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Sentiments of Freedom
How Women Have Defined the American Creed throughout the 20th century
Taylor Smith
Hist 531
University of Kansas
Fall 2016
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If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and
will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.Abigail

In July of 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while leading the Womens Rights Convention

at Seneca Falls, read the Declaration of the Sentiments. Alluding to the liberal ideas of the

Declaration of independence written nearly 72 years prior, Stanton declares the rights of women,

as being equal to man, are inalienable, and thus governed by natural law. Within the

Sentiments, Stanton offers a vision of the American creed, freedom, but critiques the conditions

and structures that have usurped the power of women. Despite the fact that Stanton offers a

conception of freedom that, given the context of the time, serves white, middle class women,

thus limiting the reach of the message, it is the principle of freedom that is consistently

embedded into the struggles and triumphs of experiences throughout the history of the United

States. Whether being idealistic or critical of American progress, the movers and shakers of our

history consistently link their goals and struggles to their perception of freedom that lights the

glistening path from sea to shining sea. Although curricular standardslike those designed by

the state of Kansaspush students towards navigating particular groups and ideas through U.S

history, they speak little of the differences between how groups and individuals experience and

define freedom within the context of their time and social position (Kansas State Department of

Education, 2013).

The purpose of teaching early American history through the conceptual lens of freedom is

not one that focuses on the exceptional social and political values of the nation; rather, this

particular approach allows students to critically analyze and evaluate the debate over one of

America's most valued ideals through the eyes of those whom they study. The trouble with
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freedom, however, is that its meaning is multifaceted, shifting within contextual parameters,

limiting a consistency that presents a significant difficulty for secondary students to grasp, due to

the fallibility of the biases presented by curriculum specialists, teachers, and the student's

themselves. Furthermore, there is often resistance toward curriculum that is seemingly negative

and contrary to the mainstream narrative.

According to Bruce VanSledright in his article Narrative of Nation-State, Historical

Knowledge, and School History Education (2008), some lawmakers legislate protection of the

nation-building story of education, a perspective VanSeldright argues runs the risk of

marginalizing the diversity of experiences of races, socioeconomic classes, and genders. Thus,

the nation-building narrative essentially assimilates minority groups into the mainstream,

negating the history of many, making the subject static and irrelevant for most students. With

this, many state curriculums marginalize the history of women into the United States, while

treating the experiences of women as a monolith. Due to the lack of voice given to American

women, secondary students develop a mainstream narrative of American history because the

curricular standards and textbooks lack diversity, accounts from women, or a variety of

perspectives (Vansledright, 2008). Therefore, a curriculum that utilizes the incorporation of

primary sources from a variety of women, or historical arguments that bring light to different

narratives, provides an opportunity for students to develop a critical understanding of the

American creedfreedom. This essay examines how specific groups of women have defined the

principle of freedom into their experiences and understandings, constructing a narrative that

includes a variety of perspectives for the purpose of analyzing the meaning of Americas most

prized ideal.

Expanding Social Justice

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As expressed through various works, Historian Eric Foner places freedom at the base of

many national failures, triumphs, struggles, and sagas in a way that displays this national ideal as

a transformative process that has deeply influenced the United States' national identity. Within

his book The Story of American Freedom (1999), Foner contends that there is no idea more

fundamental to Americans sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation than freedom.

While using the terms freedom and liberty interchangeably, Foner argues that Americans have

utilized this creed for expanding social justice, formulation of identity, or obtaining rights to full

citizenship. Ultimately, the fires of freedom that persist to trump oppression and secure the

beacon of liberty, ignite the passion surrounding American history, while varieties of Americans

offer different conceptions and implementations of freedom. This complex story includes an

ambiguous plot where the definition of our rights provided by freedom is transformed by the

demands of excluded groups, those who believe their power is usurped for the benefit of those in

power (Foner, 1999, pp. xiv-xxii).

For example, during the Progressive Era, the conception of freedom was expanded into

the meaning of citizenship for the purpose of ensuring representation and employment with a

decent wage. However, what must be understood is that the expansions of jobs the symbol of

female emancipation within the labor force was dominated by white, middle class, native born

women (Foner, 1999, p. 145). This intersection of the expansion of freedom is further present in

the women that were able to fully strike and utilize their position to influence public policy. With

in the essay, Florence Kelley and Womens Activism (2001), Kathryn Kish Sklar notes how

Kelley utilized her power for the pursuance of social justice before women were granted the

national right to vote. Her education at Cornell University and her ancestral objection to slavery

and the promotion of black suffrage shaped Kelleys conception of freedom in America. Kelley
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ultimately defined freedom as social justice, where labor reform would benefit both men and

women, while protecting against the plight of human suffering. The notion of a living wage as

a liberty meant that women would begin defining their rights to organize women for the

protection of the family wage. This means that, although women were increasing their footing

in the workplace, many men viewed the womens obligation to the factory to make ends meet

was an impediment of the mans freedom (Sklar, 2001, pp 402-412).

