American women have great cause to celebrate this Independence Day. Forget the fairer sex, we should be called the accomplished sex: We go to college in droves, graduates at high rates, and land great jobs on Wall Street, Main Street, Silicon Valley, and Capitol Hill. A flood of books, articles, and pundits have reflected on women’s accomplishments and sought to explain what made women’s success possible. Is it because of Betty Friedan or Phyllis Schlafly? Was it anti-discriminatory legislation or series of court cases?
Maybe the success of American women is written into the fabric of our nation.
On July 4, 1776, America was founded on the self-evident (and gender-neutral) truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Don’t let the use of “men” confuse you: in this context, it means “humanity,” a category that includes women. The Declaration of Independence didn’t say we were exactly alike: people, after all, have widely divergent interests, talents, and ambitions. But the Declaration affirms that all human beings, regardless of sex, race, class or religious creed, possess the same natural rights and no one person may naturally rule another without consent. This is the mission statement of America—and it’s a mission that women can thrive under.
These principles have implications applicable to women in the political order. Here are two examples.
First, women should be able to elect their representatives. Yes, that’s right: American women exercised the suffrage in America long before the 19th Amendment.
The 1776 New Jersey constitution granted suffrage to “all inhabitants” of a certain age and holding a certain amount of property. Despite the gender-neutral language, the status of women voters was unclear. The Constitution did not set qualifications for voters, but instead allowed the states to decide. In 1790, a New Jersey voting law offered some clarity with the phrase “he or she” in referring to voters on seven counties. In 1797, the New Jersey Assembly specifically recognized the right of women to vote across the state by passing “An Act to regulate the Election of Members of the Legislative-Council and the General Assembly, Sheriffs and Coroners, in this State.”
Sadly women’s suffrage was short lived. In 1807, New Jersey tightened its voter requirements after a case of rampant voter fraud (in which women were complicit). New Jersey limited the vote to white, property-owning males—a change that some scholars argued violated the state’s constitution. The change in law did not alter the principle that women and men were equally capable of self-government.
Second, the principles of the Declaration were the launching point for discussing other rights women possessed at the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The key document of the convention, the Declaration of Sentiments, was modeled on Jefferson’s original specifically to remind America that the nation’s principles applied to women too. Instead of listing grievances against a king, the Declaration of Sentiments opposed artificial impediments to women’s success. For instance, these women challenged the common law legal tradition that considered a husband and wife to be one person under the law. Thus, a wife could not own property separate from her husband, and husband would be punished for his wife’s crimes. The Declaration of Sentiments encouraged women not to beg for handouts but to continue to assert their right to be self-governing.
America was founded on the revolutionary premise that women and men were equally human and equally capable of self-government. For 237 years we have explored the implications of that statement for members of every race, sex, and class. For women, the implications of the Declaration prompted replacing several common law traditions, guaranteeing women the suffrage in every state, and creating opportunities for women to pursue happiness in educational institutions and professional fields. To be sure, America’s principles aren’t self-executing. Numerous men and women wrote books, organized grassroots campaigns from kitchen tables, called their representatives, pushed for new laws, and never gave up. Indeed, we haven’t always lived up to the principles of the Declaration. But the principles were still there. As you celebrate this Independence Day, read the document and reflect on the principles that have made this country great.