Today in Feminist History: Suffragists Protest on Independence Day

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 4, 1876:

An eloquent and timely reminder that the American Revolution has brought liberty and equality to only some of its citizens over the past century became an unauthorized part of the nation’s centennial celebration here at Independence Square in Philadelphia today.

Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Sara Andrews Spencer, Lillie Devereux Blake and Phoebe W. Couzins [pdf] presented a “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States”–written by Anthony, Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA)–to a rather startled Sen. Thomas Ferry (R-Mich.), who officially represented the United States at the ceremony.

Having accomplished their goal, the five departed  and made their way to an empty platform, where Anthony read the four-page document to a crowd that quickly gathered to hear her.

She began her presentation by saying:

While the nation is buoyant with patriotism, and all hearts are attuned to praise, it is with sorrow we come to strike the one discordant note, on this 100th anniversary of our country’s birth. When subjects of kings, emperors and czars from the old world join in our national jubilee, shall the women of the republic refuse to lay their hands with benedictions on the nation’s head?

Surveying America’s exposition, surpassing in magnificence those of London, Paris and Vienna, shall we not rejoice at the success of the youngest rival among the nations of the earth? May not our hearts, in unison with all, swell with pride at her great achievements as a people: our free speech, free press, free schools, free church and the rapid progress we have made in material wealth, trade, commerce and the inventive arts?

And we do rejoice in the success, thus far, of our experiment of self-government. Our faith is firm and unwavering in the broad principles of human rights proclaimed in 1776, not only as abstract truths but as the cornerstones of a republic. Yet we cannot forget, even in this glad hour, that while all men of every race and clime and condition, have been invested with the full rights of citizenship under our hospitable flag, all women still suffer the degradation of disfranchisement.

She then gave a comprehensive list of grievances which women have against a government which practices taxation without representation, denies women the right to be tried by a jury of their peers, and has passed numerous unequal codes and laws.

And now, at the close of a hundred years, as the hour hand of the great clock that marks the centuries points to 1876, we declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself–to all the opportunities and advantages life affords for her complete development; and we deny that dogma of the centuries, incorporated in the codes of nations–that woman was made for man–her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will.

We ask of our rulers, at this hour, no special favors, no special privileges, no special legislation. We ask justice, we ask equality. We ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.

The protesters had originally hoped that their declaration could be presented as an official part of the ceremony. The woman suffrage movement had now gained sufficient support and prestige that five of its advocates had been given platform passes to observe the proceedings, and they thought a brief presentation would be at least a symbolic acknowledgment of women’s contributions to the nation over the past century.

“We do not ask to read our declaration,” Stanton wrote to General Joseph Hawley, president of the United States Centennial Commission, “only to present it to the President of the United States, that it may become an historical part of the proceedings.”

The general admitted that “we have not lived up to our own original Declaration of Independence in many respects,” but after making the excuse that the program had already been set and could not be changed, he finally admitted the real reason for his refusal. “I understand the full significance of your very slight request,” he responded. “If granted, it would be the event of the day—the topic of discussion to the exclusion of all others. I am sorry to refuse so slight a demand; we cannot grant it.”

Following this rebuff, officers of the NWSA held an indignation meeting. Stanton and Lucretia Mott chose to protest this latest insult to women indirectly, by boycotting the ceremony and spending that time opening the association’s national convention at a local church. But five others decided to make their protest directly, in a style some of the original revolutionaries might have chosen.

Their platform passes—allowing them to witness, but not take part in the ceremonies—got them within striking distance of the official representative of the government. Then, as Richard Henry Lee finished reading the original Declaration of Independence, and those in charge were momentarily distracted while preparing for the next speaker, the women quickly—and with an air of authority—marched to the front of the platform and gave their declaration to a surprised Sen. Ferry. They then left the platform with great dignity, giving out numerous copies of their declaration to those on the stage and in the crowd, who eagerly sought to read it.

So, as befits a work-in-progress, there were two competing ceremonies earlier today to mark our Centennial. Men stood on one side of Independence Hall praising the nation’s accomplishments and looking back to 1776—while on another side, Susan B. Anthony reminded us of how much still needs to be done if we are to be a true democracy at the next such celebration in 1976.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.