On a Firm Foundation

"We who like the children of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness of prejudice and ridicule for forty years feel a peculiar tenderness for the young women on whose shoulders we are about to leave our burdens....The younger women are starting with great advantages over us. They have the results of our experience; they have superior opportunities for education; they will find a more enlightened public sentiment for discussion; they will have more courage to take the rights which belong to them....Thus far women have been the mere echoes of men. Our laws and constitutions, our creeds and codes, and the customs of social life are all of masculine origin. The true woman is as yet a dream of the future."
--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1888

It was 1888 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the above speech at the International Council on Women. Reading her comments in 1988--a full century later--it is clear that her optimistic prediction for the next generation went largely unfulfilled. In fact, the wave of self-conscious feminism of the 19th century all but died out in the next and successive generations, and women's gains were either undone or absorbed into the status quo and taken for granted.

This century's women's movement, "the second wave," began in the late 1950s. It was not fueled by the momentum of previous generations but rather was lit like a spark from some smoldering ember, ignited by the black civil rights movement. The women of the second wave generation, with few and notable exceptions, could not look to their mothers and grandmothers for a strategy for social change and personal empowerment. They inherited instead the same legacy of prejudice and ridicule--the same "society of masculine origin"--that the 19th-century feminists confronted. They had to build on a scant foundation and dim memories of distant times.

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