100 Years Before Gloria Steinham, Feminism Was Founded

On a day in June 1848, a group of women, headed up by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, met at Seneca Falls New York.  They were meeting as an organization for the first time, although they did not have any formal name for their group, in short time they became known as “the suffragettes.”  Even though they were wont to name themselves, they were not wanting in declaring their position.  Lucretia Mott, also in attendance, had written a document that bore a striking similarity to a document associated with the beginning of a new nation.  She wrote, pointedly:

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them on such a course.  In the 1930s, Hepburn wore a pants-suit in a movie, something unimaginable, and certainly not ladylike, for the day.  She had also been married and divorced, and made it well-known that she did not need a man to be a success.  She never formally married again.  But Hepburn unapologetically started dating a married Spenser Tracy.  Tracy made it clear that he would never leave his wife.  Hepburn dared the gossip columnists to make much out of her affair with Tracy.  They tried, and they failed.  Hepburn’s message to the Hollywood establishment was that she was in charge of her life, and she would live it as she pleased, not as the movie moguls would have her.  She and West showed Americans that an intelligent and smart woman, could also be very likeable, quite loveable.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long-established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they were accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men–both natives and foreigners.

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.

He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming to all intents and purposes, her master–the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.

He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women–the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.

After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to 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 allows her in Church, as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.

He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.

He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.

He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation–in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country.”

Within this document are no fewer than a dozen different issues that could have taken of a life of their own.  But Anthony and Stanton understood the importance of a single issue that had the best chance of not only attracting women, but of survival.  Suffrage had to be the issue, and Anthony and Stanton this single cause until 1920 when women were first allowed in the national elections.

In the latter part of the 19th Century, radical women were taken on the leadership of the day by insisting that women’s health issues deserved attention, and more, but to the consternation of every male Politian, it needed a public audience where women could get trustworthy information about their own bodies, and what they could do about their condition.  To be fair, there were a few male physicians who agreed that women deserved to have medical knowledge of their body.  But the rest of the male culture was not having this, and made the discussing of such issues at their hospitals, illegal.  The American Medical Association took the position that doctors had a duty to inform women about their pregnancy to whatever degree they would understand.  There was a caveat, however, they were not allowed to broach the subject of birth control.  In the mind of the powers that were, that was an immoral subject on its face, and not a subject any moral woman cared to have with anyone beyond her husband, and possibly her confessor.

And this is where the next greatest feminist, Margaret Sanger, came in.  She had devoted her entire being to the education of women with regards to their health and birth control.

When Sanger created a pamphlet that she could send out to the women living in the Lower East Side of New York, the Post Office Department promptly put an end to such distribution by getting any document that spoke about birth control as being pornographic, and instituted a law that forbade the transmission of pornographic material through the U.S. Mails.  This did not stop Sanger, but it certainly slowed her down.

The early 20th Century brought into being a new media device, the motion picture.  At first they were mostly a combination of racy movies of women in various stages of undress, and westerns, with a few comedies thrown in for good measure.  The motion picture industry necessarily had its female stars.  One among them, Theda Bara, used her name and her Jewish roots to make a political statement.  Theda Bara is an anagram for “Arab death.”  She quickly claimed top billing, and made a place for women in the movies.

In 1919, Mary Pickford, a silver screen giant, along with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, and Douglas Fairbanks started the studio, United Artists.  Now a woman had a say in what sort of movie was produced at a major studio.

Competing with the movie theater was Vaudeville.  Vaudeville predates motion pictures, and by the time the silent films turned into “talkies,” the death of vaudeville was at hand.  Deeply invested in vaudeville was Mae West, a woman who was fiercely independent and never found it a problem to speak her mind, which she did regularly.

