Today is US Independence Day, and that’s a good time to share little history lesson.
July 4, 1776 was the day the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, which stated that the colonies were now independent from the British Empire. This document held to be true that “all men are created equal.” We’re fond of the myth that every generation before ours was pig-ignorant and therefore never would have conceived of the lofty concepts we now mostly take for granted, but people at the time like Thomas Day noted the hypocrisy of this statement coming from slave owners:
If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.
Nor did the women of what was to become the United States of America achieve any form of independence in 1776. Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.
“Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.
“Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.
“That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up — the harsh tide of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.
“Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity?
“Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the (servants) of your sex; regard us then as being placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.”
John’s response was telling, and set the scene for Abigail’s prediction – a movement that would take another 144 years to make even one significant stride:
“As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.
“We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bonds of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters.
“But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented.
“This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.
“Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects.
“We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.”
Could that be the beginning of radical feminism versus “pussy power” apologists? Abigail’s response:
“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.
“But you must remember that arbitrary power is like most other things which are very hard, very liable to be broken; and, notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have it in our power, not only to free ourselves, but to subdue our masters, and without violence, throw both your natural and legal authority at our feet.”
Thanks to the history of her world, Abigail Adams was so unable to conceive of a woman having enough power to be corrupted by it that she assumed tyranny to be a uniquely male trait. I personally believe it’s a problem of privilege, not gender: if women had absolute power over men, and one specific group of women also enjoyed power over women of all other races and various other demographics, I believe those women would behave just as badly as men have done. To suppose otherwise is to believe women inherently and biologically superior to men, and I’m as uncomfortable with that idea as I am with its ludicrous opposite.
As you probably know, no one in the USA actually has the right to vote. The original Constitution only addresses how the states and their representatives may vote. How the states chose their voters was left up to them: commonly, that right was extended to land-owning white men over the age of 21. From 1776, it took another:
- 48 years for white men who didn’t own property to be allowed to vote.
- 94 years for a Constitutional amendment to forbid states from prohibiting black men from voting.
- 144 years for women to obtain a similar amendment.
The Declaration is not what enabled me to be independent. The struggles of many generations of women like Abigail Adams led to my right to vote, to work for a living instead of marrying for a living, to attend college if I can afford it somehow, etc. Women have not achieved cultural equality, but we have achieved a great deal of legal independence. I prefer to celebrate August 18th as US Independence Day, because that was the day in 1920 the 19th Amendment was enacted and the majority of the US’s human beings were first recognized as citizens.