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Tuesday, September 02, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 7/5/2009

Celebrate our willingness to dream, dare

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. - We mark this weekend the signing in Philadelphia's Independence Hall of the Declaration of Independence, which was conceived in 1776 as a list of particulars but swiftly became a promissory note. The sobering fact for this early-summer holiday is that we're still stretching to live up to the values we set out before we were even a country.

Look carefully at the Declaration of Independence and you'll realize that you recognize only a small fraction of the document and that the rest - the list of sins against reason and liberty that the British king committed - constitutes a rationale for revolution. We know, and each time this year pledge ourselves morally to achieve, the part that sets out the self-evident truths, beginning with its signature statement that "all men are created equal."

We have had a hard enough time with those five words. We rotted a few decades' worth of 19th century politics in conflict over that idea, then fought the Civil War, which cost the nation more than 600,000 lives, and still we couldn't get it right, requiring a civil-rights movement a century later to bring us to where we are, with a black president but with still much to do.

And that's only half the story, literally. Despite the pleas of Abigail Adams ("Don't forget to remember the ladies," she wrote her husband, whose colleagues utterly forgot), half the nation was left out.

Which brings us to Seneca Falls and the Declaration of Sentiments, a document seldom remembered, seldom read, and seldom heeded. It was written in July, 1848, after a remarkable meeting that only now is being recognized for the earthquake it started as the "First Womens' Rights Convention." It's an American story like the story of the original declaration, as revolutionary as its brother document, and as unredeemed, maybe even more so.

The Independence Hall of the women's movement stands here, in Seneca Falls, though only the roof and two walls of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, where the proceedings unfolded, remain. It is a stark structure, moving in its sense of serenity, a stark contrast to the animated debates the building held and the angry reaction its proceedings caused.

At this assembly for the ages were several names that rocked American history, including Frederick Douglass, who was an equal-opportunity activist for civil rights. Many of the founding mothers of the American women's movement were there:

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Sentiments. Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister and prominent abolitionist. Martha Wright, a human-rights activist who was Mott's sister and who attended the convention pregnant with her seventh child. Jane Hunt, whose tea party - tea seems to be the beverage of revolution in America - led to the call for the convention here. Mary Ann M'Clintock, reformer and abolitionist in whose home the declaration was written.

There should be statues to them, and in fact there are, inside the visitors' center of the Women's Rights National Historical Park here.

Stand amid these statues, cast in bronze and created in a foundry owned and operated by a woman, and you will feel as if you are surrounded by giants, even if you are taller than they are.

Their declaration opens this way: "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 entitles them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course." (Who let that reference to "mankind" slip in there? Clearly an error.)

Then comes the core of the matter: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal."

Thomas Jefferson's Declaration goes on to say this: "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton's version goes this way: "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."

The women's convention came in a year of revolution around the globe, reshaping all of Europe except Great Britain and Russia, sending waves of nationalist fervor across the continent. But the ripples from the revolutionary sentiments of Seneca falls took decades to change the tide of American life.

Wyoming was admitted to the Union in 1890 and brought with it women's suffrage. Utah, Colorado, and Idaho followed by 1900. It was not until 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified, assuring that women could vote in every state.

What the women of 1848 did was to dare - to dare to imagine a world different from the one they inhabited, to dare to think that they might transform the world, to dare to take the first steps. There may have been a constitutional bar to voting in 1848, but there was no constitutional bar to daring.

"Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform," said Susan B. Anthony, who was not at Seneca Falls for the 1848 convention but swiftly became a prominent voice for women's rights and the female vote. "Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences."

On this weekend, we celebrate American independence, but we also celebrate the American spirit. At the heart of that spirit is the willingness to dream and to dare. In that regard, as in others, all men and women are created equal, and we all - men and women alike - can be grateful for that.



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