174 Years After Historic Convention, Women Still Feel Their Rights Are in Question
SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — One hundred and seventy-four years after the first women’s rights convention was held in this bucolic hamlet in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, speakers gathered here to ponder their rights under a Constitution that suddenly seemed inhospitable to them.
The gathering, planned long before the U.S. Supreme Court held the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion in the landmark case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was intended to both celebrate the launching of the women’s suffrage movement and acknowledge that much remains to be done.
After Dobbs, both underlying themes gained more urgency, as attendees were forced not only to reckon with the future of their social and civil rights, but also with the idea that a single branch of government could simply take them away.
“I think women are going through a very traumatic time right now,” said Kelli Owens, executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.
In a sense, she said, contemporary women are seeing the historical trauma confronted by the original Seneca Falls attendees coming back to haunt them.
“I just think about the fact my daughter, who is 23 now, has fewer rights than I ever had,” Owens said.
On Wednesday, just as the meeting began, New York State Inspector General Lucy Lang observed, “the integrity of government is a woman’s issue.”
This week’s meeting took place just steps away from the town’s Wesleyan Chapel where, over the course of two days in July 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott ignited the embers of the women’s rights movement.
This year, five guest speakers spoke movingly of the powerful contributions women have made throughout U.S. history and of how far women still have to go to protect and preserve what should be their unalienable rights.
Reflecting on Dobbs, Lang told attendees that as a 25-year-old attorney at the start of her career, she had made the choice to have an abortion.
That decision, she said, “enabled me to plan a family and a career that give me the ability to do this meaningful work.”
Recent data collected by the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, shows there were 930,160 abortions in the United States in 2020.
The institute expects that number to plunge sharply, as 13 states have made abortion illegal since the Dobbs decision was announced and more are likely to follow.
Just days before this week’s conference got underway, the media was filled with stories about a 10-year-old rape victim who had to travel from her home state of Ohio to neighboring Indiana to receive an abortion.
With that case in mind, Owens said that when abortion is a topic of discussion, those doing the talking must think of how it will impact every woman and girl.
“Eighty-five percent of women who are in domestic violence situations report reproductive coercion and we often don’t think of that as a society,” Owens said. “We don’t paint that picture of what this looks like for somebody.”
“Women are going to die and women are going to be forced into motherhood when they aren’t ready. Children are going to be forced into motherhood when they’re not ready. It’s a frightening time,” she continued.
Panelists also noted that many women who will now have to deal with the impact of Dobbs also suffered the trauma of domestic violence that spiked during the lockdown in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, domestic abuse calls rose 25%-30%, according to a recent report in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. In the United States, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports one in three women have experienced some form of physical violence from an intimate partner. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines receive nearly 20,000 calls or more than 13 calls per minute.
Owens said much of New York state’s domestic abuse support is based on the shelter system, which she said is not the first option most people choose to embrace.
“The question then is: How are we providing safety and support for people outside the shelter system?” she said.
“We are really trying to look at what we learned through COVID, to change the system so that we are looking at different options and letting survivors tell us what they need as opposed to what we think they need,” she said.
Owens went on to say that continuing to find these alternative solutions for women living in dangerous situations is critical to their survival.
Administrative Judge Kathie Davidson is dean of the New York State Judicial Institute, a center for education and research designed to enhance the quality of the courts throughout the state.
She noted that one solution she worked on during the pandemic was creating safe havens in churches such as the AME Zion Church in Auburn, New York. These havens allowed women to safely and discreetly come under the court’s protection and share their stories.
“The first case we had involved a very wealthy woman seeking an order of protection from her attorney husband, who had access to her computer and to her mother’s computer, and so the only truly safe haven she could find was to go to a church,” Davidson said.
Owens said at a time when women are deeply concerned about the effects of Dobbs on top of enduring issues like domestic abuse, it’s particularly important that they make themselves aware of and participate in local politics.
“It’s important to recognize that the people we put in those positions are the ones who ultimately make decisions about women’s rights,” she said. “It isn’t always about the president or the Supreme Court. Sometimes it’s about the people you elect to the local school board.”
Eden can be reached at [email protected]