There are fundamental differences between women’s rights and women’s emancipation. In the United States today, women, for the most part, have equal rights to men. Legally speaking, women are allowed to vote, own property, sue and be sued, and work. Women can inherit, women can keep their surnames after marriage, and women can own property and take out a credit card in their names. But having these relatively equal rights does not mean that there aren’t systematic barriers in place that keep them from practicing these rights, and that certainly doesn’t mean that women are perceived as equal to men by men. Women today are still entrapped by a heteropatriarchal hegemonic system that subordinates them in relation to men.
The first wave of feminism is considered to have been born in 1848 in Seneca Falls with the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments. The Declaration of Sentiments has espoused the need for a woman to be able to exercise her civil rights. Women were denied their civil right to vote, own property, inherit, and receive equal education to their male counterparts. While the Declaration of Sentiments did allude to higher systems as a reason for subjugation (and even named men as the reason for their subduction in one section), the document focused on winning these rights. As Gerda Lerner points out, women have been for the most part successful in meeting these goals: “women’s rights have been won or improved upon…in the last 150 years.” And yet, Lerner crucially adds, women have never been liberated: “Women’s emancipation has not yet been won anywhere.” Though women are legally allowed many of the same civil rights as men, they are still forced to participate within a system that posits them as lesser than their male counterparts.
The emancipation of women is a much larger and precarious struggle, as it is fighting for something (and against something) that is largely intangible. Women’s emancipation is fighting for women to be free from the continual subordination and subjugation from the patriarchy. Though the term patriarchy was not used in Declaration of Sentiments time, it was alluded to. In the 1970’s it became a faction of the second wave and was called Women’s Liberation. It differed greatly from Liberal Feminism that was still fighting for women’s civil rights. Women’s emancipation wanted to free women from these oppressive systems that oppressed them on no other basis than sex. Women’s emancipation saw the inherent, G-d-given humanity of all women. As Frances Watkins Harper put it, “The law of liberty is the law of G-d and is the antecedent to all human legislation.” In her words, liberty is G-d-given. Each human is free regardless of what arbitrary and oppressive laws humans impose on other humans. Therefore, each and every person has a right to self-determination. Each person has a right to liberty. Each person has a right to be a person, regardless of sex.
Today, many feminists have fallen back into the fight for women’s rights. And while there are still many rights that need fighting for (accessing abortion, equal pay, maternity leave, etc.), winning liberation and emancipation from the patriarchy would solve any issue of women’s rights. Simply achieving these rights doesn’t make women free, it doesn’t make them regarded as equal to men. But liberation from the patriarchy and its counterparts would allow women to exercise their fundamental rights as human beings.