Whatever Happened to Women's Rights?

More than a century after Seneca Falls, women are allowing their political and educational rights to languish.

THE first Woman's Rights Convention in the United States was held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. It minced no words. It launched a vigorous attack on man's domination of woman along these lines:

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she has no voice.... He has taken from her all right to property.... He closes against her all avenues of wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine or law she is not known. He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.... He has endeavored in every way to destroy her confidence in her own peers, to lessen her self-respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

For the next three quarters of a century a relatively small number of devoted women led the charge. On most counts they won. In 1920 the last major barrier to full citizenship fell with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

Today, 116 years after the war cries from Seneca Falls, what is the American woman doing with her hard-earned rights? Some of them, particularly the right to own things, she has exercised with vigor. Most of them, particularly political and educational rights, she has allowed to languish.

President John F. Kennedy in 1961 appointed the first Commission on the Status of Women under the chairmanship of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Its report was delivered on October 11, 1963, after almost two years of work by a large and distinguished group of experts. On the matter of political rights the report notes:

The generation that struggled to obtain votes for women would have difficulty believing that the use of the right they gained would be as desultory as it is in many communities. Visitors from abroad, alike from countries whose women are active in the early suffrage movement and from countries where newly acquired independence has enfranchised large populations within the past few years, are surprised at the low percentage of adult Americans that appear at the polls.

Where statistics are available, as in the registration figures of certain states, it is clear that American women exercise their franchise to a lesser degree than men, though neither are stars.

The President's commission says: "Women outnumber men by some 3.75 millions but in terms of registration and election-day turnout their failure to use the vote converts them into a minority."

Some forty years after the American woman achieved free access to the voting booth and the right to seek a place for herself in public life, here is a profile of her position.

  • Only 2 United States senators are women.
  • Eleven of the 435 representatives in the United States Congress are women.
  • In 1962, of some 7700 seats in the 50 state legislatures 234 were occupied by women.
  • Three of the 422 federal judges are women.
  • Only 2 women have ever held Cabinet rank.
  • Six women have been ambassadors or ministers.
  • At the local level, in city and town councils, on elected boards of education, in mayors' chairs, in governors' mansions, women are so rare it is difficult to believe that they constitute a political majority.

Dr. George Gallup says the strongest remaining prejudice regarding a presidential candidate is the prejudice against a woman. In a recent national poll 84 percent of those interviewed said they would vote for a qualified Catholic; 77 percent would vote for a qualified Jew; only 55 percent would vote for a woman no matter how good her qualifications.

Prejudice against a woman candidate is more prevalent among women than among men: 58 percent of the men polled said they would vote for a qualified woman; only 51 percent of the women would. Significantly, the negative attitude is also stronger among women: 45 percent of women gave a flat no to the idea of a woman President, and only 4 percent were undecided. With men the negative vote was only 37 percent, with 5 percent on the fence.

How about the right of women to own things?

Here is a fairly typical statement on this subject by a New York advertising woman:

Women not only hold the purse strings, they even carry the keys to the lock box and the combination to the safe. Over two-thirds of the nation's wealth is in the woman's name. Women comprise 51 percent of all adult shareholders. Housewives, in fact, are the largest occupational group among shareholders, numbering four million. Women own 53 percent of all government bonds. And they hold 45 percent of all real estate mortgages and bonds ... Women are buying 75 percent of all consumer goods and services sold in America.

Although these figures, and a great many more like them, make it quite clear that women have pursued the right to own with considerably more zeal than the right to vote, they are not as conclusive as they seem to be. There is no doubt that much of this "ownership" is titular, representing a legal arrangement rather than an actual fact of acquisition. But on any basis it points up the importance of the American woman as a buyer. Most of the time she is buying as the family purchasing agent and is thus exercising buying custody over family funds -- a "right" of no mean power.

What about the right of the American woman to earn a living?

Of the ninety-six million American females alive today, from infants to octogenarians, eight out of ten at some time in their lives will have worked for wages. In any average month last year there were some twenty-three million women at work. Some seventeen million of them are full-time workers.

Presented by

Paul Foley started his career as a newspaperman in Chicago and Detroit, served briefly on the foreign staff of the Associated Press, and headed the OWI News Bureau in Istanbul during World War II. At the time of publication, he was vice chairman of McCann-Erickson, Inc.

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