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Women's History Month Hero -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Mar 6, 2011 – 5:00 AM
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Meg Waite Clayton

Special to AOL News
Meg Waite Clayton
Courtesy of Meg Waite Clayton
Meg Waite Clayton wrote "The Wednesday Sisters" and "The Language of Light."
The fight for women's suffrage started, as so many things do, with women talking to each other around kitchen tables. The result was the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in July 1848.

There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the Document of Sentiments: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." It was written -- primarily by Stanton -- at a three-legged table now residing at the very respectable Smithsonian. But at the time the document's presentation was called "the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity."

Only 100 of the conference's 300 attendees would put their names to it -- a modest beginning to what would be a 70-year struggle for women's right to vote.

I came of age on this side of the "second wave" of the women's movement. True, I couldn't play Little League baseball because I was a girl; I kept score for my brother's team instead. But by the time I applied to colleges, most were open to me. The summer I started law school, Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court. The year I graduated, Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president, and Joan Benoit won the first women's Olympic marathon. The change was complete, I thought.

The realization that it wasn't -- that a gender-equal world was still a work in progress -- dawned on me only as I watched what didn't happen and what did in my adult years. It was a dozen years before a second woman was appointed to the court. That came only after Anita Hill endured a skeptical grueling from an all-male Senate committee for having come forward about the kind of sexual harassment I'd personally experienced. It came just after I left the practice of law to write.

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I started writing about the same time in my life as Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned the Document of Sentiments in hers -- in my early 30s. The struggle for women's equality she took on in such a big way has become the focus of my writing, too.

The two novels I've published -- "The Wednesday Sisters" and "The Language of Light" -- are stories of women supporting each other as they reach for dreams women weren't meant to have. "The Four Ms. Bradwells," which will be released later this month, explores one woman's struggle to gain appointment to the Supreme Court despite circumstances she and her friends face that still occur far too often.

The novel, though not historical, draws its title from a Supreme Court case ruled on when Stanton was about the age I am now, in which the Supreme Court denied Myra Bradwell the right to practice law. "The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life," one justice wrote.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't live to see a federal right for women to vote but passed her struggle on to subsequent generations in a long line of strong and persistent women connecting directly to all sorts of table gatherings today: in boardrooms, in Senate and congressional chambers, in increasing numbers on the Supreme Court.

Perhaps more importantly, Stanton and those "first-wave feminists" connect directly to women who, even today, gather around the familiar kitchen table -- tables like the one at which I often write about women continuing to clear a path through the tide of society's expectations of what a woman should be.

Meg Waite Clayton is the best-selling author of "The Wednesday Sisters" and "The Language of Light," which was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Her new novel, "The Four Ms. Bradwells," is available from Random House on March 22. Read her blog on Red Room.
Filed under: Opinion
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