19 July 2012


On this day in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention met ~ marking the beginning of the first wave of feminism in the United States.  The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  The event was seen by some participants as "a single step in the continuing effort by women to gain themselves a greater portion of social, civil, and moral rights", and was viewed by others as "a revolutionary beginning to the struggle by women for complete equality with men".  In addition to Mott and Stanton, other prominent feminist activists of the time included Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Victoria Woodhull, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, and the sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke.

The issues of the late 19th and early 20th century were quite different from those faced by the second wave of feminism, which began in the early 1960s.  In those early days, women's rights advocates were active in seeking the abolition of slavery, as well as reform of laws under which women were little more than chattel (possessions), subject without legal recourse to marital mistreatment and violence, and not even having the right to vote.  It is no coincidence that during both waves, mutual support existed between feminists and the black civil rights movement.  Both movements sought equal rights with the white male establishment.  One of the earliest male supporters of the feminist cause was the black orator, social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglas.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was introduced to some of the first wave's ideas during the time the second wave was forming.  During my senior year in high school, I recall visiting my girlfriend's locker in the hall between classes, and her proudly showing me a copy of The Subjection of Women by British philosopher John Stuart Mill, an early white male supporter of the rights of women.  Naive lad that I was, I'd always just assumed gender equality, and had no inkling of the courageous struggles that had occurred (and which continue to this day) to secure equal treatment under the law.  Thank you, Nancie.

Another fifteen years would pass before I decided to immerse myself in women's issues.  I'd returned to college at the University of Arizona, and chose a minor in Women's Studies, an interdisciplinary department under the able direction of Myra Dinnerstein.  She and the course professors were very encouraging toward male students, who made up about 10% of a given class.  As a white male, finding myself in such a minority gave me a glimmer of insight into the experience of minorities who don't happen to be born into relative social power ~ including attitudes ranging from tolerance to outright hostility from my women classmates.

The classes themselves were excellent and varied ~ Women in Literature (both as writers and as protagonists), Women in American History, Women in Philosophy.  I don't recall a course offering for Women in Science at the time ~ that would have been excellent.  I learned much, participated actively, aced every course, and made a few wonderful friendships along the way.  During those years I was privileged to attend a talk by one of my personal heroes, activist and journalist Gloria Steinem.

It is an experience every man should seek out (just as every white person should go out of his/her way to learn about the lives of blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other oppressed groups).  The more we learn, the more our lives are enriched .... and the less willing we are to tolerate prejudice in any form.  Today much has been achieved in our country, though there are still far too few women in positions of leadership ~ lawmakers and CEOs ~ and women still are paid less than men in many fields.  Even more challenging, in third world nations, especially Muslim nations, women are facing the struggles which first-wave feminists in the U.S. faced 164 years ago.  We humans can be slow learners.

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