TALKING IT OVER
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON
March 17, 1999
In 1900, near the end of a lifetime spent fighting for women's rights, Susan B. Anthony described her bold vision for the future: "The woman of the 20th century will be the peer of man. In education, in art, in science, in literature; in the home, the church, the state; everywhere, she will be his acknowledged equal. ... All hail to the 20th century." How prophetic these words sound today.
Early in this century, the full participation in civic life that women now take for granted remained out of reach. Women were constrained in their rights to own property, testify in court, file a lawsuit and serve on a jury. By law, a woman's husband was assumed to be the guardian of her children, and in many states, a married woman could not open a bank account. Most remarkably, women could not exercise the most fundamental symbol of citizenship -- the right to vote.
My own mother was born before women could exercise this basic privilege. Yet, now, it's all too easy to take for granted how far we've come. Many of us forget what life was like before the invention of the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher and frozen food. From winning the right to vote to gaining access to the halls of academia, corporate boardrooms and playing fields, our lives have changed in ways that even Susan B. Anthony could never have imagined.
As we move into the next century and the next stage of our journey toward full participation in public life, we who remember the struggle that our mothers and grandmothers -- and even some of our fathers and grandfathers -- undertook to secure the rights women enjoy today must cherish and preserve these memories for the generations that will follow.
The President and I have invited all Americans to join us in "honoring our past and imagining our future" as the turning of the millennium approaches. This week, as part of our celebration of National Women's History Month and our series of Millennium Evenings at the White House, we honored the contributions of women in the last century and imagined the changes that lie ahead.
We were joined by three distinguished feminist scholars. Historian Alice Kessler-Harris talked about women as volunteers and reformers -- a role that grew out of their exclusion from formal citizenship rights. Women like pioneer feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells Barnett stepped beyond their households to bring social justice to the disadvantaged. Spurred by examples such as these, millions of women organized anonymously to promote change and build social institutions around issues they cared about, including public safety, health and education.
Professor Kessler-Harris ended on a cautionary note, wondering who will become volunteers and social activists as women move in even greater numbers into the workplace. "This is an important moment," she noted, "to reflect on how we can sustain the values and the visions that have motivated women's citizenship over the past century, use them to strengthen democracy in the United States and extend the boundaries of social justice for us all."
Yale historian Nancy Cott took us on a tour of the struggle for political rights from the days when female waitresses weren't allowed to work at night through the battle to win the vote and the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. She, too, reminded us that knowing about our past can help us imagine a day when we will enjoy even more inclusive rights.
Finally, Smith College President Ruth Simmons used one phrase to sum up the dramatic changes that have taken place in the lives of women in the last 100 years. She said, "Today, they are able to choose their path." She went on to predict: "Women of the next century will be molders of their future and proprietors of their fate. Provided that society continues to protect that freedom, women will have that most precious thing -- ownership of themselves."
Every woman in this country who struggles to balance work and family, who has to decide whether the benefits of taking a promotion outweigh the costs to her children, or who worries about how she'll pay her bills if she divorces her husband knows that our work is not done. But inspired by the memory of those who came before us, we can muster the courage to take the next step. After all, as Susan B. Anthony said in her final public speech, "Failure is impossible."
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