Seneca Falls, New York and the Declaration of Sentiments
Feature photo: Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Women’s Rights National Historic Park, Seneca Falls, New York. Location of the first convention on women’s rights.
By Karen Rodriguez
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…” Declaration of Sentiments, Seneca Falls, New York, 1848
On July 19-20, 1848, 300 hundred people crowded into the Seneca Falls, New York Wesleyan Methodist Chapel for the first women’s rights convention. A Declaration of Sentiments, drafted several days before the conference by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann McClintock, and Elizabeth McClintock (Penney and Livingston p. 73), was modeled after the U.S. Declaration of Independence. It lists women’s grievances regarding treatment under a government ruled by men. Grievances included the denial of “inalienable right to the elective franchise”; no voice in drafting laws; “if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead”; no right to property such as land and earned wages. And the final grievance: “He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.” Resolutions to correct the grievances followed and included equality for all under the Creator, refined behavior should be required by both men and women, and women should be allowed to speak to public audiences.*
Two weeks previous to the convention, Jane Hunt hosted a tea party at her home in Waterloo, New York. Martha Coffin Wright from Auburn, New York, Wright’s older famous sister Lucretia Mott from Philadelphia, Mary Ann McClintock of Waterloo, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Seneca Falls attended. All were Quakers but Stanton; all were abolitionists; all advocated equal rights for women. A discussion of the hardships faced by women due to a male dominated society led to the audacious idea of a conference about women’s rights. The five decided to hold the first ever women’s rights convention in two weeks-time in Seneca Falls. The July 11th issue of the Seneca Count Courier carried the following announcement:
“WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION—A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, New York, on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th in July, current; commencing at 10 o’clock A.M. During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be present on the second day, when Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, and other ladies and gentlemen, will address the convention. (Penney and Livingston, p. 72)”
Interestingly, Lucretia Mott’s husband James was the chairman of the convention because women did not serve in such positions. Other interested men were also allowed to attend the first day. Lucretia Mott gave the first speech explaining the convention’s purpose. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had never given a speech before, then read the Declaration of Sentiments. On the second day, each Declaration resolution was discussed and adopted individually. The Declaration was signed by 100 women and men including Frederick Douglass, whose impassioned speech led to the adoption by a narrow margin of the right to vote resolution.
The idea for the convention was originally conceived by Stanton and Mott in 1840. The American Anti-Slavery Society had split over the question of whether women abolitionists had the right to speak in public and serve on Society committees. The liberal faction delegated Mott, along with four men from the Society, to attend the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London. Mott and Stanton, along with other women in attendance, were relegated to a curtained gallery and not allowed to participate. It was during this conference that Mott and Stanton first met and discussed the idea of a United States women’s rights convention. Eight years would elapse before they acted on the idea.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, women who owned property in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire had the right to vote. “Ironically, it was the arrival of independence and the spread of democracy that removed this right (Gurko, p. 24).” After the war, married women by law became subservient to their husbands; they forfeited all rights to inheritance, property, money including earnings, and even their children. Women were considered too fragile, weak or helpless to understand politics or to vote. “Telling women how weak and fragile they were while at the same time assigning some of the most physically strenuous chores to them was one of the inconsistencies that grated upon Mrs. Stanton and her colleagues (Gurko, p. 28)”
Early pioneers in the women’s rights movement influenced the Seneca Falls convention organizers. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, Englishwoman and mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In this women’s rights manifesto, shocking at the time, she asserts that women have the right to an education. In a letter to M. Talleyrand –Perigord, she asks, “Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason (Wollstonecraft, p. 3)?” Wollstonecraft was a part of a progressive London group that included her husband Joseph Johnson (a prominent London bookseller), William Blake, Thomas Paine, and radical philosopher William Godwin. Stanton and Mott were much influenced by the book.
Seneca Falls, Auburn and Waterloo in upstate New York were communities central to early 19th century progressive movements. Issues of Native American removal from the eastern part of the country, abolition, and temperance fomented anger and strong actions. For example, the region was central to the Underground Railroad and heroic Auburn resident Harriet Tubman’s work.
For some abolitionist and temperance movement leaders of the early 19th century, embracing women’s rights was of equal importance to other issues. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the newspaper The Liberator, regaled against slavery and supported women’s rights. Angelina Weld and her sister Sarah Grimke, daughters of a South Carolina slave owner, gave “promiscuous” lectures (lectures attended by both men and women) on the evils of slavery and were fearless in acting independently and encouraging other women to act in their own interest. Incurring the wrath of religious leaders who believed the abolitionists had gone too far and the women to be dangerous, Garrison, Weld and Grimke nevertheless drew large audiences.
The convention was both praised and condemned by newspapers and preachers throughout the country and was therefore considered a success by the organizers. But at the same time:
“Both Mrs. Stanton and Mrs. Mott realized that their efforts to improve the lot of women would have two distinct aspects: the external one of removing legal, educational, and vocational barriers to equality; and the more difficult and subtle problem of breaking through the reluctance of women to face the reality of their inferior status (Gurko, p. 98).”
