Women's Rights

The Beginning of A Movement

1920’s National Women’s Party protesting for equal rights

Women across the States were trying to speak out against slavery, but were unable to make real changes without the freedom to speak and be heard. Women wanted to make strides for the entire country, but were stifled by their own limitations. In Karlyn Campbell’s article, Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric,she explains that early Women’s Rights Activists “were a group virtually unique in rhetorical history because a central element in the oppression of a woman was the denial of her right to speak” (294). Because women were not permitted to speak publically, Campbell describes the creative ways in which activist women broke through boundaries.

“Women who formed moral reform and abolitionist societies, and who made speeches, held conventions, and published newspapers, entered the public sphere and thereby lost their claims to purity and piety”

Campbell 295

Because women that spoke out in public were seen as tainted, it was virtually impossible for them to gain any rights in the current social system. Women saw a need to change this mindset and prove their worth in society, so they began to implement new rhetorical strategies when speaking to persuade audiences and appear intelligent, while also maintaining and proving her femininity. This new rhetorical move is called Feminine style. Women needed to be heard, but they would not be taken seriously if they followed the models of men speaking. This style, as explained by Campbell, “will invite audience participation, including the process of testing generalizations or principles against the experiences of the audience. Audience members will be addressed as peers, with recognition of authority based on experience” (297). With this new style, women were able to begin to speak out with the goal of empowering other women without losing their ‘womanhood’.

Angelina Grimké Weld
(1805 – 1879)

Angelina Grimké, a popular abolitionist and women’s rights activist of the nineteenth century, rose to popularity within these movements by writing and speaking publicly using this feminine style. Much of Grimké’s arguments were defended with Biblical rhetoric—a useful tactic for women because this was a subject they were permitted to speak about. Angelina Grimké goes all the way back to the creation of humankind to explain women’s inherent rights. She stated, “I affirm that woman was never given to man. She was created like him, in the image of God, and crowned with glory and honor; created only a little lower than the angels, — not, as it is too generally presumed, a little lower than man” (Sklar 36). She relied on scripture to defend her arguments because it gave her credibility that women did not have through their own merit and experiences.

Reenactment of Angelina Grimké’s final speech at Pennsylvania Hall.
Grimké employs the Feminine Style throughtout this speech.

Pennsylvania Hall was completely destroyed by an angry mob after Angelina Grimké’s speech.

With her feminine style and Christian ethos, Angelina Grimké was able to empower women across the nation and open up the conversation for women’s rights. In her final public speech at Pennsylvania Hall, Grimké applies these powerful rhetorical strategies to make a lasting statement on the nation despite her speech being bombarded by an angry mob. As mentioned previously, the feminine style relies on speaking from experience and addressing the audience as peers. This style also often includes audience participation. Grimké does this through the use of rhetorical questions. She opens her speech with the questions, “Men, brethren, and fathers-mothers, daughters and sisters, what came ye to see? A reed shaken with the wind? Is it curiosity merely, or a deep sympathy for the perishing slave, that has brought this large audience together?” (Grimké). Through these questions, she makes the audience reflect on why they are present at this very moment. This form of audience participation causes the audience to realize that they are part of something larger than themselves; this rhetorical strategy that Grimké opens with allows the audience to change their mindset. Grimké’s goal here is to show the audience that they are more than passive listeners during her speech; rather, they are participants in a movement—something brought them here, and her questions force the audience to recognize that they have to power to become active within the movement.

Women’s Rights Gaining Momentum

Watch this video to learn more about the Seneca Falls Convention

This movement quickly gained traction in America, and soon women were holding conferences and meetings to organize their ideas and make changes both in social aspects and legislation. The first national Women’s Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. According to an actual report from the convention, its purpose was to “discuss the Social, Civil, and Religious Condition of Women” (Sklar 173).  While this declaration certainly improved the situation for women in America, the fight did not end with one document. In fact, one hundred and seventy years later, we are still having arguments over women’s rights.

Extreme strides have been made for women over the last century getting us closer to equality. Women now have the right to vote, they can now run for political office, and hold jobs that they once only dreamed of. These are great feats, but women across the country still experience discrimination. As times change, new problems arise. Women activists of the 1800’s achieved a great deal of success, but as society developed, so did the Women’s Rights Movement.

Whether they are being paid a smaller salary than a man doing the same work, or being denied life-saving healthcare services, women have not yet achieved the equality that we have been fighting for for such a long period of time. The earliest days of this movement had Angelina Grimké as a leader; the new century brought about new questions and required new leader for the movement, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Women in the 19th Century fighting for their right to vote

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *