Women's History Month: The Past, Present, and Future

March is Women's History Month. Women's History Month is a celebration of women's contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in the month of March in the United States since 1987. This month provides us all with an opportunity to remember, write about, and share stories about both the diversity of women's lived experiences and the work that still remains to be done to make a more equitable system for all. This month we would like to focus on how women have been on the frontlines, fighting for and securing equal rights and opportunity throughout our country’s history as abolitionists, civil rights leaders, suffragists, and labor activists. Women continue to lead as advocates for reproductive rights, champions of racial justice, and gender equality.

From Seneca Falls, NY to Tulsa, OK

The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women's rights convention in the United States. Held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the meeting launched the women's suffrage movement, which more than seven decades later ensured women the right to vote.

Those in attendance prepared a “Declaration of Sentiments,” which was modeled on the Declaration of Independence and delineated the “civil, social, political, and religious rights” of women. Though it wasn’t originally included, after some debate, delegates included the right to vote, formally arguing for women’s suffrage. Regardless of many observers of these conventions being dismissive, these women continued to hold similar meetings in Rochester, New York, and in Ohio, Indiana.

These women’s refusal to back down in the face of inequity, laid the foundation for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

Even though this amendment eventually was passed, the road to the right to vote was bumpy. As the women’s rights movement gained momentum, so did opposition to suffrage. The common rhetoric that was utilized at the time was “Why force women to vote?” Another antagonistic tactic that was used was to accuse suffrage activists of “discriminating against the mother.” The Oklahoma Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage urged voters to “protect the family and vote ‘no’ on the Woman Suffrage Amendment.” This rhetoric regularly characterized mothers as someone who would neither vote nor hold office, a stereotype we still unfortunately see today.

Women's Right to Independence

Although suffrage was a widely publicized issue, women’s rights extended to issues of property and self-determination. The most common area in which women were not seen as equals in this scope is through divorce.  For decades, Indiana had one of the most liberal divorce laws in the country; the phrase “Indiana divorce” spoke to the trend of people flocking there for a quick and easy divorce.  While women’s rights advocates viewed the relative ease of divorce as a boon for women, enabling them to exit unhappy marriages, critics felt that divorce undermined society, and they connected liberalized divorce laws with women’s suffrage. Under pressure from other states and public opinion, Indiana eventually reformed its divorce laws—but not before divorce was included in national debates about women’s rights. 

But let’s be frank, when a woman is not able to access a divorce, this effectively traps them in situations in which they experience domestic violence. Though it was rarely spoken about at this time, we now know that domestic violence comes in many forms. Domestic violence can be a partner exhibiting control, physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and economic abuse or intimidation and isolation. It is extremely difficult for women, even today when divorce laws are considerably more lax, to escape when they are in these situations, especially with the addition of children. For three years in a row, research from the Violence Policy Center has ranked Oklahoma in the top 10 for the number of women killed by men in the United States. The latest report ranked Oklahoma second in the country, with a homicide rate of 3.28 per 100,000, which is more than double the national average. According to new data from FWD.us, in 2021, women in Oklahoma made up nearly 70% of victims of intimate partner homicide. Women of color were overrepresented. Almost one in four women killed by an intimate partner were Black and more than one in 10 were Indigenous. There is one more demographic that we see disproportionately affected, mothers. 

How This Leads to the Over-Incarceration of Women

Historically, Oklahoma has been a top incarcerator of women for decades. The over-incarceration of women is by-in-large due to laws such as Failure-to-Protect and other criminal charges targeted solely at mothers. Currently, data shows that one in every six women in Oklahoma prisons is serving a child abuse or neglect sentence, making it the most common charge for women in prison in the state. Many of the women prosecuted for these offenses are survivors of domestic violence, including some prosecuted for failing to protect their children from abuse they themselves concurrently suffered.

Additionally, murder and manslaughter charges (which account for three of the 10 most common offenses for women in prison) can be connected to incidents where a woman defends herself against an abusive partner or a child fatality that the woman was not directly responsible for.

When it comes to Failure-to-Protect statutes specifically, rather than deterring abuse and incentivizing parents in poverty to access resources, Oklahoma’s child abuse and neglect statute puts up barriers to seeking help, which increases trauma and endangers kids. This statute is written in a way that criminalizes a broad range of circumstances, many of which are closely linked to poverty and being a victim of domestic violence. In addition, Oklahoma’s law does not allow an affirmative defense based on a mother’s own victimization, unlike other states including Texas. Finally, in Oklahoma this vaguely defined crime comes with an overly broad sentence—zero years to life in prison. 

The Future

We are fortunate to be able to look through history at strong, determined women who gave us the opportunity to hold the same perseverance and diligence that they once had as well. While they have laid the foundation for us, the fight towards women’s equality is not done. As Matilda Joslyn Gage once said, “The women of today are the thoughts of their mothers and grandmothers, embodied and made alive. They are active, capable, determined and bound to win. They have one-thousand generations back of them... Millions of women dead and gone are speaking through us today.”

While the statute’s like Failure-to-Protect's intent is to protect children, isolating and punishing mothers and ripping families apart does the opposite and entrenches cycles of childhood trauma. These type of statutes additionally continue the historical attempt to control women as well as it perpetuates various antiquated gender norms that lead to gender inequity. While this month we must celebrate the victories that women have accomplished throughout history, we must also stay centered in the work that remains to be done. We must have a system that will support survivors, address poverty, protect children, and keep families together; and most of all of this can be done by women gaining true equality.