These were patriotic women, sharing the ideal of improving the new republic. They saw their mission as helping the republic keep its promise of better, more egalitarian lives for its citizens. As the women set about preparing for the event, Elizabeth Cady Stanton used the Declaration of Independence as the framework for writing what she titled a “Declaration of Sentiments.” In what proved to be a brilliant move, Stanton connected the nascent campaign for women’s rights directly to that powerful American symbol of liberty. The same familiar words framed their arguments: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
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During this same time, thousands of young women on college campuses were playing active roles within the anti-war and civil rights movement. At least,that was their intention. Many were finding their efforts blocked by men who felt leadership of these movements was their own province, and that women’s roles should be limited to fixing food and running mimeograph machines. It wasn’t long before these young women began forming their own “women’s liberation” organizations to address their role and status within these progressive movements and within society at large.
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The Seneca Falls women had optimistically hoped for “a series of conventions embracing every part of the country.” And that’s just what did happen. Women’s Rights Conventions were held regularly from 1850 until the start of the Civil War. Some drew such large crowds that people actually had to be turned away for lack of sufficient meeting space!
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So it’s clear that, contrary to common misconception, the Women’s Rights Movement did not begin in the 1960s. What occurred in the 1960s was actually a second wave of activism that washed into the public consciousness, fueled by several seemingly independent events of that turbulent decade. Each of these events brought a different segment of the population into the movement.
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The second wing of the post-suffrage movement was one that had not been explicitly anticipated in the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments.” It was the birth control movement, initiated by a public health nurse, Margaret Sanger, just as the suffrage drive was nearing its victory. The idea of woman’s right to control her own body, and especially to control her own reproduction and sexuality, added a visionary new dimension to the ideas of women’s emancipation. This movement not only endorsed educating women about existing birth control methods. It also spread the conviction that meaningful freedom for modern women meant they must be able to decide for themselves whether they would become mothers, and when. For decades, Margaret Sanger and her supporters faced down at every turn the zealously enforced laws denying women this right. In 1936, a Supreme Court decision declassified birth control information as obscene. Still, it was not until 1965 that married couples in all states could obtain contraceptives legally.
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Next: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and national origin. The category “sex” was included as a last-ditch effort to kill the bill. But it passed, nevertheless. With its passage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to investigate discrimination complaints. Within the commission’s first five years, it received 50,000 sex discrimination complaints. But it was quickly obvious that the commission was not very interested in pursuing these complaints. Betty Friedan, the chairs of the various state Commissions on the Status of Women, and other feminists agreed to form a civil rights organization for women similar to the NAACP. In 1966, the National Organization for Women was organized, soon to be followed by an array of other mass-membership organizations addressing the needs of specific groups of women, including Blacks, Latinas, Asians-Americans, lesbians, welfare recipients, business owners, aspiring politicians, and tradeswomen and professional women of every sort.