Second-Class Citizen, Part I: ‘Remember the Ladies’

Cornelia Powell
6 min readAug 18


Women voting in 1787 in New Jersey. In 1807, women across the U.S. lose the right to vote.

For thousands of years of patriarchal laws, women have been regarded and treated as less important than men — as second-class citizens. Thwarted by their religions, governments and families, denied education and work opportunities to earn their own independence, generations of women had their dreams, ideas and talents squashed. A few found ways to flourish in their personal goals and public ambitions — usually having to compromise something that was dear to them — and there were certain women who used what they had been denied to help set others free.

Colonial America

“Long before she was First Lady, Abigail Adams was a trusted advisor and supporter of husband John’s political efforts, and shared his patriotic fervor,” wrote Eileen Tannich Gose and Kathy Wiederstein DeHerrera in Reflecting Freedom. While he was away with the Congress, she, like thousands of other women before and since, took care of family and farm and whatever business the men left behind when they went off to govern or to war. “John and Abigail shared their devotion to the cause of freedom, their politics, and their ambition for his advancement, but their views were not aligned on one issue. On March 31, 1776, Abigail wrote to her husband John as he worked on the formation of the new nation….”:

….in the New Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuilar care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determine to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

The notion of “second-class citizen” was so ingrained in the patriarchal mindset at the time (not only about women, but about Native Americans, all people of color, and anyone else considered “lesser than” because of some prejudice against them) that Abigail Adams’ request fell on deaf ears. No one “remembered the ladies”! Moreover, according to Gail Collins’ book America’s Women: “John’s answer was, ‘As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh.’”

Over 200 years later, fifteen-year-old Heidi Schreck from Wenatchee, Washington, put herself through college by giving speeches about the United States Constitution. As an adult, she turned her knowledge and experience into an award-winning Broadway play, “What the Constitution Means to Me.” The play is witty and shocking and revelatory as it discloses that the actual word “woman” is not mentioned in the Constitution. Not once. Not anywhere. (“‘We the people,’ the very first words of the Constitution,” historian Sally Roesch Wagner wrote, “never meant all the people. The Founding Fathers meant themselves, white men with property.” This insured that women, people of color, immigrants, and poor people of any persuasion would remain “second class.”)

When the American colonies were slugging it out with the British for their freedom, the second-class female citizens of Paris who were “furious and starving, rioted over the high price of bread, leading a march to Versailles in October of 1789 that would help kick off the French Revolution and ultimately dethrone King Louis XVI,” explained Rebecca Traister in Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women. But in those “heady days” of revolution, “when ‘Amazon bands’ of women took to the streets clad in short petticoats and little red Phrygian caps, even Robespierre decided that things had gone too far. ‘All citizenesses’ were ordered to give up their political activities and ‘retire to their separate domiciles’. Their leaders, among them Olympe de Gonge, author of the famous ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women’, were sent to the guillotine.”

This revolutionary spirit was brewing in England at the time as well. Another uppity woman, Mary Wollstonecraft — novelist, philosopher, mother of author Mary Shelley, and advocate for women — was writing “A Vindication of Women’s Rights.” Regarded as one of the founding philosophers of feminism, Wollstonecraft’s work inspired generations of women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, as a founder of the suffrage movement in the United States, wrote passionately to expose the numerous ways women were considered “second-class citizens.”

The first ‘Woman’s Rights Convention’ July 1848, Seneca Falls, New York

Seventy-two-years after the Declaration of Independence was written (and another 72 years before women won the vote in the U.S.), Stanton and fellow activist in the abolitionist movement, Lucretia Mott — enraged by the continued suppression of women — gathered with three other ladies over tea and organized the radical notion of a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. On the convention’s agenda, along with addressing economic and educational inequities and restrictive laws on marriage and property rights, was the demand for women’s right to vote — perhaps the most revolutionary of all. Drafting a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the document signed by Abigail Adams’ husband John decades before, the women’s deeply subversive text “was also a statement of independence — women’s direct rebuke of male power and a seeming return on Abigail’s promise of rebellion,” explained Traister. By using the famous Declaration of Independence as their blueprint, “the suffragists were employing the language and logic of righteous rage that America revered — the rage of the founders, white men who were furious about limitations set on their liberty.” And by taking this bold stand in 1848 — holding a public meeting by, about and for women — Stanton and Mott were holding up a mirror to the current power bloc of white men to show the consequences of women being denied liberties — and declaring “no more.”

When Susan B. Anthony met Stanton a few years later, a chance meeting that changed the world, they formed a lifelong partnership of political activism. “Elizabeth and Susan were a perfect complement to each other,” wrote the authors of Reflecting Freedom. “Elizabeth had bold and radical ideas and Susan possessed independence and self-discipline. Together, they worked better than they did alone and they made a formidable team — Susan supplied the facts and Elizabeth wrote the speeches.” Stanton became known for her radical, sometimes incendiary writings, but Anthony didn’t mince her words either: “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union…. Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.”

The abolition of slavery was an issue that drew many activists together during the middle of the century. Around the time of that first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, Harriet Tubman was planning her escape from a Maryland plantation. Born a slave (records mark the date around 1825), Tubman grew into a barely five-foot-tall, fiercely determined abolitionist leader and political activist. She escaped from slavery, found her way to freedom above the Mason Dixon Line, yet returned south and, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, guided many slaves to their freedom, becoming known as the Moses of her people. “Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” Tubman said. “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” ~

{Between August 18 and August 26 — declared “Women’s Equality Day” — pivotal dates in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified then signed into law, giving women the vote, I will post five parts of “Second-Class Citizen”…a little this ‘n that of women’s history.}

NEXT Second-Class Citizen, Part II: ‘That Vote Has Been Costly’



Cornelia Powell

Grew up on a farm exploring wonder/worked in fashion exploring dreams/spiritual journeyed the world exploring me/live on a green mtn ridge exploring more wonder