We Have Come a Long Way, Baby

“Women will wear enormous hats. There are obvious disadvantages about having women in Parliament. I do not know what is going to be done about their hats. "How is a poor little man to get on with a couple of women wearing enormous hats in front of him?"

- Rowland Hunt, MP for Ludlow, U.K.

My work centers on heightening and encouraging a woman’s appreciation of herself - to affirm that she does indeed have value, worth, and the power to be her full self, whatever that means to each and every woman. The concept of “being a Heroine” is how I’ve offered up the notion of worthiness. A Heroine is the creator of her own story, who holds the power of choice and responsibility for herself and her actions. The decision is hers. Her actions are responses to callings that spring from her own soul and psyche. This is the view of women I hold as I ponder (wrestle with) the potential removal of a significant part of a woman’s sovereignty, the right to choose what happens to her own body.

Becoming Inclusive

As much as I’ve wanted to maintain an inclusive space where all Heroines are concerned, I’m compelled to speak up about the (possibly) imminent overturning of Roe vs. Wade, the Jan. 22, 1973, U.S. Supreme Court decision that declares that the Constitution protects a woman’s legal right to an abortion.

I had to educate myself. I knew I needed a better understanding of and appreciation for all the women who have gone before, who have spoken up and paved the way for not only Roe vs. Wade but for the many rights we have as women in the United States. And yes, I know we still have far to go. We do. But so much has transpired to lift us up since earlier days when we couldn’t get beyond a very limiting image of a woman. That limiting image is what caused Abigail Adams to write to her husband, John Adams, and to the Continental Congress in 1776:

“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.”

Roe v Wade

When Roe vs. Wade was passed in 1973, I was a senior in college and was practice teaching so I could be certified to teach secondary school English in Maine as soon as I graduated. At the time, I wasn’t paying much attention to abortion rights. The need for an abortion never surfaced for me - and I’m thankful. My good friend wasn’t spared. She got pregnant right before senior year. The father of her baby denied that it was his baby. Her parents were adamant that she put her baby up for adoption. I remember visiting her in the hospital when she was still hoping that the guy would fess up and offer to marry her. He didn’t and she didn’t finish out her senior year.

I think about how many women, through the ages - and now - were like my friend. I try to put myself in their shoes with their choices - this huge decision of whether or not to bring a baby into the world: alone or with an unsupportive (or worse) partner or to give their baby up for adoption - or to have an abortion. All difficult, difficult choices.

It’s a thorny and complicated issue as I know you know. And just so you don’t have to guess or wait until you read to the end of my post, I believe that a woman has sovereignty over her own body. She has the right to choose. That shouldn’t surprise anyone. As an empowerment coach for women, I’m supportive of a woman’s empowerment in every area of her life. Heroines get to choose.

The National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA) helped me review and remember what has been gained as far as women’s rights. So much! It is the rebellion that Abigail Adams wrote about in her letter - unfolding over many years. I try to imagine all the women working behind the scenes and on the frontlines to achieve the gains I enjoy today. Alice Paul was one. She was the organizer who first wrote out the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, who said, “I always feel the movement is sort of a mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.”

So many women (and men) have contributed to the rights I enjoy today as a woman in the United States.

The NWHA site tells us, “Women, acting together, adding their small stones to the grand mosaic, have increased their rights against all odds, nonviolently, from an initial position of powerlessness. We have a lot to be proud of in this heroic legacy, and a great deal to celebrate on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Rights Movement.” They date the Women’s Rights Movement starting in 1848, so the 150th was in 1998.

“Against all odds” Also let me say up front that as a white woman, a privileged and entitled white woman, I recognize, at least try to recognize (At 70 I’m still a work in process.) that the path of “white women firsts” has been hard, but our black women citizens’ gains were much harder to achieve and came much later. (My grandparents were immigrants from Hungary and came in the early 1900s with nothing. But being white gave them advantages right from the start.)

We know that the issues of the Women’s Rights Movement were highly controversial when they were first voiced.

Allowing women to go to college?

That would shrink their reproductive organs!

Employ women in jobs for pay outside their homes?

That would destroy families!

Cast votes in national elections?

Why should they bother themselves with such matters?

Participate in sports?

No lady would ever want to perspire!

Women's Rights

And not until 1974, with The Fair Credit Opportunity Act, could women have their own credit card! A man needed to co-sign in order for a woman to have her own card. What?!

And we know there is still a gender wage gap “Overall, women who were full-time, year-round employees made 83 cents for every dollar men made in 2020, based on median earning data from the Census Current Population Survey. Mar 15, 2022”

So, as much as we still have to go, we have come far.

These and other issues that were once considered scandalous and unthinkable are now almost universally accepted in this country.

Let's Talk About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I read about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was invited to tea with four women friends on July 13, 1848, in New York, and they talked about the limitations that they felt. (It was just 70 years since the American Revolution had been fought to win many freedoms - but women’s freedoms weren’t part of that reckoning - nor freedom from slavery. ) That tea with friends is what’s recognized as the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement. Those women decided to hold a convention (you probably know all this - but I’m relearning) - the world’s first Women’s Rights Convention. This was the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19 and 20, 1848. ( Come to think of it, I don’t remember having a discussion about women's rights with my mother. And when I was in college Women’s Studies was just becoming a course offering.)

