Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood at the front of the crowded church. Every pew was filled and people were still trickling in. Some were there out of sheer curiosity. What was a “Women’s Rights Convention” anyway? But most were there because they felt it was time for women to gain equal footing with men, and they were waiting to hear what Stanton, one of the convention’s organizers, had to say.
She started by explaining that women were not trying to become men (a oft-expressed fear by men). They liked being women, but they wanted a voice. And in order to be heard above the cacophony of those who would rather not listen, they needed the vote. She lamented that all (white) men, regardless of whether they were ignorant of the issues of the day or thugs or liars, could vote while upstanding women were denied access to the polls. Her voice carried like a preacher’s across the stunned attendees, many of whom thought this was too much, too soon. This was 1848. Women in the US couldn’t even own property or keep their own salary. To ask for the vote? No one would take them seriously.
Then, Stanton said something that I love. It was so simple yet packed the punch that was needed. “The right is ours…Have it, we must. Use it, we will.” The right is ours. Those four words encapsulated everything because in those four words she was saying that this already belonged to women. And women were entitled to it.
Entitlement has become a bad word in recent years. We use it as a way to describe people who expect special treatment or demand advantages without “earning” them. Entitlement has been blamed on
everything from creating passive children to mass shootings. There is something (a lot of somethings, actually) to be said for this. It’s pervasive and it can be a problem. But entitlement isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
There is certainly a difference between being entitled to equality and being entitled to the latest iPhone. I think the murkiness lay between believing we have a right to be here (sanctioned) and believing we are owed something because we are here (narcissism). It’s a subtle distinction.
In Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, she says that creativity requires a certain amount of entitlement. Without it, you won’t be able to push out of your safe zone and create something new and meaningful. “I believe this is the good kind of arrogance—this simple entitlement to exist and therefore express yourself…”
I say we take back the word entitlement and use it for good. Entitlement is what rights wrongs. It is the parting shot between creativity and change. At its most basic, entitlement challenges stasis. Without entitlement, could Elizabeth Cady Stanton have demanded so audaciously to be given what she should never have had to fight for? Without entitlement, would there have been a Martin Luther King, Jr? Harvey Milk? Students in Tienanmen Square? An Arab Spring?
We can and should feel entitled to personal freedom, to equality, to have our basic needs met. That kind of entitlement fosters empathy and compassion. That’s the kind of entitlement I can get behind.
What do you think? Is there room for a “good” kind of entitlement?
Have a great weekend, everyone.