By Yvette tenBerge
In looking at the opportunities available to women in the United States today, it is obvious that things have come a long way since the days when a male-dominated society did not permit women do anything but serve their husbands and raise a family. San Diego has been abuzz these past two weeks with exhibits, conferences and other events in honor of Women's History Month and the 153rd anniversary of the first Women's Rights Convention. In acknowledgment of the importance of this event, we at La Prensa would like to outline the history of Women's Rights for our readers. We have also asked Latina women within the San Diego community to comment on their experiences and on the progress of the women's movement.
A Slice of History
In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott called together 300 women and men to hold the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. While there, these revolutionary women created the Declaration of Sentiments, a document outlining the inalienable rights of women and modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Given the attitude toward women at the time, they had to start from the bottom up. Imagine needing to argue that any laws placing women in a position inferior to men were contrary to nature and therefore contrary to what God, Himself, wanted. These women, many of whom were also abolitionists, demanded that women be given the same rights and privileges granted to men as citizens of the United States. Among these were the right to vote, the right to retain their own wages, the right to own property, the right to receive an education and the right to hold positions of authority in affairs of the Church.
It was not until 1920 that the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women were finally, legally granted many of the rights for which the Declaration of Sentiments had called 72 years earlier. In 1969, the National Women's Hall of Fame was created to honor American women who had contributed to the development of the United States through the arts and humanities, athletics, business, education, government, philanthropy and science. A glance at The National Women's Hall of Fame list of honored women, however, reveals that Hispanic women have yet to be recognized for much of their work. Out of the over 150 women honored and memorialized within its walls, the Hall of Fame has, thus far, only recognized two Latinas: Chicana Dolores Huerta, one of the century's most powerful and respected labor movement leaders, and Puertorriqueña Antonia Novello, the first woman as well as the first Hispanic to become Surgeon General of the United States.
A Contemporary Perspective
Sister Margaret Castro, the Administrator and Director of Religious Education and Youth Ministry at St. Rita's Catholic Church in southeast San Diego, has tirelessly spent the past 35 years helping to lay the groundwork for women in San Diego to become politically active. In 1966, after returning to the area from a 15 year mission with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India and a three year mission in Africa, Sister Margaret found that our own women did not have a voice.
"In Malawi, Africa the women were doing all of the work, hoeing, cleaning and providing. In India, I was surrounded by women working side by side. I came [to San Diego] and had to ask where all of the women were and what they were doing," says Sister Margaret, explaining her decision to help found the National Women's Political Caucus and the National Organization for Women. "There were not any women elected to office in San Diego. If they did run, they only got half a percent of the vote. We wanted to encourage women and [especially] minority women to run for office." In order to provide a catalyst for this movement, it was decided that Sister Margaret would become the first Hispanic woman to run for office in San Diego. Although it was already well-known that the appointed City Council position would go to Jess Haro, Sister Margaret ran to provide as much exposure for women as possible.
"We had a huge amount of work to do since women were nowhere in our [political] parties or even in appointed positions. They weren't on local planning committees, school boards or even in the police force," says Sister Castro, recalling the names and individual stories of the women with whom she worked as if the events had happened only yesterday. "We do have women as elected officials, now, which is very good. What is hard to hear is women saying that they did not get where they are [today] with the help of `those liberal' women or that they got where they are today on their own. I think it's a shame that they do not recognize that liberal and extremely conservative women came together and stuck their necks out for them."
Mary Salas, Council Member for the city of Chula Vista, is one of those women who was able to benefit from and contribute to the hard work of women like Sister Margaret. This mother of two and grandmother of two won the City Council seat in November, 1996 and has been involved in numerous organizations that promote women and Latinas. "I have seen a lot of progress. I remember that there were relatively few careers that I thought about participating in other than being a nurse. I really bought into the limits," says Ms. Salas, recounting her childhood days. "Even though I got married right out of high school, I have been able to fully participate in all facets of being a complete woman. I have, personally, been very, very fortunate to make it in an untraditional occupation."
Although Ms. Salas agrees that the position of women has undeniably improved, she does notice that inequality between the sexes continues on a daily basis. "We are making headway in politics and other career fields, but I rarely interact with a women when it comes to construction management. In this area, it is still a man's world, and I do think Latina's have a little more catching up to do," says Ms. Salas. "We need to work on [altering the perception of fields that are] traditionally acceptable for us to go into. As with most things, it's difficult to break through at first, but once momentum picks up, the barriers will come down, and things will happen much faster."
Surprisingly, differences in age, upbringing and educational experience between Latinas do not necessarily mean that they feel differently about recognizing the importance of the contributions that women have made. "Women have always been pushing the envelope and have never been satisfied with being relegated to roles that have been subordinate," says Marcella Ellis, a 25 year-old Program Director for the Women's History Reclamation Project here in San Diego. "Women have worked within their own realms to achieve revolutionary accomplishments. This change has been a slow process, but it has been consistent."
For Ms. Ellis, a Mexican-American graduate of Columbia University in New York, it is everyday women like her mother who have continued to carry the torch lit by the women who wrote the Declaration of Sentiments more than 150 years ago. "My mother used to tell me, `Don't hold your tongue. I bit my tongue so much that there is blood all over the place.' I had a lot of support from my mother who wanted something better for her daughters," says Ms. Ellis, a supporter of affirmative action. "She used to tell us that if we wanted to go to school back east we could and told us not to worry about what it would cost because it would all work out. It takes someone who has gone through the ranks to help push the next generation of kids along, and now, it is my turn to do that."
Although it may take another century before women throughout the United States fully experience equality, there are strong, Latinas in the San Diego community that are doing their part to ensure that the the dreams of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and their supporters are fully realized. No matter what our occupation, ethnicity or level of education, they prove that we can all do our part in contributing to the empowerment of women.