By Vice Adm. Michelle Howard
Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5)
We, citizens, want to be treated equally. The concept is at the heart of Women’s Equality Day. We understand that we are all born into this world with different attributes, but in terms of our relationship with the government, we believe we are emancipated human beings and that freedom belongs to each of us. The rights of the Constitution belong to the people and cannot be parceled out based on arbitrary characteristics of gender, race, religion or creed. One of the most important of these is the right to vote. In order to appreciate our right to vote, it’s helpful to understand the advocates who came before us and to learn about those who demanded their rights at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
The convention was hastily put together by a couple of women abolitionists, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They were leaders in the anti-slavery effort, but as they traveled they found they were barred from attending international conventions because they were women. They decided to call for a conference to discuss women’s reforms. Despite the fact it was pulled together in less than a week, nearly 300 people attended.
The conference consisted of several speeches and debates. From newspaper reports of the day, the women understood and used the opportunity to publicize the grievances against their sex. In the end the catalog of injustice included lack of property rights and recognition in the church, inequitable partnership in marriage and taxation without representation. At Seneca Falls, N.Y., Elizabeth Cady Stanton took a stand and courageously brought up the lack of voting rights for women. She was decades ahead of her time and peers. The thought was so audacious that Mott was shocked. Mott responded, “Why, Lizzie, thee [you] will make us ridiculous.”
Stanton was undeterred. In a rousing speech, she strongly argued that the right to vote based on gender was capricious. She said it would be one thing if voters were chosen because of achievement, and it was simply a matter of the Websters, or the Van Buren’s who could vote. But instead, simply by being born white, and male, the cherished right also went to “…drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rum-selling rowdies and silly boys…” She asked how could these types of people be “fully recognized, while we (women) ourselves are thrust out from all the rights that belong to citizens…?”
The novel concept of women voting was too much for the men in attendance. On the last day of the convention, the resolution for the right to vote did not pass. And then fate stepped in, in the form of Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass has been a hero of mine since childhood. It boggles my mind that a human being could not only survive slavery, but escape, learn how to read on his own, and become an internationally known abolitionist. At the time of the convention, he was the editor of the newspaper the Rochester Star. He was the only African American at the convention, a man who was still considered property in 1848, with no rights himself, advocating for the rights of women.
When the voting resolution failed, Frederick Douglass stood up and gave a fiery speech on why the right to vote belonged to all people. His words persuaded the gathering to approve the resolution. One hundred men and women signed the Declarations of Sentiments which included the right to pursue suffrage. Forty-five years would pass before the first sovereign nation, New Zealand, would extend the right to vote to women. Seventy-two years would pass before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution would pass in 1920. Only one of the woman signers of the Declaration of Sentiments, Charlotte Woodward, lived long enough to cast her vote in the United States.
Since 1920, women have been blessed with the privilege of choosing those who govern us. And when you think about the individuals who came before us, and what they sacrificed, you cannot help but appreciate that this is an awesome responsibility. We, citizen-Sailors, are defenders of the Constitution. We serve in a nation where the people, regardless of what they look like, what religion they practice, whether poor or rich, have the opportunity to choose those who will govern.This thing, democracy, equal treatment of citizens, is a very special thing. Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass and many others all realized more than 150 years ago.
We owe them, and ourselves the commitment to demonstrate democracy in action – to use the power given us – to vote. Elizabeth Stanton had it correct, “The right is ours. Have it, we must. Use it, we will.”
To learn more about the impact of women in the U.S. Navy , visit Naval History and Heritage Command. Additionally, find out how other Naval leaders feel about Women’s Equality Day.
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