Skip to content
  • In 1776, Thomas Jefferson & Co. signed the Declaration of Independence, saying “all men are created equal . . . with certain unalienable rights,” which included “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Unfortunately, the document – though admirable in many ways – left out women, African Americans, and other groups. Estelle Freedman, a history professor and award-winning teacher who co-founded Stanford’s Program in Feminist Studies, talks about what she thinks about feminism, gay marriage and the importance of the famous Fourth of July treatise. Excerpts:

    Moving beyond just the Declaration, what do you consider to be other great moments of American independence?

    I’ll start with the ways the Declaration of Independence has been redefined, appropriated and expanded. I can’t help but think about Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1848 rewriting the declaration [in her Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls]. She writes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” And, I quote, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” She lists that women can’t vote. That they have no say in laws. That they don’t have rights that men who are less educated than women have. That they didn’t have rights to their own wages. It was the Declaration of Independence that the first women’s rights convention used [to defend their points].

    Not a single woman signed the Declaration of Independence.

    No. Women were not considered public, political actors. Once a woman was married, her husband represented her. He voted for her, he controlled property, he decided where they lived. It’s the principle known as coverture. A male head of household represents all of those in the household. It took a very long time to break down the belief that it would upset the order of society if women had political rights —that it would somehow unleash chaos. What next, children ruling their parents? There would be these cartoons —men having to take care of babies. This topsy-turvy world was invoked. The Declaration of Independence became the model to extend the so-called rights of man to more and more groups.

    It extended beyond the United States, right?

    The Declaration of Independence is part of a much broader world historical moment of this age of democratic revolutions that rest on the inherent rights of man. It’s overturning of traditional hierarchies of monarchies and aristocracies. At the time, the founding fathers firmly believed in patriarchal families and slavery. Once you unleash this view that the rights of man and self-representation are your political ideal, there’s no stopping extending the theme to antislavery, women’s rights, and in the 20th century, lesbian and gay rights and disability rights. No group should be outside of that definition of individual rights. The Declaration of Independence and American independence is an important marker of an extremely successful democratic revolution. You can still see in the Arab [world in] the continuing unfolding of social movements that rest on the ideal of self representation and having a say in how you’re governed. In the United States, that also goes along with the view that we’re not born to a place in life, but that we can change our station in life. Women can change their position from coverture, from being under male control, to independent citizenship. Lesbians and gay men can change from being a stigmatized group to upstanding citizens who aspire to the full rights of marriage.

    How does legalizing gay marriage fit into the U.S. ideal of independence for all?

    I see this as part of a long historical pattern of groups that had been defined outside of the boundaries of citizenship. There’s this sort of “but” clause — the rights of men, but not women, gay men or lesbians, or the disabled. If you have a black body or a female body, you [didn’t] fit into that. What we’ve seen is groups that have been excluded trying to move into the protected group of those who have rights. In a way, the lesbian and gay movement, like others – whether it was abolitionism, civil rights, or the women’s movement– has to counter these arguments that you are in some way biologically not fit for these rights. [That] you don’t function the same way. Your skin color is different. Your reproductive organs are different. Your physical capacities are different. Or, in the case of lesbians and gay men, your sexual practices are different. But we’ve seen group after group break that down and say, “We are part of humanity. We are citizens and we deserve rights.” Each of these other social movements I’m talking about took a very long time, and there was huge social and geographic unevenness in the extension of rights to them — north and south, east and west. It takes generations, political debate, and changing structures that enable attitudes to shift as well.

    Despite its flaws, should the Declaration of Independence be a model for other countries?

    You cannot impose an American model of democracy on any culture in the world. It’s not a freestanding set of truths. It’s historically constructed out of the ideas of the time and place. That said, as a person who grew up within American culture, it’s hard to imagine completely throwing out or rejecting all of the ideals in these founding documents [just] because they have some limitations. It’s so deeply ingrained in Americans to expect certain rights.

    What about modifying the Declaration of Independence for a country such as Afghanistan?

    They have to construct a legal culture that is responsive to their religious and cultural values. You cannot enforce an American system. You may import some things that do work. We know that education for women improves the lives of children and poor people. The biggest factor for lifting families out of poverty is the education of women. The more educated they are, the more likely they are to use contraception, the more likely their family size is to decline, and poverty declines. It’s something both women desire [and that] will help whole families and whole societies. Our Declaration did not guarantee education to women. So who’s to say that importing our laws is going to work in another culture. People in other cultures like Afghanistan can take from American or western systems and adopt what will benefit them. They can question some of the features of, for example, our highly sexualized commercial culture that they may not want to import. Americans have to realize that our documents are valuable — and flawed. You can look from the position of a Muslim society that says, “Do we really want women running around in bikinis?” Their answer may be no. But that doesn't mean that women should not be educated or politically represented.

    You talk about the “great stall” in feminism. Why do some young women today take their rights for granted?

