Sometime in the last decade or so I graduated from being a mother of one to being the mother of all. I cannot remember the moment of the transformation, but I can tell you that my sentences now end with ‘, honey’ when I meet people of younger generations. Regardless of how they receive it, and even if they don’t recognize it, I am their mother. When society tells my babies to accept their second-class citizenship where they are openly dismissed for the color of their skin, their gender identity, religion, country of origin or who they love, I ache. I physically ache. I get angry. I rally. I demand better of my country. There is a universal mother inside most of us. She fights for her babies, regardless of whose womb they came out of.
I honestly believe that it is our need to defend our babies that has allowed the women’s movement to become all but ignored for as long as it has. We have been distracted by our need to champion, protect and lift up our children. Most women take the history of the movement for granted or don’t know about its struggles and accomplishments. Most tragically, many don’t realize the battles that were never won and the rights we are presently living without because we have relegated our own needs to being a secondary cause (at best) for generations.
Its time for us all to realize that while we are making demands of a country that has refused to acknowledge our rights, we don’t have the platform we need to make the changes we seek. Half of our children do not have the right to make those demands for themselves. What we leave for our daughters is an important reflection for every universal mother. They will become the mothers of the next generations. They, too, will have no platform. It is time that we all take pause and understand the profound legacy our foremothers have left us and what mantle we must carry for the mothers who follow.
Most Americans have no knowledge of the women’s movement. It has been condemned to hysteria for as long as it has existed. The history is quite important, however, to contextualize the place we find ourselves today. In 1923, exactly 75 years after the first Women’s Rights Convention, the movement went forward in compelling the country to understand that the right to vote we had finally attained a few years earlier was not enough. Alice Paul put forth the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which was written to guarantee equal rights to women, as the Constitution had been deliberately framed to omit that half of society. Having been proposed in every session of Congress for 49 years, both houses passed the ERA in 1972. After making it through Washington, however, it had to go to the states for ratification. And that, it seems, was too much to ask.
This is the entire text of the Equal Rights Amendment:
*Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States by any state on account of sex.
*Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
*Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
This amendment was not ratified by ¾ of the United States. After years of trying to compel those states to ratify, in 1982 the deadline expired. The right turns every discussion into a distraction about ‘states rights.’ Whenever you hear this in the future, remind yourself that we could not even get the states to grant equality to women.
The decades between its proposal and its eventual demise were filled with debates from various feminist groups. Alice Paul defined equality as having no limits. Those who opposed the ERA countered that women needed to have protections. This distraction eventually killed the ERA.
The leader of the anti-women’s movement, Phyllis Schlafly, compelled American women to believe that the ERA would create hardships for housewives. Her conflated logic offered fear to women by telling them that they would no longer be able to win custody of their children in divorces, sexual assault would no longer be a crime and that unisex public restrooms would become the norm. As absurd as these contentions were, they found a fearful audience which managed to completely revert the overwhelming support the ERA had in America at the time. The anti-women’s movement is the one that took hold, found political backing and thrives to this day. Schlafly was honored this year in a Regressive forum with the Presidential candidates in attendance. She took the stage and bragged about the fact that the very room they were standing in was the one she was in when she killed the ERA. That is the woman the Regressive Party wanted to celebrate. In 2015.
Once that revelation has found a place in our minds, it is easy to understand why the entire Regressive field of Presidential candidates struggled to find an answer to which American woman they would commemorate on the $10 bill in their second debate this year. This was an opportunity to look at American history and tell their constituents about the women we should hold in esteem. These were their answers:
Rand Paul: Susan B Anthony — the only name history seems to recall, who has already been recognized on a silver dollar.
Mike Huckabee: his wife.
Sen. Marco Rubio: Rosa Parks
Ted Cruz: Rosa Parks (because that was a good answer Rubio!)
Ben Carson: his mother.
Donald Trump: his daughter.
Jeb Bush: Margaret Thatcher (apparently he couldn’t think of an American woman)
Scott Walker: Clara Barton
Carly Fiorina: Nobody — ‘We need to realize that women are not a special interest group’
John Kasich: Mother Theresa (again, not an American)
Chris Christie: Abigail Adams
They have either been well conditioned to believe that the question of celebrating women is irrelevant to everyone, or they think it is more important to project attitudes of the universal white man to make their brethren comfortable. Either way, the fact that only 3 of the 11 answers (no credit for repeats) were serious contenders speaks volumes about how diminished our voices and our movement are.
