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The Comparison Of The Civil Rights Movement And The Women’s Rights Movement

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The Civil Rights Movement was an effort to establish the civil rights of individual Black citizens, while the Women`s Rights Movement focused on the rights that were inaccessible to Women. I will discuss both movements individually, the differences and similarities between them. I will also discuss all of the different turn of events within each movement and how we are today because of them. I will discuss the different Movements within each of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement. I will discuss the political, legal, and social struggle of Black Americans. I will then discuss the social, civil, and religious rights fought for women.

The relationship between the status of slaves and the status of women has long been recognized. In one of his most famous essays, John Stuart Mill drew direct comparisons between the status of women and the status of slaves.  He confronted the belief that women were biologically inferior to men, and that their subjection to men was therefore natural and desirable, by comparing it with the recently challenged view that the master-slave relationship was equally natural and desirable because of the innate inferiority of the darker races, but especially the Africans: “Did not the slave-owners of the Southern United States maintain the same doctrine, with all the fanaticism with which men cling to the theories that justify their passions and legitimate their personal interests?”[1]  Mill even went so far as to claim that the legal status of women was worse than the legal status of a slave in many ways, such as that a slave could legally refuse to have sex with her master, but a wife could not.[2]  Throughout the essay, he continually compared and contrasted the two states.  He was not the last to do so.

The civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement shared many of the same grievances, and therefore pursued similar means and goals.  The fundamental parallel between the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement is that both were instances of social inequality supported by institutional inequality, based in rhetoric of the innate superiority of one group of people the other.[3]

The racist rhetoric of the innate superiority of the White man over the Black man was, arguably, a product of slavery, as well as its justification.  Racism has not been around forever: its emergence was related to both the slave trade and developing theories of evolution.  Before the mid-eighteenth century, the darker races in Africa were often held in high esteem as peace-loving and accomplished people.[4]  However, the advent of the slave trade in Europe that occurred at about the same time as the ‘scientific’ discoveries about the evolution and the hierarchy of man lent motivation to political leaders to foster a belief in the innate inferiority of the darker races.  Many of these theories hypothesised that the Black races were either an inferior branch of our own genetic family, or a remnant of our evolution from apes.[5]  Therefore those involved in the slave trade could justify slavery as a natural state predestined to be so by not only by biological imperative, but also Divine imperative, since God must have created the biological differences between European Whites and Blacks as a part of His grand design for humanity.  Clerics began reinterpreting passages of Biblical scriptures to support a view of dark-skinned people as the accursed, in need of the stewardship and guidance of Whites, who were placed above them.  Thus slavery was justified.

Though it was not the reason that the Civil War started, the end of slavery became a major issue of the Civil War, and by the time the war was over, slavery was also over, at least from a legal standpoint.  Though some people may think of the civil rights movement as something that emerged immediately before the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the civil rights movement had its roots in the Reconstruction era that immediately followed the Civil War.[6]  During this time, after the passage of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation that legally ended slavery in the United States, the former Confederate states enacted laws that effectively restored power over freed slaves to the Whites in the South who had been their masters.[7]  In place of slavery, many African Americans were reduced to fiefdom.  It was this restoration of servitude and the consequent and continuing discrimination against Blacks that inspired the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

What is referred to as the civil rights movement was not a single entity at a particular place in time, though the term is often used to denote just the period 1945-1970 when activists fought segregation and discrimination against African Americans, and pursued equal rights and equal treatment for all under the law.  The civil rights movement was actually composed of several separate yet related movements with different leaders, agendas and methods.  It would be accurate to say that the civil rights movement was greater than any one individual, but that many great men and women risked their lives and reputations in its cause.

One of the first of these was Frederick Douglass, a former slave who slowly and painstakingly educated himself, and lent the voice of an educated Black man to the cause of the freedom of all people of African descent in the United States.  His voice was an important an influential rallying call.  His eloquence made clear that the theories of the inferior intelligence of the darker races were unfounded, and his narrative of his own life and experiences dispelled the myth that slavery was a benevolent patriarchal system that was beneficial to slave and master alike.  His voice was heeded by President Lincoln himself, who invited him to the White House to discuss the issue of slavery, and Douglass’ was one of the voices urging President Lincoln to allow African Americans to join the Northern forces to fight in the Civil War against the Southern slaveholding states.  Other influential abolitionists of the period included Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Nat Turner.[8]

The end of the civil war in 1865 saw the end of slavery, but not citizenship or equal treatment under the law.  The Fourteenth Constitutional Amendment of 1868 gave persons born in the United States citizenship, including former slaves, and was supposed to give them the vote and equal protection under the law; however the South did not enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment until 1965.  In fact, after the Civil War, Southern states passed ‘Black Codes’, state and local laws that effectively restored African Americans to the same conditions they had been under as slaves.  These Black Codes were repealed after the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which more explicitly gave former slaves the vote, but which was also not enforced until 1965 in the South.