The National Women’s History Alliance tells us, “in the history of western civilization, no similar public meeting had ever been called.” That’s so remarkable in itself to think that women had never, at that point, gathered and planned a large gathering to talk about themselves and their rights. My women’s empowerment business kicked off in 2000, in Portland, Maine at the Women in Management Conference held by the University of Southern Maine, where I offered my first workshop. I think back to how many large gatherings of women I’ve attended and learned and benefitted from. What Stanton and her friends did was revolutionary then and is so accepted now.

Stanton copied the framework of the Declaration of Independence to draft a “Declaration of Sentiments” that she presented at that gathering. It began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal…” Then she listed the eighteen grievances that she and the other women planners believed stood in the way of true equality. The Declaration of Sentiments spelled out what was the status quo for European-American women in 1848 America, while it was even worse for enslaved Black women.

In this Declaration of Sentiments, Stanton carefully enumerated areas of life where women were treated unjustly. Eighteen was precisely the number of grievances America’s revolutionary forefathers had listed in their Declaration of Independence from England.

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Then it went into specifics:

• Married women were legally dead in the eyes of the law

• Women were not allowed to vote

• Women had to submit to laws when they had no voice in their formation

• Married women had no property rights

• Husbands had legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity

• Divorce and child custody laws favored men, giving no rights to women

• Women had to pay property taxes although they had no representation in the levying of these taxes

• Most occupations were closed to women and when women did work they were paid only a fraction of what men earned

• Women were not allowed to enter professions such as medicine or law

• Women had no means to gain an education since no college or university would accept women students

• With only a few exceptions, women were not allowed to participate in the affairs of the church

• Women were robbed of their self-confidence and self-respect and were made totally dependent on men

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s draft continued: “Now, in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”

Talk about Heroines!

Talk about guts, bravery…and of course, they suffered such a negative backlash because they found the courage to speak out.

There were 300 attendees, including organizers Elizabeth Cody Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the Declaration of Sentiments which got the ball rolling eventually leading to the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was certified by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, and women finally achieved the long-sought right to vote throughout the United States. On November 2 of that same year, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections for the first time. (It took over 60 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. Mississippi was the last to do so, on March 22, 1984.)

That was a big first and there are so many more "firsts." Here are just some of them - there are many lists of women’s “firsts” to be found on the internet. Each one helped us get to where we are today. I should include everyone but I find even these few give us a sense of the massive contribution that has been made on our behalf. Just think of what these women had to go through to put themselves out there in a world that didn’t necessarily welcome them:

What Women Have Accomplished 

January 23, 1849 - Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to graduate from medical school and become a doctor.

October 16, 1916 - Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the United States.

April 2, 1917 - Jeannette Rankin of Montana is sworn in as the first woman elected to congress as a member of the House of Representatives.

May 20-21, 1931 - Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.

1969 - Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York became the first African-American Congresswoman.

June 23, 1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments is signed into law by President Nixon: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Jan 22, 1973 - the Roe vs. Wade decision declares that the Constitution protects a woman’s legal right to an abortion.

September 20, 1973: Tennis star Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs.

July 7, 1981 - Sandra Day O’Connor is sworn in by President Reagan as the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

June 18, 1983 - Sally Ride is the first American woman in space flying off the Space Shuttle Challenge.

July 12, 1984 - Geraldine Ferraro is the first woman vice-presidential nominee by a major party.

March 12, 1993 - Janet Reno is sworn in by President Clinton as the first female secretary of state.

January 4, 2007 - Nancy Pelosi is the first female speaker of the house.

Jan 24, 2013 - Women can serve in the military in direct combat roles.

July 26, 2016 - Hilary Clinton becomes the first woman to receive a presidential nomination from a major political party.

January 20, 2021 - Kamala Harris is sworn in as the first woman and first woman of color vice president of the United States.

April 7, 2022 - Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is the first Black woman to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We've Come A Long Way

It’s mind-boggling. All these women (and let’s not forget the women who were supporting and encouraging them - and the men supporters, too) had to stand on the threshold of their own Heroine’s Journey and decide if they wanted to accept their call and go for it, knowing that the journey would be full of hard challenges - and repercussions. As I think about them all, each one providing the foundation for the next and the next, I am full of gratitude and awe. What courage and persistence it took - what resilience to bring about such gains, which for the most part I take for granted.

We have indeed come a long way, baby. And it’s a powerful and proud legacy, not ever to be forgotten.

So tell me then, how can we even consider undoing any of the rights that women have so valiantly carved out for the benefit of all of us? So much struggle, hard work, hard-fought achievements. How can we travel backward? How can the Supreme Court take away a woman’s right that we’ve had for twenty-nine years, which came as a result of so many women, so many stones being placed into “a grand mosaic?”

And if you remove one stone - what happens?