It’s a Long Road from Seneca Falls

Posted by: Jason Gilpin, USAID

When I moved to Ukraine in 2007, I was pleasantly surprised that Women’s Day is a national holiday. Given all the inequality and injustice that women all over the world have faced and continue to face, I wondered why we in the United States hadn’t thought to celebrate a day outside Mother’s Day to honor the more than half of the world who get less than a quarter of the credit.

The origin of women’s rights in the United States is the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which declared that “all men are created equal.” As the English Dictionary, Merriam Webster points out, a definition of “man” is “the human race: mankind.” Unfortunately, it took my countrymen about a century and a half after 1776 to establish that “men” in the Declaration of Independence didn’t refer to the “male human,” it meant “the human race: mankind.” American women were denied the right to vote until 1920, but even at the time of America’s founding, the nation’s strength was dependent on the wisdom, prudence and perseverance of its women.

Even though women in revolutionary America were prohibited from voting, serving on juries, or even signing contracts, I wonder today how the

Martha Washington (June 2, 1731 – May 22, 1802)

young USA could have succeeded without the wisdom, foresight, and courage of its founding mothers, such as Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Margaret Catharine Moore Barry, and Dolley Madison (that’s not a typo – she spelled her name Dolley, although most people think it’s Dolly!).

Martha Washington is honored for having set the standard for intelligence, sensibility, and indefatigable patriotism in American women. She also continually encouraged her husband onward in the Revolution, despite the threat that she might very well lose everything she had, which was not at all insignificant, considering the fact that George Washington owed most of his wealth and economic status to her inheritance.

Abigail Adams’ letters to her husband (the 2nd President of the United States) are overwhelmingly credited by historians for helping her husband maintain his emotional ability to keep the young country from fracturing apart in the early years of the Republic. Also, as a woman of the Enlightenment, she was one of the first advocates for the rights of women. In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband: “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.”

Abigail Adams (November 22 1744 – October 28, 1818)

Margaret Catharine Moore Barry was a patriot in South Carolina in 1781. Seeing a strategic opportunity, General Daniel Morgan asked “Kate Barry” as she would later come to be known for help in rounding up other patriots in the backwoods of the region – he knew she was familiar with every forest, bog and swamp where they were hiding. She succeeded and today the crucial U.S. victory against the British at Cowpens is attributed to Kate Barry’s ability to quickly muster the forces of the backcountry.

Many Americans know the story of Dolley Madison, who bravely stayed in the White House until the very last minute as the British were invading Washington D.C. in 1814 in order to save a national treasure: a prized portrait of George Washington. But she also guided her shy, quiet, reserved husband, President James Madison, by being the popular extrovert he needed when the political rituals of the turbulent capital required it.

Abigail Adams’ “rebellion” and the struggle for women’s suffrage was a long one. Today scholars attribute the start of the political struggle for women’s rights in America to a meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19-20, 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Thomas and Mary Ann M’Clintock, and many others gathered to hear a reading of the Declaration of Sentiments, which was closely based on the Declaration of Independence. It guaranteed women equality in family, education, religion and morals. The idea of “suffrage,” or the right to vote, was added to the document, and endorsed wholeheartedly by Frederick Douglass, a famous anti-slavery Abolitionist leader.

The Soviet Union not only beat America into space, but it also passed Constitutional gender equality (Article 64) before the USA as well, in 1918. After a series of close votes from 1915 to 1918, some losing by only one or two votes, women’s suffrage was passed on by Congress to be approved by the states in 1919.

The Nineteenth Amendment that guarantees all American women the right to vote was ratified on August 18, 1920. On November 2, 1920, 8 million women voted for the first time.

By August 1920, 35 states had approved women’s right to vote and one more state was needed to make it law. Tennessee was the deciding state, thanks to a change of vote by a 24 year-old state legislator, Harry Burn, with the encouragement of his elderly mother and suffrage rallies across the State. On August 18th, 1920, enough states had ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution to make it law.

Seventy-two years after the Declaration of Sentiments, the goal of thousands of brave female activists, including Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Lucy Burns was finally realized.

America has not yet achieved gender equality, but we’ve come a long way since Seneca Falls. Just to take one example close to us here at the Embassy, three of the past four U.S. Secretaries of State were women: Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Women are extremely influential in all areas of American cultural, economic, sports and political life, and their influence is only increasing. I wonder how Lucy Burns and her colleagues would react if I told them that as a man, out of all the bosses in all the jobs that I’ve ever, nearly all have been women.

In America, Mother’s Day is a very important day. We take time to honor all the women in our lives who are mothers, whether they are our own mothers, our sisters, or our wives or grandmothers. But it’s also important to remember that honoring women is so much more than just about honoring them as mothers and caretakers. Women have done, are doing, and will do so much more. While carrying and caring for their children, they are also out changing the world.

In January 2000, the American Dialect Society convened to pick a word of the year. Except this time, they weren’t picking just the word of the year (in 1999, it was “Y2K”), or a word of the decade (for the 90’s, it was “web”) or even the word of the century (for the 20th century, it was “jazz”). On this occasion, the American Dialect Society had to pick a word of the last millennium. And the word they picked was “she.” They picked “she” because before the year 1000 A.D., no matter how absurd it sounds, there was no word for a female person in the English language.

I think though, that given all that people like Sojourner Truth, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Georgia O’Keefe, Ella Fitzgerald, and Emily Dickenson have done in just the last two hundred years…. ….“she” will be the word of this millennium as well.


Merriam Webster. Definition of “man”. Accessed online 25 Feb 2011
National Park Service. “Abigail Adams.” Accessed online 25 Feb 2012
Soviet News. “The Soviet Union in Facts and Figures.” 1958. Page 31. Accessed online 25 Feb 2012 on J-STOR:
The National Archives. “Women’s Suffrage” Accessed online 25 Feb 2012
The American Dialect Society “Words of the Year 1999” Accessed online 25 Feb 2012


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