« Previous  
 Next »

Women's history month

03/04/03 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
 MP3   Download MP3 

(Host) March is National Women's History Month, and commentator Cheryl Hanna reflects upon just how far women have come - and where they might be going.

(Hanna) The nation's first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with 300 other delegates, wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, which served as a blueprint for what would become the women's movement in America. Given that March is National Women's History Month, I thought it would be a good time to re-read it, if only to remind myself just how much has changed since 1848 - and how much hasn't.

Of course, the most significant advancement is that women now have the right to vote, although that didn't come until 1920 with the adoption of the 19th Amendment. Some states had allowed women to vote as far back as 1869, although - interestingly - Vermont was not one of them. The 19th Amendment didn't pass because men believed women were their equals in life, however. Women were seen as having a very different place in society than men.

Take, for example, the 1921 inaugural address of Vermont Governor James Hartness, in which he spoke of women's newly granted right to vote. He said: "Women coming into full equality bodes well for humanity. Women are the most natural representatives of the home, for they come with first-hand knowledge of the home. Man's work outside has so absorbed his attention that his keenness of the sense of home has been dulled." Sounds pretty old-fashioned and even sexist, doesn't it? But it was a liberal sentiment just 82 years ago.

Today, more women work outside the home than ever before. We own property, attend college, serve in the military, and are accountable for our own crimes - all rights denied the women of Seneca Falls. And we're no longer legally obliged to submit to sexual relations or suffer physical abuse at the hands of anyone.

But I'm not so sure that the sexes are really as equal as we sometimes think. In the research on women in America, one theme repeats itself: Even though men are less dull about family life than they used to be, women are still the primary caretakers of the home and at the same time are now also expected to work outside of it. Sadly, there isn't much help for most women trying to balance both. For example, America has one of the worst parental leave policies in the Western world and very few resources for childcare.

But the irony is that, even with our right to vote, women haven't demanded more. I wonder if that's because we're still ambivalent about what we mean by equality. Many women, I think, are caught in a catch-22. We want to have families and to take care of them ourselves. But we also need to feed them. And we have the inalienable right to pursue our own happiness, whatever that happiness may be.

I'm not sure how we'll resolve these tensions, but it's important to remind ourselves that the work begun at Seneca Falls isn't over yet.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.
comments powered by Disqus
Supported By
Become an Underwriter | Find an Underwiter