However, many women, depending on their position in society, viewed the right to work

as an increase in their autonomy, thus an expansion of their freedom (Foner, 1999, 144-145). For

example, Pauline Newman, an American labor activist that was born in Eastern Europe, used her

experience working in the tenement factories of the southside of Manhattan Island, as well as her

understanding of social activism, to expand organization to other classes for the purpose of

protecting women wage laborers. According to Newman, the lack of enforcement of labor laws

upheld dehumanizing practices within factories because production was the necessity. Newman

further used her personal conception of freedom to cease her work at the Triangle Factory and

proceed with a strike in 1909. Protecting wages and working conditions, as demanded by the

strike of 1909, made the unionization of women possible so that protections could increase the

autonomy, and thus economic or recreational freedom for working women feasible (Newman,

1980, 417-419). Overall, when representing how women promoted social justicewhat many

viewed as freedom during the early 20th century, the viewpoints of Pauline Newman and

Florence Kelley provide curriculum specialists, teachers, and students with narratives that

incorporate how varieties of women defined and pursued their perspective of freedom.

The Greatest War, Ever

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During WWII, the Four Freedomsfreedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of

worship, and freedom of speechentered the American rhetoric as war loomed in Europe and

the Pacific. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, however, the wars meaning for non-white

Americans strengthened in ambiguity due to the reverberation of pre-war discriminations

segregation and immigrations quotas, and the eventual internment of Japanese-Americans

(Foner, 1999, 240-243). Valerie Matsumotos exploration into the life in Japanese internment

camps in her essay, Japanese American Women during World War II (1984) demonstrates how

the war shaped the identity of Japanese Americans during WWII. Matsumoto supports her

contention through stories of Nisei Women that demonstrate that the lack of privacy in the camps

altered modesty, and how the possession of the face of the enemy caused an increase anxiety

and bitterness about their place in American society. However, as evidenced by the stories of

resettlement, young Japanese women that became college students paved the pathways for for

the dual transition into college and life outside of the internment camps (Matsumoto, 1984,

pp. 540-542).

This transition meant that these young Japanese women would take it upon themselves to

navigate networksservice organizations and religious groupsand work within the contours of

a hostile America. Thus Matsumoto brings light to a narrative of Japanese internment during

World War II by analyzing the changes in social structures and how young Nisei women

reconstructed their lives after interment (Matsumoto, 1984, pp. 540-542). With this historical

analysis, the experiences of Nisei women constructs a narrative that considers the agency of

these young women, while understanding the conditions of the internment camp and the mixed

emotions that were developed because of the destruction of their individual and community

security that shaped their conception of American freedom (Matsumoto, 1984, p. 537).
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Likewise, the the memoir, Farewell to Manzanar, further brings voice to the experience

of Japanese-American women during WWII that defined their inclusion within the American

creed. While discussing conditions of the camp and the change in family dynamic, Jeanne

Wakatsuka Houston and James D. Houston memorialize the experiences of the Japanese during

internment through the Wakastuka Houstons journey. As Wakatsuka Houston writes about the

common master plan, she describes the assembly-line nature of the camps and the medicine

and food that made them continuously sick. Furthermore, a description of the latrines paint

nauseating image of the camps as she explains that the floors were covered with excrement,

and that the toilets were erupting like a row of tiny volcanoes (Houston and Houston, 2000, p.


This imagery supports how the unprecedented hatred and demonization of the Japanese-

Americans justified the usurpation of freedom from Japanese-Americans, a majority of whom

were American citizens. Thus, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and its support from

advocates of civil liberties, one being Justice Hugo Black, presents an intolerable justification of

the protection of American freedom for some Americans. The story of Japanese internment

presents students with a critical disparity between the American creed presented in the

Declaration, as well as the promises in the Constitution, and the limits of freedom for some to

protect the few from fear, want, and loss of speech or worship (Foner, 1999, pp. 240-243).

With All Deliberate Speed

Following Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became a

celebrated champion of the Civil Rights Movement of the Mid-1900s. Although great deference

is necessary for the man with the dream, presenting the mainstream narrative of the civil rights

movement negates the participation of women in southern localities.The exclusion of female

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actors from the speeches delivered at the March on Washington in August of 1963 presents a

present continuity of the story of the struggle for freedom through equal protection of the law as

these particular women are often relegated to the tribute of their contribution rather than the

voices of the movement (March on Washington Program, 1963). According to Charles Payne

(1995), these grassroots participants in the rural south showed up more frequently to mass

meetings, demonstrations, and voter registration booths. This presents the transgression from the

notion that men were more politically active than women. Thus, these African American women

in the south were taking active positions to promote and expand their conceptions of freedom.

Payne further describes the pattern of gender participation during the Civil Rights

Movement within the context of age, as the imbalance in hierarchical positions were the

strongest between the ages of 30-50. Seemingly, southern African American women were

working to expand the freedom of their race rather than their gender, as gender was not as

politicized a social category as it became a few years later (Payne,1995, p. 632). Despite the

physical reprisals experienced by southern African American women, their participation was

driven by a variety of social and historical structures that often relied on religiosity and kinship

for the validation of participation in the movement. As women were more likely to participate in

their churches, while empathetically supporting their children, they became widely involved in

the civil rights movement to expand the Lords work for the purpose of expanding their freedom.

This aligns with the creed adopted throughout the Civil Rights Movement and preached by Dr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. through the invocation of of biblical verses to reach the goal of

freedom. Therefore, for some African American women in the rural south, the promotion of

racial justice through their involvement in the Movement would expand their freedom through

racial equality before the law (Foner, 1999, 278-279). The perspectives as southern African
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American women often fall silent within secondary U.S. history curriculum; the inclusion of

these perspectives widens the focal lens that students veer through while developing their

understandings of perspectives of freedom.


The sentiments of American freedom for women transgresses norms, but works within

contextual realms that mold perceptions and access to the promises of the American Constitution.

Women throughout American history have demanded freedom and utilized the ideals of the

Declaration of Independence to bridge the gap of understanding between races, social classes,

and positions in society. Women continue to get in the way to define their freedoms, whether it

be with their body, political, and economic positions, but our mainstream narrative often paints

them as a monolith that is seemingly progressive over time. Presenting the mainstream narrative

that ignores the intersectionality of women leaves many secondary students out of their own

history, suggesting that history is done to people. However, providing students with the

opportunity to critically analyze the varieties of experiences of American women, and how they

define freedom over time, ultimately creates a space where students can create their own

understandings of our national creed. If curriculum specialists and teachers continue running the

risk of marginalizing the voices of american women, the very ideal of freedom is lost through the

oppression of writing particular viewpoints and experiences out of history.

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Works Cited

Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Seneca Falls: Stanton and Anthony Papers Online
Foner, Eric (2013). "American Exceptionalism, American Freedom. Montreal Review.
Retrieved from
Foner, Eric (1998). The Story of American Freedom ( New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company,
Houston, J. W., & Houston, J. D. (2000). Farewell to Manzanar. Austin: Holt, Rinehart and
Kansas State Department of Education.(2013). Kansas Standards for History, Government, and
Social Studies.,%20Governmen
March on Washington (Program), 08/28/1963; Bayard Rustin Papers; John F. Kennedy Library;
National Archives and Records Administration.
Matsumoto, V (1984). Japanese American Women during World War II Kerber, L. K., &
Hughes Dayton, C. (2011). Japanese American Women during World War II. In J. De
Hart (Ed.), Womens America: Refocusing the Past (pp. 537-544). New York, New York:
Oxford University Press.
Newman, P (1980). We fought and we bled and we died In J. De Hart (Ed.), Womens
America: Refocusing the Past (pp. 537-544). New York, New York: Oxford University
Payne, C (1995), A Womans War: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement. In
De Hart (Ed.), Womens America: Refocusing the Past (pp. 537-544). New York, New
York: Oxford University Press.
Sklar, K (2001). Florence Kelley and Womens Activism in the Progressive Era. In J. De
(Ed.), Womens America: Refocusing the Past (pp. 537-544). New York, New York:
Oxford University Press.
VanSledright, B. (2008). Narratives of Nation-State, Historical Knowledge, and School History
Education. Review of Research in Education, 2008, 32:109. American Educational
Research Association. Retrievd October 27, 2016 from