The various organizations that made up the civil rights movement seemed locked in an unending struggle for civil rights and equality versus the unequal status quo that began with slavery.  Each time the civil rights movement won a legal victory, they seemed to suffer a legal setback.  Supreme Court decisions were extremely influential in this process, starting back in 1857 with the Dred Scott decision that drew the line between the slaveholding states and non-slaveholding states, ruling that slaves who were taken into non-slaveholding states were not thereby made free. After the end of the Civil War when the Thirteenth Constitutional Amendment was enacted, the Southern states formulated the Black Codes.  After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, the Black Codes were repealed, but then the Supreme Court ruled in 1883 that the Fourteenth Amendment did not grant Congress the power to proscribe discriminatory racial policies or practices by private individuals or businesses.  A further blow came in 1896 when the Supreme Court upheld the racially discriminatory practice of segregation in the South in the landmark case, Plessy v. Ferguson.

Under what was referred to as the “separate but equal” doctrine, segregation of Blacks from Whites could be justified, so long as Blacks had access to “equal” services and facilities.  This doctrine was the basis of the Jim Crow laws that were enacted and enforced between 1876 and 1965 in the South that made provision for the (in practice, though not in law) inferior status of African-Americans in society.  It was this consistent, persistent and recurring discrimination against African Americans that inspired the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement, but it was not until after World War II when many African Americans fought on an increasingly equal footing with Whites and returned home and were effectively put back in their place under the Jim Crow Laws that the civil rights movement really gathered momentum.  There were many enormously influential activists in this era of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and Marcus Garvey.  They became household names in their efforts to end the all-pervasive discrimination against African Americans in America, and it cost some of them their lives.

Interestingly enough, war was often the catalyst for the pursuit of civil liberties and equality.  Many slaves and free African Americans who fought during the Civil War for the Northern armies were outraged that their wages and conditions were not equal to that of White soldiers, and staged protests.[9]  These protests became louder after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.  Later, after African-American soldiers returned from World War I, World War II, the discrepancy between how they were treated abroad and how they were treated in the United States after their return galvanised civil rights protest.

It was not only the civil rights movement that received post-war galvanization: the women’s rights movement was also given fresh resolve following the participation of women in traditionally male roles and occupations while the menfolk were away fighting the wars.  Women proved that their ‘biological inferiority’ did not preclude them from performing the same jobs as men as well as the men, and they began to push for equal vocational opportunities and remuneration as a result.[10]

The women’s rights movement had its beginnings, ironically enough, at an abolitionist event in 1840, where two future vanguards of the women’s rights movement were denied entry to the meeting because of their gender.  Those two women were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.  Together they organised the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.  Amongst other inequalities, they took issue with the fact that the vote was denied women.  That they focused on the right to vote was quite deliberate, for as Frederick Douglass said in that very meeting, “Suffrage is the power to choose leaders and make laws, and the right by which all others are secured.”[11]  In 1851, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony, another reformer, who promptly gave her support to both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.[12]

In 1869, Anthony and Stanton found the National Woman Suffrage Association with the goal of winning women the right to vote.  Later that year, Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell and others founded the American Woman Suffrage Association bent on the same goal, but trying to achieve this by changing state law instead.  By the end of the year, Wyoming had changed its laws to give women the vote.  In 1890, these two groups joined forces to combine their efforts to win the vote in the remaining states, and over the following 20 years, slow and steady progress was made as state by state, women were granted the vote in many states, but it was not until 1920 that women were granted the vote by constitutional amendment.  From this point on, the focus of women’s activist groups and the women’s rights movement in general was on improving the parity of women’s social and working conditions, trying to win women equal pay and opportunities in the workplace, and the right to bodily autonomy through birth control and abortion.

Margaret Sanger was an early activist who was arrested in 1916 for opening a birth control center, an experience which led to her founding the American Birth Control League in 1921.  This later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942, and Sanger was finally able to open her birth control center legally in New York City in 1923.

