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.

Though women are represented in almost every type of employment, from domestic help to the highly paid professions, most jobs that women hold full time are in the lower-paid, unskilled, semi-skilled, or what might be called "blue smock" categories. Since World War II the number of women in American industry has increased, but the number of women in jobs or professions requiring higher education, training, or specialized knowledge has not kept pace.

There is no doubt that real, though subtle, prejudice against women still exists in some areas of employment opportunity. There are still some inequities in pay for comparable qualifications, though they are disappearing fast. But it is equally true that American women are not availing themselves of their greatest opportunities, where prejudice is at a minimum and reward at a maximum, in the skilled professions. Why?

Because too many young American women of college age shy away from the commitments which are necessary to make the most of themselves as individual human beings. They are exhibiting a growing tendency to avoid a career commitment -- with its earlier commitment to education and preparation -- in order to enter early into the marriage lottery. Many are frank to admit that they fear the years of education because if they wait until they finish college, the good marriage candidates will all be picked over.

The President's commission looked long and hard at this matter of education. Its report reveals that until recently more young women than young men stayed in school up to the college level. But once the college level was reached the girls fell behind. The 437,000 women who enrolled in colleges in 1962 constituted only about 42 percent of the entering class.

Women are earning only one in three bachelor's and master's degrees awarded by American colleges. They are earning only one in ten of the doctorates. Today's ratios, moreover, represent a loss of ground since the Depression years of the thirties, when two out of five bachelor's or master's degrees and one out of seven doctorates were earned by women. As a percentage of available opportunity, today's educational performance by American women is very poor indeed. Incidentally, half of all women over twenty-five years of age in this country have not finished high school.

The professions are wide open to American women. They won this right long ago, yet only 3.5 percent of the American lawyers, for instance, are women. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from an American medical college, became an M.D. in 1849, just a year after the Seneca Falls Convention. More than a century later only 6 percent of all students in the medical colleges of this Country are women, and the figure has remained almost constant for more than fifty years!

By contrast, of approximately 350,000 doctors in the Soviet Union 76 percent are women. In many European countries 30 to 35 percent of all practicing physicians are women. As far back as 1956 in the Soviet Union 53 percent of all specialists -- persons skilled by reason of higher education in any field of endeavor -- were women. One third of all deputies elected to regional soviets, or councils, are women.

The plain fact is that in the United States today an urgent need for more doctors, more dentists, more technicians, more scholars, more philosophers, more teachers, at all levels. We cannot afford the luxury of wasted human potential.

We seem to be suffering from the second oldest of blights: prosperity. Many of our young women find it easy to drift into and out of employment at their own pace and to suit their own temporary needs. They will make no commitment to a job, much less a profession. Consequently many employers find it difficult to make more than a fleeting and lukewarm commitment to them. In this society, women -- married or unmarried -- can have virtually any career to which they are willing to make the necessary personal commitment.

It is not easy. Nothing is easy, including marriage, into which American girls are rushing straight from their teens. In 1963 the average age at which females in America married was 19.8 years. It is safe to predict that the average female divorcee will become younger.

The great American stampede into early marriage is characterized by at least two major side effects: first, what might be called the "marriage blackout." This is a phenomenon in which the young woman's vision stops completely at the point of marriage. Beyond that point she loses sight of herself as an individual human being. Second, and corollary, is the "false choice," the idea that a young woman in this society must choose between marriage and a career.

It is an ironic, though easily observed, truth that girls who do make a commitment to education and personal development almost always find marriage opportunities within their own level of accomplishment. These marriages have a far better chance of success because they are between two whole people and seldom pose the false choice between being a partner or being a person.

What underlies the urgent drive of today's young women to early marriage as an end rather than a beginning? Many things, of course; but we should not overlook a seldom-mentioned fact: America, more than any other enlightened society in this last half of the twentieth century, puts a social stigma -- overt or hidden -- on the simple fact of a woman's remaining unmarried. The hue and cry is led by women. Men could hardly care less. In fact they are developing a real respect for the women with courage enough to stand against the pack.

It has long been a part of the American cultural myth that fathers are unanimous in wanting "my boy to have it better than I did." The same attitude is seen in most mothers toward their daughters. It goes something like this: Avoid the dangers inherent in years of education and years of work. Marry as early as possible without appearing to be frantic, and try for the best prospect of suburban prosperity and security.

The fact is that many American families are experiencing a declining level of education to the point where both parents are college-educated but many daughters are unlikely to be. The real mother-daughter relationship in this great American mating spectacle has been little understood outside the psychiatric world. It has received much less attention than the mother-son relationship. There is mounting evidence that Mom's memory of her own working years, her own escape from singleness, her vanity for her daughter's popularity are all fairly strong shoves toward early marriage.

For public scrutiny of the American woman, 1963 was a banner year. In addition to the very impressive report of President Kennedy's commission, there was a flood of magazine articles and books, ranging from the best-selling handbook Sex and the Single Girl to the virtually fact-free vision entitled The Feminine Mystique. Out of it all certain things emerge clearly:

  • Women arose as women in the middle of the nineteenth century.
  • They demanded, as they should have, certain basic rights.
  • Having achieved these rights, they have been almost finicky in the selectivity with which they exercise them.
  • Rights to own things are very popular.
  • Rights to do things, such as become well-educated, vote, run for office, enter the professions, are handled like old-fashioned jewelry; they are valued but they lie unused in a drawer.
  • The one "right" which women have always had, frequently scorned, never fought for, is the one to which they now rush in fevered haste, the right to get married.

Perhaps it is time for women, married or unmarried, to arise as individuals committed to perfect themselves as human beings wherever they are, whatever they do. In this direction lies what is called happiness. There is no mystique about it.