Beating Their Wings in Rebellion for Freedom
By Rev. Dr. Meredith Stone
In July 1848, the first-ever women’s rights convention in the United States was held in Seneca Falls, New York. A product of that convention was the Declaration of Sentiments, which was signed by 68 women and 32 men and principally authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In the style of the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments called for equal rights for women including suffrage, the right to choose work and retain wages, education, equality in marriage, and much more.
Of the 68 women who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, two of them have undoubtedly been the most remembered in this early fight for women’s rights — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. However, both of them died before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 granting some women the right to vote, though women of color would have to continue the fight for suffrage for many years. Only one of the signers lived to see even that partial step toward equality under the 19th Amendment — Charlotte Woodward (later Charlotte Woodward Pierce). But though she was still living, when the time finally came to go vote, Charlotte was ill and bedridden and unable to exercise her right.
Charlotte Woodward attended the Seneca Falls convention as a teenager at only 18 or 19 years old. By the age of 15, she had worked as a schoolteacher, and she worked from home by sewing gloves for merchants to sell. It was hard work, long hours, and her pay was non-existent since — at the time — any wages a woman earned belonged to her spouse or father.
Charlotte resented her lack of opportunities and independence, and so she was elated to receive the announcement of the women’s convention. It is reported that she ran from house to house to see other women’s reactions to the news, which were mixed at best. When the time for the convention came, she and six of her friends traveled over 40 miles, one of the farthest distances, to be among those in attendance.
When the Declaration of Sentiments was presented on the second day of the convention, Charlotte was among the attendees who signed the document. Many of the signers later withdrew their names because of condemnation they received when the document was released publicly, but Charlotte never did. Her attendance at the convention changed her course as she spent the rest of her life continuing the fight for women’s rights and suffrage.
She is credited as saying, “I do not believe there was any community anywhere in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion. … Every fiber of my being rebelled, although silently, for all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, after it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages.”
Her words painfully capture the situation of those days in which there was no place where women truly had freedom — not in their homes, families, workplaces, society, or even in the church.
In the closing remarks of the Declaration of Sentiments, this lack of freedom for women is specifically described. “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 these United States.”
Today, nearly 173 years since the Declaration of Sentiments was signed, great progress has been made for women’s rights and freedoms. There is no doubt that the lives and situations of women are greatly improved since the mid-19th century, though certainly white women have been privileged in attaining those rights more rapidly than women of color.
But I am afraid there are still spaces in which women find the religious degradation mentioned in the closing remarks. They are unable to choose their work if it is work in leadership of the church to which they feel called, and thus they find themselves beating their wings in rebellion.
The vision of the Declaration of Sentiments which Charlotte Woodward signed will not be fully realized until the gifts and voices of women are elevated, valued, and fully affirmed within the church. Let us pray and work so that we do not have to wait another 173 years until that dream comes to pass.
The Rev. Dr. Meredith Stone is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.