    Some rights yes, and some rights no. I’m very impressed by the continuing mobilization of women students who are concerned about sexual violence and about reproductive choice—the things that really hit them where they live. They continue to mobilize Take Back the Night marches. And more recently, there’s the “Slut Walk.” They’ll dress up in really sexy clothes, short skirts and revealing tops and march to say no matter how a woman dresses, she is not to blame for sexual assault.

    They do that at Stanford each spring?

    Yes, they did this year. And every year they produce the Vagina Monologues. Almost every campus in the United States performs it. It’s called “V Day.”

    Because it’s on Valentine’s Day?

    Yes. The “V” also stands for violence. The whole project raises money to oppose violence against women. The royalties that get paid for performing this play help to fund anti-violence programs in countries around the world. I was teaching introduction to feminist studies in 2008 when Proposition 8 [Editor’s note: Proposition 8 eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry in California] was on the ballot in California. It seemed to me all the students were so politically mobilized. The day after Proposition 8 passed, they came in really feeling demoralized. These were not necessarily lesbian and gay students planning to get married. These were just students who considered themselves to be liberal or feminist who were in some ways ashamed that this was where American culture was. It was a shift toward a broader movement, like the civil rights movement, where you had white allies—not just in getting their rights but in getting the rights of all those who deserve it. The students I know best are deeply committed to social change and are part of that world historic movement we’re talking about to extend the principles of the rights of man to all people.

    Can you talk about your role co-editing Allan Berube’s new book, My Desire for History: Essays in Gay, Community, and Labor History?

    Allan Berube was a self-taught historian who wrote an award-winning book on the history of lesbians and gays in World War II that became an award-winning film. He went on to become a MacArthur [“genius grant”] fellow. We worked to preserve the papers from his research and his life. After he died, we decided to collect some of his most important writings, some of which had been published in newspapers and magazines, with the unpublished work he had been working on, an exceptional union. We wrote a biographical introduction and collected his writing on San Francisco gay history, his personal writings about his own work and life, and his innovative work on the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. Thursday night [July 7], my co-author John D’Emilio [the other co-editor] and I will be having a celebration of Allan’s work at the newly opened GLBT Museum in the Castro in San Francisco. For more information on the book, click on:

    You’ve raised the question, “does women’s liberation liberate the maid?” Does it?

    There is a huge class difference in the way women have benefited from the women’s movement. With all of the laws passed after the 1970s to assure more equitable pay and opportunity, middle-class, educated women have begun to improve in terms of the wage gap at a much greater rate. Unionized working class women do much better. The recent example in the Walmart case is a good example of all of these women who are working in what become dead-end jobs. The arguments that the women make in that case help explain why there’s that gap -- they are not able to rise in the job structure. If you have an education, you have benefited more than the women who are working at Walmart and who are stuck in sales jobs and are not able to move up in management. And race differences remain. But class differences have become even more important in determining the extent to which changes in our laws and culture have enabled some women to close some of the gender gaps.

    What about the modern idea of feminism as a dirty word?

    There’s been for quite a while the phenomenon of “I’m not a feminist – but of course I expect to get equal pay, of course I expect to get maternity leave, of course I expect to hold public office.” What they fear often is the social reaction they get when they call themselves feminists.

    What are the myths about feminism?

    One myth is that it is anti-male. A second myth is that it’s only about white women. Women fear that to say “I’m a feminist” is to betray the men in their lives. Or women who are homophobic fear that if they say they’re feminist, people will think they’re lesbian. Almost every student who takes a class on feminism winds up letting go of the fear of feminism and realizing, “I really am a feminist.” There are still people who are anti-feminism, who don’t believe women should have equal rights and who believe men should rule over the family. [But even] Sarah Palin now has used the word feminist.  In contrast, Michele Bachmann says, “I am not a feminist.” She says, “I’m pro woman and pro man,” which might mean that she is an equal-rights feminist, though I think she wants to differentiate herself. Both Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin speak about women’s empowerment. They want the power to enact certain kinds of laws that are often at odds with what equal-rights feminism has stood for. Keep in mind that feminism is never static. There are many feminisms. Sarah Palin uses it in a way that’s different than the way I use it, but they co-exist historically. The whole idea of what feminism stands for will look different in 20 years. We will be seen as products of our time.

    Have an idea for us? Email

    Posted by Ms. Karen Springen in history  on Jul 1 2011 3:53PM | 1 comments


Comments (1)

  • Mr. Stuart Howard Sargent

    I was interested to read a year or two ago that many colonists moved to Florida and other Spanish colonies after the American Revolution because the Revolution left in place many of the restrictions on the property rights of women that British law imposed, restrictions that did not exist in the Spanish world. Not that the Spanish world was without problems of its own, but perhaps this little factoid helps us re-examine the idea that we were almost perfect, we just had to get British tax collectors out of our hair and then America would lead the world into the future. We didn't have everything figured out then, and we still don't.

    Posted by Mr. Stuart Howard Sargent on Jul 3, 2011 8:14 AM


Be the first one to tag this!