Important declarations concerning the rights of women were promulgated in France and England during the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. These included the1791 French Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, and the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments.
Declaration Of The Rights Of Woman And The Female Citizen
The feminist manifesto Declaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne, written by Marie Gouze, who was known as Olympe de Gouges, was a response to the French Republic’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens (1789), which de Gouges challenged as not applying equally to women. She charged that this declaration fell short of equal treatment of the sexes in matters of law, marriage, property, employment, and education, and she called upon the National Assembly to work toward obtaining a woman’s right to vote. She also placed particular emphasis on the need for an accessible and rigorous education for women.
De Gouges dedicated her tract to the queen, Marie Antoinette. In her preamble, de Gouges called for a national assembly of women to reform French society, based on laws of nature and reason. She set forth seventeen principles, articulated in her articles of equality. Among her assertions one finds that men and women should be equally admitted by ability to all honors, positions, and public employment. Freedom of speech and assembly should be guaranteed to women, and they should have the right to demand an accounting of the tax system. Article 16 declared the constitution of the state null if the majority of the people, including women, had not cooperated in drafting it. De Gouges ended with a social contract for women, proposing new laws of marriage and property.
Throughout her adult life, de Gouges wrote about the position of women, and the quality of their education, while other women of the period were addressing similar concerns in more tolerant societies. While education was a primary issue addressed in her many pamphlets, plays, novels, and political tracts appearing from 1788 to 1793, this remarkable and unpretentious woman, like the majority of females in her day, would not have received a rigorously academic or scholarly education. Education notwithstanding, she encouraged women of her time to become involved, to speak openly and publicly in support of her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. As Benoite Groult theorizes in her 1986 work on de Gouges, the unfortunate reality is that the women who participate in revolutions are hardly ever awarded the benefits of change. De Gouges write in 1791 that if “woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum, provided that her demonstrations do not disturb the legally established public order.” With these words, she foretold her own story. Because of her audacious, passionate, and radically conceptualized Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, and the sociohistorical context in which she lived, de Gouges was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by guillotine on November 3, 1793.
Declaration Of Sentiments
In the United States, a similar declaration was put forward over fifty years later as part of the first American women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848. The convention had as its purpose the examination of the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of American women. The convention was led by Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902). On the second day of the convention, a Declaration of Sentiments (largely written by Stanton and modeled after the Declaration of Independence) was approved by the sixty-eight women and thirty-two men who attended the convention. The declaration had as its main assertion that “all men and women are created equal.” Besides arguing that “He” (a general reference to male-dominated society) had not permitted women to vote, to have a voice in the creation of laws, or the right to property in marriage, the declaration maintained that women were denied the facilities for obtaining a proper education—specifically collegiate instruction.
Like de Gouges’s declaration, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments challenged the notion that the rights afforded to women should be any different than those assigned to men. Also like the Declaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne, the Declaration of Sentiments used a male-created revolutionary document as a template for its creation. In doing so, it made clear the hypocrisy of making all men free while excluding half of humanity in the form of women.
The 1848 meeting at Seneca Falls and its Declaration of Sentiments is widely considered the beginning of the feminist movement in the United States, as well as the foundation for the passage the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which enfranchised women by declaring that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
In 1948, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights called for universal and equal suffrage for all people. Its principles were further reinforced with its Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1979. Interestingly, the
United States is the only developed nation that has not ratified the convention. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, women’s suffrage has been largely achieved throughout the developed world, with notable exceptions in countries such as Saudi Arabia.
- Flexner, E. (1996). Century of struggle: The women’s rights movement in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Groult, B. (1986). Olympe de gouges: Oeuvres. Paris: Mercure de France.
- Levy, D. G., AppleWhite, H. B., & Johnson, D. M. (Eds.). (1979). Women in revolutionary Paris, 1789–1795. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Macaulay, C. (1790). Letters on education with observations on religious and metaphysical subjects. London: Dilly.
- Murray, J. S. (1798). The gleaner: A miscellaneous production. Boston: I. Thomas and E. T. Andrews.
- Wagner, S. R. (1998). A time of protest. Suffragists challenge the republic, 1880–1887. Aberdeen, SC: Sky Carrier Press.
- Wollstonecraft, M. (1975). A vindication of the rights of woman. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Press. (Original work published 1792)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm
- Declaration of Sentiments: http://www.nps.gov/archive/wori/declaration.htm
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights: http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html
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