The Suffragists’ Protest on Independence Day, 1876: You Are There

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. She ended her presentation by saying:

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. So Stanton wrote to General Joseph Hawley, president of the United States Centennial Commission, saying: “We do not ask to read our declaration, 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, “Undoubtedly 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. 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.

Photo of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony from Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. Oh that the majority, women, had this mettle today. There is a full frontal assault on women and we have yet to realize what the NWSA were asking in 1876. Now is the time for all good women and men to come to the cause of WOMEN’S EQUALITY!

  2. Evelyn McMullen says:

    What brave women they were! Thank the author of this article for allowing us, in this day and time, to see the struggles that these women, over 100 years ago, went thru to gain our rights as full-fledged citizens of this country.

    It is unbelievable that we are still fighting for our health.

  3. roxanne needham says:

    how i respect the women who fight for womens rights past and present.we should all stick together,we could really change this country,maybe even pass some legislation on mens bodies!! look out boys,were coming!
    Roxanne Needham

  4. this women went through a lot so women today can do as much more than they did back then I’m amused for these women i think i might be only guy who thanks these women for their bravery!!

  5. Stephen Sharper says:

    Another selective historical account of the two most famous suffragists. I wonder how many people realize that the national suffrage association was apposed to the 15th amendment on the grounds that inferior races of men were not fit to make the electoral decisions that Anglo-American women were, aligned themselves with the Democratic party, the party that supported the continuation of slavery that is, and argued that the enfranchisement of black men would spark rapes against white women across the nation or as Cady Stanton put it “fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states.”
    Not even Frederick Douglass was safe, the man who took the floor alongside Cady Stanton and convinced the assembly at Seneca Falls that Woman Suffrage deserved a place on the agenda. When it came time for Frederick and Helen Pitts, a white women to marry, B Anthony admonished Stanton against defending the marriage saying “I do hope you won’t put your foot into the Douglass question, the intermarriage of races! Only to think of how Douglass threw the principle of equality of political rights to women – overboard – in ’69 & all along – saying himself first and you afterwards! If there were no other reason – you should now let him carry his own burden if he was voluntarily risked such”
    Stanton and Anthony’s contribution to the world most likely outweighs their overt racism and all Americans owe them a debt of thanks but it does get a little old seeing people continually present half of the history of this country. Only after understanding the racist history of the National Women’s Suffrage Association can we put statements into context like this one – 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”-

  6. Carrie Richards says:

    Many of the suffragists were frustrated when they asked the African Americans to share in their cause and they said no. Women were a liability and the amendment for all voting would have not been passed. Historically, women were ready to help the cause and even asked African American men and women to the Seneca Falls convention to work together. This part is always left out it seems like. Although historically, we have made great gains, there is still much to do. Thank you to our first founding women for all they did too. Because of them, I get to vote.

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