July 3 2012

The Declaration of Independence Was Key to Women's Liberation

Christina Villegas

Almost two years ago, Time magazine published an article entitled, “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.”  The article highlighted the plight of a young woman named Aisha, whose uncle -- under orders from the Taliban -- sliced off her ears and nose because she had attempted to escape from her abusive husband.

Aisha’s story exemplifies the grave injustices that so many women around the world endure at the hands of despotic rulers.  From forced sterilizations and abortions in China to a lack of fundamental political and legal rights in Saudi Arabia, women continue to suffer under oppressive governments that refuse to recognize the inherent equality and freedom of all human beings.   

Throughout world history, injustice and political oppression have been more of a rule than an exception; however, the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution represented a historical turning point for women, as well as men. 

In contrast with past revolutions, which were fought merely to exchange one set of rulers for another, the American Revolution embodied a revolution in the general principles of governance.  In essence, the Declaration of Independence was not simply a defense of the revolution of 1776 or a critique British rule; rather, it was a manifesto setting forth a universal standard of justice that could be used to evaluate any government.  

The standard of justice set forth in the Declaration of Independence and other Founding documents, was rooted in the notion of a “transcendent law of nature” that can be discovered from a self-evident or common sense view of nature.  That is, in observing one man in relation to others,  there is no inequality between men so great as to mark out one man as the natural ruler over another.  In other words, although many inequalities exist, all human beings are equal in their freedom. 

Although women did not immediately enjoy legal recognition of their fundamental rights, the establishment of the equality principle as the foundation of the American regime and the system limited constitutional government that arose from the Declaration of Independence has proved invaluable for women.  Early women’s rights advocates were able to contend that, because women share with men the common humanity that justifies natural equality and liberty, they were being unjustly deprived of their inalienable rights and deserved recognition of their right to own property, participate in the political affairs of the nation, and receive equal protection of the laws. 

Women’s call for justice on this basis was first widely promulgated in the 1848 Seneca Falls’ Declaration of Sentiments.  This proclamation began by appealing to the same transcendent “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” that inspired and provided justification for the American Revolution. 

Echoing the original Declaration, the Seneca Falls organizers proclaimed that women are created into the same state of equality and freedom as men and thereby possess the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  They also provided a list of grievances detailing the injuries to their natural equality and rights suffered at the hands of men.  Among these grievances: “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice…He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law civilly dead.  He has taken away from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns…”  Thus, in attempting to overturn intrusive government regulations that limited their freedom and opportunities, the Seneca Falls women appealed to the principles behind the law.

The United States is now facing a critical moment, however, in which those advocating for the advancement of women’s rights are doing so by attacking the very principles of limited government and individual rights that allowed women to secure influence in the past.  While early women’s rights advocates fought to address unjust applications of the law to protect women in the enjoyment of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, modern feminists have challenged the fundamental principles of liberty and equality by advocating for bigger and more intrusive government.

This antagonism to the principles of liberty stems from a monolithic view of what it means to be a fulfilled woman and a redefinition of what the realization of freedom requires.  The principles of natural equality and liberty allow women to make decisions regarding their own lives and the pursuit of happiness, even if this often results in women choosing fulfillment as wives and mothers. 

On the other hand, modern feminists have rejected the idea that women can be free within the confines of family life and have argued that women can only find fulfillment in careers outside of the home.  This singular vision requires redistributive and regulatory policies to ensure that family life is no longer an impediment to self-actualization, and it ultimately takes away from individual women the liberty to make genuine choices regarding their own felicity.

As Fourth of July celebrations commence, women should pause and consider that the ultimate consequence of dismantling the pillars of liberty is tyranny and that the principles of equality and freedom outlined in the nation’s creed provide the true basis for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for men and women alike.

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