While most Americans have not yet heard of the Manhattan Declaration, it is rapidly gathering support among conservative Christians. More than 400,000 have signed the declaration since it was introduced in November. While an initial reading suggests that it is simply a rehashing of familiar issues – abortion rights, gay marriage and religious freedom – there is much more to it, especially when one understands the history.
On the surface, the declaration draws yet another line in the sand with respect to these highly divisive issues used for political reasons to rally the support of fundamentalists. They are emotionally charged, and the positions taken are inflexible, guaranteeing that there can be no compromise, only continuous confrontation.
However, if the declaration is viewed from its historical context, the real motivations of its sponsors become clear. The document is part of the ancient struggle to keep women in a subservient position, allowing men to treat women as property rather than human beings of equal standing, able to think and act for themselves. This misogynistic attitude is common among many fundamentalist groups, not just Christians, and is the foundation for the belief that man – be he father, husband or spiritual leader – is the dominate member of the family, the community and the church.
Abortion rights are at the center of this struggle, defining who has ownership of a woman’s body. For example, why have extramarital relations traditionally been more acceptable for the husband than for the wife? Historically, the explanation has more to do with control, property rights and protecting the bloodline. Birth control offered women the opportunity to establish their independence, to take control of their bodies.
As late as the nineteenth century, women in the United States had few legal rights. Women did not have the right to vote, divorce was rare, children belonged to the father, and a rich widow who remarried surrendered all of her property to her new husband. Unmarried women, protected by their fathers, could be turned out on the street by the eldest son, who inherited all the property when the father died.
Woman in the United States have struggled long and hard against such oppression and they have achieved a great deal since the first Women’s Convention of 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Yet even today, women have not reached true equality, as witnessed by the inequity in salaries that still compensate male workers more because “men have families to support.” Such an approach forces single mothers into marriage or onto the welfare rolls.
In 1949, in her groundbreaking work The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir documented the oppression of women and built the foundation for the modern feminist movement. She was followed by others, including Betty Friedan, who published her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and cofounded the National Organization of Women, a group that has provided women with a powerful voice for more than forty years.
Today, women in the industrialized nations are making meaningful strides toward true equality, but globally women continue to suffer enormously from misogynistic attitudes and cultures. Amnesty International says, “Women and girls suffer disproportionately from violence – both in peace and in war, at the hands of the state, the community and the family.”
With respect to same sex marriage, the connection is not immediately clear, not until one looks at the language used in the Manhattan Declaration – “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife.” Fundamentalists see marriage as the basic structure upon which a male-dominated society is built. Traditional family relationships allow heterosexual men to maintain control of their “property.” Alternative unions threaten this power.
Finally, the declaration purports to protect “the rights of conscience and religious liberty.” On the surface, who can be opposed to religious freedom? Americans are often reminded that the Puritans came to New England so that they might practice their religion freely. True, but woe unto the Massachusetts Bay colonists who got out of step with Puritanism.
Narrow-minded views of religious freedom, such as those expressed in the Manhattan Declaration, are simply a continuation of the struggle between those who would grant spiritual freedom to all, regardless of their beliefs, as opposed to those who seek to perpetuate the old Puritan practice of persecuting non-believers, better known as witch hunting.
Women are not inferior. They make innumerable contributions to our world. Their right to equality should be respected by all.
David Lee McMullen
David Lee McMullen is the author of Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson – the biography of the first woman elected to a national leadership position in an American textile union. It will be available in August. He received his PhD from the University of Aberdeen in 2006.
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