Mae West had begun writing her own plays and one, “Sex,” landed her in jail on charges of obscenity.  The play was the story of a Montreal prostitute.  West starred in her own film.  She was convicted on the obscenely charge and spent 10 days in jail because of it.  West was a very talented, and much to Hollywood’s male studio heads and others, she was very intelligent.  She wrote many of the movies she starred in.  She was succeeding in a male dominated industry.  Even more, at the height of her popularity, West, who was not particularly pretty, certainly did not look the part of the 1930s movie actress, young, very skinny, and flat chested.  West was none of these, and every man in America wanted to marry her.  She was not interested.

In the mid-1930s a “decency committee,” sometimes improperly referred to as the “Hays Commission,” held sway over the content of every movie released from its inception forward.  The tenants of the Hays Commission were as follows:

General Principles

1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.

2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.

3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. Sex The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.

1. Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.

2. Scenes of Passion

a. They should not be introduced when not essential to the plot.

b. Excessive and lustful kissing, lustful embraces, suggestive postures and gestures, are not to be shown.

c. In general passion should so be treated that these scenes do not stimulate the lower and baser element.

3. Seduction or Rape

a. They should never be more than suggested, and only when essential for the plot, and even then never shown by explicit method.

b. They are never the proper subject for comedy.

4. Sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.

5. White slavery shall not be treated.

6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races) is forbidden.

7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not subjects for motion pictures.

8. Scenes of actual child birth, in fact or in silhouette, are never to be presented.

9. Children’s sex organs are never to be exposed.

III. Vulgarity The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.

IV. Obscenity Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke, or by suggestion (even when likely to be understood only by part of the audience) is forbidden.

V. Profanity Pointed profanity (this includes the words, God, Lord, Jesus, Christ – unless used reverently – Hell, S.O.B., damn, Gawd), or every other profane or vulgar expression however used, is forbidden.

VI. Costume 1. Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture.

2. Undressing scenes should be avoided, and never used save where essential to the plot.

3. Indecent or undue exposure is forbidden.

4. Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden.

VII. Dances 1. Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passions are forbidden.

2. Dances which emphasize indecent movements are to be regarded as obscene.

VIII. Religion 1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

IX. Locations The treatment of bedrooms must be governed by good taste and delicacy.

X. National Feelings 1. The use of the Flag shall be consistently respectful.

2. The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of other nations shall be represented fairly.

XI. Titles Salacious, indecent, or obscene titles shall not be used.

XII. Repellent Subjects The following subjects must be treated within the careful limits of good taste: 1. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments for crime. 2. Third degree methods. 3. Brutality and possible gruesomeness. 4. Branding of people or animals. 5. Apparent cruelty to children or animals. 6. The sale of women, or a woman selling her virtue. 7. Surgical operations.

Hemlines were lowered while dress-tops were raised.  Even the cartoon figure of Betty Boop fell victim.  But West would have none of it.  She exuded sexuality in every movie she made.

West took it on as a challenge and well-crafted phrases slipped right past the censors.  She was an absolute master of the double entendre.

“When I’m good, I’m very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better. ”

“A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to get tied up.”

“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”

“Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

“I’ve no time for broads who want to rule the world alone. Without men, who’d do up the zipper on the back of your dress? ”

West had hundreds of such one-liners, but that final one clearly states that she knew who was in charge, she was.

At this same time a young actress named Katherine Hepburn, was making a name for herself as being avant-garde.  Hepburn was born into an upper-middle class family, her father a respected physician.

The last of these great women, before there was an organized women’s rights group, was Rosa Parks.  A black man could have done the same thing, but a diminutive black woman who was also a mother, put an exclamation point on her ascertation of equal rights.

While the “feminist movement” did not get its name until the late 1960s, it, by this recollection, can claim its roots in early 19th century America.  I mentioned only a few of the many famous women from the 19th century and early 20th century who, in her own way, made a statement that forwarded the position of all women in America.  Gloria Steinham and Betty Friedan deserve a lot of credit for energizing women’s rights to a degree it needed to be at, but their causes, all, had been handed down to them, none was new.


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