Women Set New Agenda for the 21st Century
On 150th anniversary of convention, Celebrate '98 builds on the past.
SENECA FALLS, N. Y. — One hundred fifty years ago today, 300 women and men gathered in a chapel in upstate New York and debated the rights of women.
By the close of this first women's rights convention, 68 women and 32 men had signed a Declaration of Sentiments that has since led to a transformation of American society.
At a time when women did not speak in public, much less vote, the document called for giving them the "elective franchise," overthrowing the "monopoly of the pulpit," and securing for women equal participation in the workplace.
Today, that declaration is now serving as a rallying call for the women who want to finish what the pioneers of 1848 began and take that message worldwide in a global effort to achieve equal rights for women. During the past four days, some 15,000 Americans - mainly women but some men - traveled here to celebrate what has been accomplished since 1848 and to recommit themselves to completing the task in the next millennium.
"We've come to honor the past and to imagine the future," said first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who roused an enthusiastic crowd at the sunbaked opening ceremonies of Celebrate '98 Thursday. "Our work is never finished, as long as there are gaps between our ideals and reality."
Among those who made it to Seneca Falls were many young women for whom even the women's rights movement of the 1970s is something out of their history books.
"I've been planning to come here for over a year," said Mindy Lais, a senior at Ithaca College. She came here to the sign the new Declaration of Sentiments for 1998 - a document forged by more than 50 women leaders from organizations representing millions of women. "This affects women in every aspect of our lives."
Ms. Lais, who was joined by her mother, Connie, a teacher in Johnstown, N.Y., is president of a campus group called Students Against Violence Against Women, an issue mentioned in both the 1848 and 1998 declarations.
Among other things, the document envisions:
* Equal participation of women in politics, corporations, and other institutions.
* Equal pay for work of equal value.
* Environments free of violence and sexual harassment.
* Global recognition of women's rights as human rights.
* Help for women in mastering emerging technologies.
* An adequate safety net for those unable to work.
* Policies that make accommodations for caregivers.
The equal pay issue
Pay equity and quality child care served as rallying points for leaders and audience members alike. Betty Friedan, mother of the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, said in a Friday speech, "We can celebrate and declare victory," but "what's needed now is a national child-care program. We are one of the few industrialized nations without one." She said disparity in earnings would disappear once child care was readily available.
Ms. Friedan charmed the crowd with her reminiscences of "what fun it was" to carry on the struggle in the early years. "Our daughters and granddaughters are missing the fun of being part of a movement," she chided gently, "too busy being the doctors and lawyers ... and having no time to go to meetings" and plan for the future.
Still, some teenagers journeyed all the way to Seneca Falls to be sure girls' voices were heard. Girls International Forum of Duluth, Minn., brought 16 girls from 13 US states to write a Girls' Declaration of Sentiments for the 21st century.
After discussing the views gathered in surveys of girls in their communities, they described conditions girls face in areas such as jobs, sports, and education. And they recommended solutions. (Starting July 22, their declaration can be found at www.newmoon.org.)
Women clergy and religious leaders from the US, Canada, and Britain held several sessions here to consider the challenges women face following the influx of their numbers into the clergy beginning in the 1970s.
About two-thirds of Christian churches ordain women, while 3 of 4 Jewish movements ordain rabbis. The Roman Catholic and Mormon Churches remain closed, and the Southern Baptists are divided. While meeting here, the International Association of Women Ministers sent a letter to the pope asking that he reconsider the ordination stand.
Women in religious leadership are also making a difference. In the discussion on the topic, Virginia Harris, chairman of the board of directors of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, said traditional stereotypes are breaking down. People are more aware of the motherhood qualities of God, and this contributes to healing in church services, she said.
The discussion, however, also revealed that women clergy have run into difficulties - resistance and discrimination, harassment, long delays in appointments, placements in remote parishes.
"Stories I hear feature the price women are paying rather than the difference they are making," says Melanie May, dean of the Program in the Study of Women and Gender in Church and Society at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in New York.
Women have paid a price from the beginning. The reformers at the first women's rights convention in 1848 drew ridicule on many fronts. Their demands, one newspaper said at the time, would bring "a monstrous injury to all mankind."
Today their voices have become part of an effort to revitalize the women's movement and to link women around the world who are developing stronger voices in pursuit of freedoms in their own countries.