It is important to understand that Chris Christie determined Abigail Adams was a notable choice because, as he used that moment to point out, of the indebtedness America owes to her husband, John. Abigail Adams is an easy name to conjure in an instant. She is sometimes recognized in obligatory historical remembrances because of her letter to John in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was being authored where she compelled him to ‘remember the ladies’ in whatever codes of laws our new country would dictate. She wrote:
I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
However, history seems to have all but forgotten John Adams’ rather poignant reply which clearly encapsulates the reason we find ourselves in this place nearly 250 years later:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. — This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out. Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight. I am sure every good Politician would plot, as long as he would against Despotism, Empire, Monarchy, Aristocracy, Oligarchy, or Ochlocracy.
Indeed. They knew better than to repeal their masculine systems. They have not unlearned that lesson.
Women won the right to vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution removing the word “male” from the 15th Amendment, which offered voting rights to former slaves. This is its entire text:
The right of 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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
That fight, alone, took 50 years.
Many give thoughtless dismissals to discussions of the ERA by saying that the Constitution was written for all Americans and condemn conversations about its intent to semantics. That could open thoughtful discourse, I suppose, if that were the way the Constitution was written. I have already evidenced the obvious exclusion of women’s rights by the framers of the Constitution and offered text to prove that exclusion when the 15th Amendment was enacted, but, lest anyone be confused about how that would be interpreted by our leaders in 2015, I offer you a stunning example of its application this year. In April, the States Attorney of South Carolina filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court which stated:
The Amendment’s framers certainly did not intend to dismantle, but fought to preserve, state marriage laws. Indeed, skeptical congressmen insisted that these remain unaffected by the Amendment. Many feared that state disabilities placed upon married women, such as property ownership, would be undermined by an earlier Amendment draft.
This was ‘in support of respondents’: Bill Haslam, Governor of TN, Rick Snyder, Governor of MI, Steve Beshear, Governor of KY. The male Regressive leaders of the states of South Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky, in their attempts to disavow marriage equality, used the fact that women still had not found equality, per the Constitution, to denounce our children. And ourselves.
The truth of the adage, No one can love you until you truly love yourself lifts many upon revelation. Similarly, no one will respect us until we respect ourselves. At present, we are not demanding equality. We are allowing words like ‘feminazi’ to shut down important conversations. We are still trying to compel others to believe we are worthy of equal pay. That was part of the basis of the women’s movement over 150 years ago. Honestly, if we cannot demand more of ourselves and our movement, we can hardly expect anyone else to. They dismiss us because we allow them to. They condemn us with tired stereotypes because we don’t expose those who mean to counter our truths.
Every March, America congratulates itself for having allowed women to exist within its borders and designates a handful of our foremothers to levels of prominence. It would be lovely, I suppose, if it were sincere. We all know about Susan B. Anthony. Or we know her name, anyway, right? American history has maintained her name, if not her complete story. She was a tireless champion for women and deserves unending esteem. She was, however, half of a set. And history has forgotten her sister-in-arms, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although they were best friends and united in the cause for over 50 years, they had very different personalities and approaches to their audiences. Cady Stanton, basically, had no use for diplomacy. She was the more outlandish of the two, she would not bend to the ideals of the more conservative voices of the movement, and she did not attempt to find a more delicate tone for a more needy audience. I assume that this is why her memory has been lost. She was a radical.
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Although its attribution has been given to several women, its truth is undeniable. Most accomplishments of the women’s movement were made by those history, itself, has determined unseemly and a society quite content with its male dominance has determined forgettable. Regardless of whether or not their stories are well-known, their efforts cannot be forgotten. And we cannot leave our movement in a stagnant state of disregard. Our universal willingness to behave has left us here in a place where we don’t even acknowledge an all-but ignored Equal Rights Amendment, nearly 100 years after its proposal. As long as we quietly submit to that truth, we are foolish to demand better of the society which has grown quite comfortable with our place in it.
I compel all universal mothers who are genuinely interested in the legacy we leave our daughters and the tools we leave them to win the myriad fights to come for our children’s children, to reflect on which rights we were meant to have. And I ask all to then take the only right we presently have, the vote, more seriously from now on. Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said of the vote, “The right is ours. Have it we must, use it we will.” She was half right, at least. Thanks to the decades of relentless efforts by she, Susan B. Anthony and countless names all but lost to history, we have the right to vote. And within a century of having attained that right, we show as much regard for that right as we do for the right to participate in casual Fridays.
No woman who loves her country or her children can take her solitary right to vote for granted. And no woman who loves her country or her children can continue to accept their undefined rights to equal citizenship. We must now champion our own movement so that we can have a meaningful voice in our own futures and those of our daughters. It is an imperative. Do not allow yourself to believe otherwise.