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PHOTO COURTESY CREATIVECOMMONS

BY JENNETTE WILLIAMS
Special to Montclair Local

The writer is the education chair for the League of Women Voters for the Montclair area.

How would you respond to the question in the headline of this article? I have no doubt that the planners of the July 1848 Seneca Falls Convention would respond “Of course!” without hesitation. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friends, women of privilege and financial means, were organizers. Their courage generated a vision for the women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., a hub for intellectual, conscious thought, which included social justice and sacred beliefs. 

Religion, diseases, divorce laws, limited professional opportunities for women, slavery and taxes were priorities. Abolitionists Frances and William Seward lived in nearby Auburn. Three active antislavery organizations, one for men, one for white women, and one for black women, were based in Rochester. Former slave Frederick Douglass, editor of the antislavery newspaper The North Star, was also a resident of Rochester.   

The women wrote the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which outlined economic and political grievances many felt subject to during this antebellum period. Sharing these exigencies with a wider population would gather and secure passionate support for the future. The Seneca Falls Convention was a pivotal strand in American history for its strategic focus, a kind of white woman’s suffrage to elevate their stance.

The invitation did not automatically include women from ethnic groups, such as Native Americans and African Americans. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee and Nina Otero Warren were just a few of many suffragists who organized women of ethnic populations to gain attention for their rights.

How far has our democracy as a nation evolved? Words form language to express strong meaning when we communicate with intention. Our Constitution’s language excludes “the right to vote,” this being left to individual states to interpret, and “We the people” referred to “white adults.” 

During the infancy of our democracy, New Jersey gave the right to vote to (all) free inhabitants (which included Blacks and unmarried women), property owners who lived in their dwelling for more than six months, were of full age, and had 50 or more pounds (English currency) of wealth.

This inalienable right was in effect until 1807. Accusations of voter fraud prompted New Jersey’s state legislature to abort this “privilege” and modify it to be more restrictive by adding  “adult, white male” and “taxpaying citizens.”

The Civil War began in April 1861, creating an additional array of economic, civil, political, Black/white rights and citizenship questions. I believe that these entities form clusters of a puzzle that had and still have a timetable in the evolution of our American democracy. 

The puzzle pieces, which represent our design of democracy, are interconnected, given life by humans, who have feelings, express emotions, react to experiences and have brains that process information based on those experiences. 

The momentum of the two-day Seneca Falls Convention continued for 72 years before women were able to gain national voting rights. Charlotte Woodward (Pierce), who signed the Declaration of Sentiments as a teenager, at age 90 was the only living witness to its fruition. 

“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to do something!” These are the words of John Lewis, the late dean of the Georgia congressional delegation.  An enthusiastic advocate for voting rights, Lewis was one of 600 marchers who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. It is remembered as Bloody Sunday. 

Recent legislation was introduced to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.  Supporters determined this action was necessary as a result of changes the Supreme Court made to the original law in 2013 that limit the federal government’s ability to control discriminatory changes to state procedures and voting laws. Demographic modifications spearheaded the new, restricted voting rights.

Will you ask yourself, “Do I have the courage to get into good trouble for the right to vote? Will I stand on the shoulders of those before me? Go to the polls to cast my ballot? Take a picture to time-stamp my ballot being mailed? Vote before or on Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020?”