About 260 miles north-by-northwest of New York City, the first American women’s rights convention opened on 19 July 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY.
Only 10 days earlier, “five reform-minded women” had decided to call a convention “to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of Woman.”
Two days later they placed the first of several ads in the local newspaper, the Seneca Courier. Through their abolitionist and Quaker connections, the event was announced in the North Star, a Rochester based abolitionist newspaper published by Frederick Douglass.
The five organizers: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Hunt, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright and Mary Ann M’Clintock. Several Quaker women had invited Mott, a well-known Quaker preacher from Philadelphia, to visit Waterloo, NY. Hunt hosted the meeting.
Stanton was the only non-Quaker in attendance; she and Mott had met in London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. Mott had led a group of women from Pennsylvania who were denied admission as delegates, although they were allowed to observe. From Mott’s diary:
The American Women Delegates from Pennsylvania to the World’s Convention … deeply regret to learn … [you intend] to exclude women from a seat in the convention, as co-equals in the advocacy of Universal Liberty.
Mott and Stanton “agreed to hold a meeting when they returned home solely to discuss the rights of women. Now, seeing Mott again after many years apart inspired Stanton once more.”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”
Stanton made her first public speech in opening the convention, setting forth the reasons for the gathering:
We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed – to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love…
Stanton, whose father was New York State Supreme Court Justice Daniel Cady, also read the Declaration of Sentiments that she had authored. She modeled her Declaration after the Declaration of Independence.
Philosophically, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments tied women’s rights to the country’s natural-rights tradition, incorporating widespread grassroots support for women’s rights into a coherent intellectual framework that challenged Americans everywhere to include women in the great American democratic experiment.
Eleven of the resolutions proposed in the “Declaration” passed unanimously and without much argument, yet, the resolution calling for women’s enfranchisement met with some opposition. Some attendees did not feel that the vote was an important or necessary goal. Lucretia Mott is quoted as having said, “Lizzie (E.C. Stanton), thou wilt make the convention ridiculous.” Former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass stood with Stanton and argued forcefully for the absolute need and intrinsic value of the elective franchise for women.
That 12th resolution did pass, just not unanimously:
Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
Consider that there were only 56 signatures on the Declaration of Independence, and they were all men. In contrast, 100 individuals (62 women and 38 men) signed the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments.
Although the Seneca Falls convention was an important part of the women’s suffrage movement, it did not initiate the movement.
In the early decades following the American Revolution, several reformers suggested that women were equal in intellect and abilities to men. By the 1830s, pockets of reformers, influenced by late eighteenth-century republican ideals and egalitarian Christian values, argued for a woman’s right to speak out on moral and political issues. In the 1830s and early 1840s, these local groups spoke out both in favor of abolitionism and legal reform, and these two movements provided the seedbed—or even a dress rehearsal—for the women’s rights movement of the late 1840s.
For example, the New York state legislature passed its first married women’s property act in April 1848. In a letter to the legislature, 44 married women noted that:
your Declaration of Independence declares, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. And as women have never consented to, been represented in, or recognized by this government, it is evident that in justice no allegiance can be claimed from them… Our numerous and yearly petitions for this most desirable object having been disregarded, we now ask your august body, to abolish all laws which hold married women more accountable for their acts than infants, idiots, and lunatics.
The organizers would use the Seneca Fall convention as a springboard.
Between 1848 and 1862, they worked the Declaration of Sentiments’ call to “employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf.” They worked on conventions in Rochester, Westchester, PA, and Syracuse and organized, sent letters to, or attended national conventions.
In the early 1860s national attention focused on the Civil War. Many anti-slavery men served in the Union Army. The women’s rights movement rested its annual conventions; but in 1863, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony created the Women’s Loyal National League, gathering 400,000 signatures on a petition to bring about immediate passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to end slavery in the United States [emphasis added].
The now-accepted narrative of Seneca Falls as the beginning of the women’s movement in the United States began after the Civil War… suffragettes such as Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were angered by the idea of the vote going to black men before it went to women. Thus, there was a need to remember how the women’s movement began, and Stanton and Anthony commissioned The History of Women’s Suffrage, a three-volume participant history of the movement.
More than 70 years after the convention in Seneca Falls, the 19th Amendment would grant women the right to vote in 1920.
Stop for a moment and think about how these women of privilege dedicated themselves to public service and advocacy.