“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
So states the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, the product of the Seneca Falls Convention led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848. The convention was a founding moment in American first-wave feminism, the topic of episode 2.1 of the Christian Feminist Podcast.
In that episode (shownotes here; episode here or on iTunes), Victoria Farmer, Shelah Woodruff, and I talk about first-wave feminism and the American suffrage movement. The episode deals particularly with how that movement is portrayed in Katja von Garnier’s excellent 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels. But here, I want to focus on just two words from the Declaration of Sentiments: “and women.”
As Victoria points out in the episode, the Declaration of Sentiments’ addition of these two words to the language of the Declaration of Independence is a powerful rhetorical move. It points to the incongruence of the inequality and subjection of women in a nation purportedly founded on principles of equality and freedom from tyranny. It marks a claim to the full legal equality of women.
The convention, and the Declaration, were instrumental in creating support for the women’s suffrage movement, which culminated in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment seventy-two years later. The spirit of that movement, and of much of later feminism to this day, can be encapsulated in those two words from the Declaration: “and women.”
Men can vote. And women can vote. Men are people. And women are people. All men and women are equal.
It was a radical statement for the mid-nineteenth century. You would think that there would be no need for such statements anymore—that the equality of men and women goes without saying now. It shouldn’t be needed now. (It shouldn’t have been needed then.) But there’s still need for this statement. And it’s still seen as radical in some contexts.
Consider a political example not from hazily distant antebellum days, but from this generation. You’ve probably heard this quote at some point before—it’s both famous and infamous for its characterization of feminism:
“[Feminism is] a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”
This is from a 1992 fundraising letter by televangelist Pat Robertson. What provoked Robertson’s attack on feminism? The same two words: Robertson was campaigning against a proposed amendment to the Iowa state constitution that would have added “and women” to the constitution’s statement, “All men are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights.” This seemingly simple addition was enough to create wide-ranging political debate and turmoil. (And the amendment didn’t pass.)1
The “and women” of the Declaration of Sentiments applied not only to the legal position of women, but also to the ecclesiastical position of women. Two of the resolutions in the Declaration called for the equality of women as teachers of theology and as church leaders.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton went on to gather a group of women who, with her, looked at traditional biblical teaching and asked “and women?” The result was The Woman’s Bible, a landmark of early feminist theology. Its two volumes, published in 1895 and 1898, comment on the female characters and the discussions of women in the Old and New Testament. The Woman’s Bible argued against the use of the Bible to condone the subjection of women or to promote the view that women are inferior to men. The biblical interpretations in The Woman’s Bible made it a valuable tool for women who faced Scripture-quoting opponents to women’s suffrage.
The Woman’s Bible was a scandalous bestseller. It proved so controversial even among others in the women’s suffrage movement that the National American Woman Suffrage Association passed a resolution dissociating itself from Stanton’s work. The book was so contrary to the religious status quo that one clergyman called it “the work of women and the devil.” (As Victoria observes, Stanton wittily responded that “His Satanic Majesty was not invited to join the Revising Committee, which consists of women alone.”)
You would think that reading the Bible with the question “and women?” in mind would be more matter-of-course now than it was in the era of first-wave feminism. Surely no one picking up The Woman’s Bible today would label it satanic. Or would they? Surely, today, a book that undermines the traditional view of submissive, subordinate biblical womanhood wouldn’t be a controversial bestseller. Or maybe it would be.
Many aspects of first-wave feminist movements have rightfully been criticized—problems with xenophobia, racism, and gender essentialism chief among them. But that basic declaration of the full humanity of women has an enduring power. We are still making, and will continue to make, that radical political and theological statement that all men and women are equal.
Note: In using binary language in this post, I don’t mean to suggest that people who do not identify as either men or women are not included in full human equality–I’m just alluding to the language used historically in these documents.
Also, due to my current schedule, I’ve decided that for the next month or so, I’ll post on Christian Feminist Podcast topics on Thursdays, rather than on Wednesdays.
[Image: Detail of the program for the Woman Suffrage Procession of March 3, 1913. Credit: Adam Cuerden (attribution for image; work in public domain), via Wikimedia Commons]
The only other change called for by the amendment was the addition of the sentence, “Neither the State nor any of its political subdivisions shall, on the basis of gender, deny or restrict the equality of rights under the law.” The words “and women” were added to the Iowa constitution in 1998; this sentence, never. ↩