intersect," to form a system of oppression incorporating multiple layers of discrimination. Recognizing these intersections in our own lives, and in the lives of others, is difficult to put into practice on a daily basis, yet is important as we learn from the past and continue on our path toward social justice.

Kentucky feminist bell hooks writes eloquently about the need for women to unite across ethnic and class differences, peace and violence, love and hate.

If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn't start with race; I wouldn't start with blackness; I wouldn't start with gender; I wouldn't start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I'm a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually is, steadfastly, on a path about love.

Many feminist social justice organizations are currently exploring the Human Rights Framework to define and clarify their work. The basis of the Human Rights Framework is that the path to social justice requires understanding and respecting the human rights of all individuals. According to the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, social justice requires that all human beings enjoy the freedoms of speech and belief, and freedom from fear and want. Based on these fundamental freedoms, the UN Declaration identified 5 categories of human rights: civil rights, political rights, economic rights, social rights, and cultural rights.

Sister Song is a good example of a feminist social justice organization embracing the Human Rights Framework to inform and evaluate their work. Their mission is to strengthen and amplify the collective voices of indigenous women and women of color to secure their human rights and achieve reproductive justice. Sister Song advocates adding 3 new categories of human rights to those identified in 1948: environmental rights, developmental rights, and sexual rights, because Sister Song sees all of these rights as interrelated. Understanding the intersections of these human rights helps activists to more effectively work toward a future that secures human rights for all people.

By understanding the history behind Women's Equality Day, we can clarify the interconnectedness of the forces that maintain global systems of oppression by denying human rights, and we can shape new strategies effective in countering those global forces. In these times of deep inner divisions among people suffering from oppression, it is more important than ever to support the basic human rights that unite us all.

As activists in the feminist social justice movement, our challenge now is to build on the lessons of the past to continue to create a vision of a future that honors the inalienable rights of all humans, shares the incalculable riches of our heritage and culture and strengthens our collective power to work for peace, justice, and sustainability of all our resources.