One unlikely major catalyst for the modern women’s rights movement was a book, “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan.  Its description of the dissatisfaction of many American women with the narrow confines of their curtailed lives struck a chord with women in America, and gave fresh impetus to the women’s rights movement.  Through the 1960s and 1970s much legal ground was gained in the areas of workplace sex discrimination and equal access to opportunities both in education and in the workplace.  In 1973, a pivotal court decision in Roe v. Wade established the right of women to safe and legal abortion, overturning many state laws to the contrary, and caused social furore.  It was a time of great debate and change with regard to the rights of women and the social roles of women, and much ground was gained.

Not only did the civil rights movement struggle and the women’s rights movement struggle parallel each other in many important ways, these two struggles for equality were frequently intertwined, as prominent feminists were often supporters of the civil rights movement, and prominent civil rights leaders were correspondingly often supporters of the women’s rights movement.[13]  There seemed to be solidarity in their oppression, and their proponents often united for greater lobbying power.[14]

It was recognised early by civil rights activists and women’s rights activists alike that they had a common oppressor, White men; and that the keys to equality with White males were land, literacy and the vote.  Both also learned the bitter lesson that freedom did not necessarily entail possessing any of these keys to equality.[15]  The similarity in the privileges denied Blacks and women was not lost.  Sarah and Angelina Grimke, noted abolitionists, noted the similarities, in that both marginalized groups were denied educational and vocational opportunities based on the argument that they lacked the intellectual capacity.[16]

Despite the fact that the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement had significant goals in common, such as land, literacy and the vote, there were clear divergences.  The civil rights movement sought land, literacy and the vote, freedom from slavery, an end to segregation, and equal treatment under the law.  While the women’s movement also sought the rights to land, literacy and the vote, they also sought more personal rights, such as bodily autonomy, especially over their reproductive capacities, and a role in leadership roles in religious worship and the traditionally-male dominated public sphere of life.

There was not always strength in this marriage of causes: conflicting opinions regarding women’s rights divided the abolitionists involved in the antebellum antislavery movement, and conflict over the Fifteenth Amendment created a rift in the women’s rights movement.[17]  In the antebellum slavery movement, men were not sure that it was entirely appropriate for women to leave the private sphere and enter the “public” arena of abolitionist debate.[18]  This issue caused a schism between different factions of the abolitionist movement.  In a similar vein, there were many female abolitionists and women’s rights activists who resented the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment granted the vote to Black men, but still denied it to all women, Black, White or otherwise, and this resentment lead to a division into two associations for women’s suffrage.

It is perhaps ironic that the civil rights movement cause was given some of its earliest and most powerful support by female abolitionists, and yet it is the women’s rights movement that has made the slower progress.  Women got the vote after Black men, and workplace parity, both in salary and upward mobility, still lag for women.[19]  This is not to say that the battle has been won for civil rights: far from it.  Equality is still a far cry for both movements.  However, there is little cohesion or cross-movement support today, though some activists, namely African-American women, are simultaneously affected by the struggles of both movements for equality.  Some of the civil rights movement’s victories have been at the seeming expense of their supporters in the women’s movement; as Black men gained access to the privileges of White men, they joined the ranks of the oppressor, and Black women were left doubly damned.

Today we are left with the reality of some progress for both the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, but with many fights for both remaining, as yet, not won.  The group that faces the greatest disadvantage is arguably African-American women, who are discriminated against because they are African American, and this discrimination is compounded by the fact that they suffer discrimination as women.  There is, however, cause for some optimism: many of the founding aims of each movement have been achieved, and progress is still being made, year by year.  If all members of society would take the cause of justice to heart and be willing to support the equal right of his neighbour to share in the bounty of society, the world we create for our children would be a better place.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

References:

  1. John Stuart Mill. “The Subjection of Women”. On Liberty, Etc. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), 440.
  1. Ibid, 463.
  1. Ibid, 440.
  1. Paul Barton, “A Response: PBS “Race”: A History of Racism.” Raceandhistory.com, 2003. http://www.raceandhistory.com/historicalviews/2003/race.html.
  1. Shah Aashna Hossain, “’Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe: Linnaeus, Darwin and Galton.” Bryn Mawr College. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f00/web1/hossain.html.
  1. SparkNotes Study Guide. “The Civil Rights Era (1865-1970).” SparkNotes Study Guide. http://www.sparknotes.com/history/american/civilrights/context.html.
  1. Encyclopædia Britannica. “black code,” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9015471/black-code.
  1. Library ThinkQuest. “Civil Rights Leaders”. Library ThinkQuest.org. http://library.thinkquest.org/J0112391/civil_rights_leaders.htm.
  1. PBS Online. . “The Civil War and emancipation.” Africans in America Resource Bank, PBS Online, 1999. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2967.html.
  1. James Kirby Martin. A Concise History of America and Its People Since 1865 (Volume 2). Houston: University of Houston Press, 2000, 388.
  1. Frederick Douglass. In Bonnie Eisenberg and Mary Ruthsdotter. “Legacy ’98: A Short History of the Movement.” National Women’s History Project. http://www.legacy98.org/
  1. Anne-Marie Imbornoni. “Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.: Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement.” Pearson Education, Inc, 2006. http://www.infoplease.com/spot/womenstimeline1.html.
  1. Frederick Douglass was a noted supporter of women’s suffrage. Ibid, 398.
  1. Joan Gundersen. American History at a Glance: Fifth Edition (New York, Collins, 1994). 118.
  1. Ibid, 389.
  1. Leah S. Glaser. “United States Expansion 1800-1860.” Virginia Center for Digital History. http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/solguide/VUS06/essay06c.html.
  1. Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Women’s Rights Emerges within the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1830-1870: A Brief History With Documents.” http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/usingseries/hovey/sklar.htm
  1. Leah S. Glaser. Op cit.
  1. AFL-CIO: America’s Union Movement. It’s Time for Working Women to Earn Equal Pay.” AFL-CIO: America’s Union Movement, 2007. http://www.aflcio.org/issues/jobseconomy/women/equalpay/

BIBLIOGRAPHY

-CIO: America’s Union Movement. It’s Time for Working Women to Earn Equal Pay.” AFL-CIO: America’s Union Movement, 2007. http://www.aflcio.org/issues/jobseconomy/women/equalpay/ (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Barton, Paul. “A Response: PBS “Race”: A History of Racism.” Raceandhistory.com, 2003. http://www.raceandhistory.com/historicalviews/2003/race.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Cable News Network, Inc. “The Civil Rights Movement.” Cable News Network. http://www.cnn.com/EVENTS/1997/mlk/links.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Eisenberg, Bonnie and Mary Ruthsdotter. “Living the Legacy: The Women’s Rights Movement 1848 – 1998.” The National Women’s History Project. http://www.legacy98.org/ (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Encyclopædia Britannica. “black code.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9015471/black-code. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Glaser, Leah S. “United States Expansion 1800-1860.” Virginia Center for Digital History. http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/solguide/VUS06/essay06c.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Glick, Nathan. An Outline of American Government (2nd edn). United States Information Agency, 1989.

Gundersen, Joan. American History at a Glance: Fifth Edition. New York: Collins, 1994.

Hossain, Shah Aashna. “’Scientific Racism’ in Enlightened Europe: Linnaeus, Darwin, and Galton”. Bryn Mawr College, 2002. http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f00/web1/hossain.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Imbornoni, Ann-Marie.  “Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.: Timeline of Key Events in the American Women’s Rights Movement.” Pearson Education, Inc, 2006. http://www.infoplease.com/spot/womenstimeline1.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Library ThinkQuest. “Civil Rights Leaders”. Library ThinkQuest.org. http://library.thinkquest.org/J0112391/civil_rights_leaders.htm. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Martin, James Kirby. A Concise History of America and Its People Since 1865 (Volume 2). Houston: University of Houston Press, 2000.

Mill, John Stuart. “The Subjection of Women” On Liberty, Etc. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Mount, Steve. “The Constitution Explained.” http://www.usconstitution.net/constquick.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

PBS Online. “Antebellum Women’s Rights”. PBS Online, 2000. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/lincolns/wworld/es_antebellum.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

PBS Online. “The Civil War and emancipation.” Africans in America Resource Bank, PBS Online, 1999. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2967.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. “Women’s Rights Emerges within the Anti-Slavery Movement, 1830-1870: A Brief History With Documents.” http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/usingseries/hovey/sklar.htm. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

SparkNotes Study Guide. “The Civil Rights Era (1865-1970).” SparkNotes Study Guide. http://www.sparknotes.com/history/american/civilrights/context.html. (Accessed 11 April, 2007).

Thompson, Denise. “Feminism and Racism: What is at Stake?” Paper delivered at the Women’s Studies Conference, Deakin University, Geelong, 4-6 December, 1994.

Whitney, Frances. An Outline of American History. United States Information Service, 1969.

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