The History of Abortion in America - Part 2: The First Wave of Women’s Rights
Contrary to popular belief, the Women’s Rights movement did not start in the 1960’s & 70’s with sexual liberation, birth control access, and the legalization of abortion. These events are actually considered the second wave of the Women’s Rights movement. The original movement had nothing to do with abortion at all and was much more focused on suffrage and the natural rights of women.
The first wave of Women’s Rights started in 1848 with a woman named Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was born in 1815 and was the daughter of a prominent family that lived in Johnstown, New York. She was formally educated at a female seminary in Johnstown and informally educated in matters of the law by her father, a renowned lawyer and state legislator. She married an abolitionist named Henry Stanton in 1840 and became increasingly passionate about the abolition of slavery. She worked alongside her husband and other leading abolitionists of their time to bring an end to the cruelties of slavery.
Due to that mutual passion, Henry and Elizabeth spent their honeymoon in London in order to attend the World’s Anti-Slavery convention in 1840. However, because she was a woman, Elizabeth was excluded from being allowed to be present at the convention. This injustice caused her and other women who were not welcomed at the convention to take up another plight - the plight of women’s rights.
Eight years later, on July 13, 1848, Stanton had tea with four of her friends, all women, and they poured out their grievances over the treatment of women. This was just 70 years after the Revolutionary War, when the 13 colonies first declared their independence from the tyrannical and oppressive government of Great Britain. These women felt it was completely ridiculous that the new democracy, known as the United States of America, would not want its women to play a prominent role in society and continue to treat women in the same manner as Great Britain had treated the colonies. This conversation launched this group of women into holding the first ever Women’s Rights Convention on July 19th and 20th, 1848. They called it, “A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” Never before in recorded history had a meeting like this been held.
As part of this first convention Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a document called the“Declaration of Sentiments”. It was a document that listed the injustices that women still experienced in the society of this new, free world. It brilliantly mirrored the Declaration of Independence in an effort to showcase the irrationality of declaring independence from a tyrannical government, yet still keeping women utterly oppressed and even “dead” in the eyes of the law. I recommend that everyone read this document for themselves. It is a short, three page read and you can access it here.
Over decades of activism, Stanton and her supporters realized the number one effort that should be made was the effort to give women the right to vote. After the “Declaration of Sentiments” was released that is where they began to focus their advocacy. They believed that once women obtained the right to vote (also known as suffrage) they would then be free to influence all the other areas of injustice that women experienced by legally lobbying, lawmaking, and voting.
It was this document that launched the Women’s Rights and Suffrage Movement way back in 1848. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women like her were fighting to obtain more freedom to be who God made them to be - valuable women that have critical influence in a successful society. They were fighting to be seen as equal in the eyes of the law and the church. They fought for natural rights - rights that are God-given and can never be taken or even given away. Rights such as life, liberty, and property.
The women of the 1800s did not have grievances about being a mother, a wife, or a woman. They were not fighting to be relieved of the traditional duties of womanhood or hope to gain free access to birth control and abortion in order to limit motherhood.They were not fighting to reject the female gender role and they did not see children as hindrances to happiness or motherhood as an oppressive role.
Now, there is a movement that is silencing millions of women in the womb through abortion and causing millions more to live in a silent state of pain and brokenness after having an abortion. This movement is claiming to have the same values as the move of the 1800s that saw women fight and win equality and freedom in the eyes of the law and society. The original wave of women’s rights fought to give women the freedom to live with all of their natural rights intact. The current move of women’s rights is actually adding limitations back onto countless women’s natural rights starting with the right to “life and liberty”.
The original wave of women’s rights fought to give women the freedom to live with all of their natural rights intact. The current move of women’s rights is actually adding limitations back onto countless women’s natural rights starting with the right to “life and liberty”.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902, just 18 years before the 19th Amendment was signed into law in 1920, giving women the right to vote. No doubt her efforts were the catalyst for this historic win for women’s rights and women’s suffrage. I believe that Elizabeth would have been very grieved to see such a meaningful win for women be hijacked by an effort that is now causing anti-woman policies to come into place.
Riding on the coattails of the passage of the 19th Amendment, policies such as legal access to birth control and abortion were introduced in the early 1900s using the same verbiage to win their case - “women’s rights”. These policies have now carried over into what is known as the second wave of “women’s rights” - sexual liberation, birth control access, and the legalization of abortion.
In the articles to come we will look at the pivotal moment that took place right after women won the right to vote and right before birth control was legalized. We will also look at the second wave of “women’s rights” that peaked in the 1960’s and 70’s and is still in full force today. For now, it is vital that we question if the current wave is truly freeing women or if it is actually a regression to more oppression. In order to answer this question honestly, we must reflect on what the original intent of the women’s rights movement was - to give women the God-given right to life, liberty, and property. We owe it to ourselves as women that have reaped the benefits of the first wave of women’s rights and to our daughters as the future of this nation.