A second convention was held a couple of weeks later in Rochester, New York. Yearly conventions followed throughout the east until the Civil War.
After the first convention, many women joined the growing women’s rights movement. Susan B. Anthony did not attend the Seneca Falls convention; she and Stanton were introduced by Amelia Bloomer in 1851. Anthony became one of the best known women’s rights advocates, touring and speaking for the rest of her life.
Bloomer, also of Seneca Falls, is best known for a brief fashion controversy. She invented bloomers to replace the unhealthy whalebone stays and flouncy dresses that constrained women. The fashion was short-lived, widely condemned as immoral. She also published a Ladies’ Temperance Society newspaper called The Lily. The publication became more radical as time went on especially after incidents such as the time the Tennessee legislature determined women had no souls and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to own property (Gurko, p. 146).
Other prominent women in the movement included Elizabeth Blackwell who became the first qualified woman physician in the United States. She graduated from Geneva Medical College at the top of her class in 1849. Another physician, Mary Edwards Walker of Oswego, New York, was a Civil War surgeon, the only woman to have received the Medal of Honor. Lucy Stone refused to adopt her husband’s last name when she married, setting off a movement called the Lucy Stoners. (In the 1970s Alabama’s Supreme Court required women to change their last names to their husbands’ when they married.)
Many of these women and their contributions were recorded by Stanton, Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper in their six-volume History of Women’s Suffrage published between 1881 and 1922. (Hillary Clinton is partnering with Steven Spielberg on a TV Movie or series about women’s suffrage based on a 2018 book by Elaine Weiss called The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.)
The women’s rights movement, on hold for the duration of the Civil War, erupted in controversy after the war. A disagreement regarding suffrage occurred among members of the Equal Rights Association. Stanton and Anthony believed the proposed 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution should include suffrage for both Negroes and women. However, many others, including Frederick Douglass, disagreed and advocated for Negro men’s suffrage first. It was mistakenly thought an equal rights amendment for women would quickly follow.
The disagreement resulted in two new organizations. The National Woman Suffrage Association, primarily New Yorkers including Stanton and Anthony, worked for the passage of a 16th amendment that would give women the right to vote. The American Woman Suffrage Association, organized by Lucy Stone and Bostonians, worked for state and local, not national, suffrage. (In 1890, the two associations were reunited by Lucy Stone’s daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell.)
Other issues added to a publicly frayed relationship between the associations. In an ill-advised move, Anthony and Stanton teamed up with wealthy, flamboyant George Francis Train to tour Kansas in support of a vote for black and women’s suffrage. Unfortunately Train was a racist and although he drew large crowds his speeches inflamed suffrage supporters and the Kansas measure failed. It should be noted that although she appeared to support abolitionist views, Stanton is also viewed as a racist based on several speeches that included derogatory language.
Martha Wright and Lucretia Mott promoted a woman whose character was also questioned. Victoria Woodhull, who had connections to rich and powerful people such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, was briefly involved with the national association. However, her views—possibly misinterpreted at the time—on free love led to a further fracturing of the women’s rights movement.
Stanton and Anthony remained the best of friends, touring the country and speaking about women’s rights until their deaths in 1902 and 1906 respectively. Several months before her death, Susan B. Anthony said, “Failure is impossible (Gurko, p. 301).” She could not have foreseen how long it would take.
In 1920 Charlotte Woodward, the only signer of the Declaration of Sentiments still alive, cast her vote after the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution gave women the right to vote. On May 30, 2018, 98 years after the ratification of the 19th amendment, the State of Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution stated that equality of rights “shall not be denied by the U.S. or any state on account of sex.” The amendment was originally written in 1920 by suffragette Alice Paul. Congress approved the amendment in 1972. Thirty-eight states were needed to ratify the amendment before the 1982 deadline. After the deadline passed, some states withdrew their ratification. Opponents have said it’s an excuse to allow abortion; that women already have many protection laws in place. Arguments against ratification are eerily similar to those used to oppose voting rights for women 170 years ago at the time of the Seneca Falls convention.
Author’s personal note:
In 1956, when I was seven years old and in the second grade, my teacher had our class participate in a foot race during recess. I won. The teacher took me aside and reprimanded me. Girls were not supposed to win at races, she said. Next time I was to let a boy win.
*Read the Declaration of Sentiments here:
Gurko, Miriam. The Ladies of Seneca Falls, the Birthplace of the Woman’s Rights Movement. New York, NY: Schocken Books. 1974.
McMillen, Sally G. Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2008.
Penney, Sherry H. and James D. Livingston. A Very Dangerous Woman, Martha Wright and Women’s Rights. Amherst and Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. 2004.
Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2004.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1996. The original second edition was published in 1792 by Joseph Johnson, London.
Seneca Falls is an unincorporated hamlet in the Finger Lakes region of New York. It is thought to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the town in Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life.
Eveleth, Rose. “Forty Years Ago, Women Had a Hard Time Getting Credit Cards,” Smithsonian.com. January 8, 2014.
Haag, Matthew. “The Equal Rights Amendment Was Just Ratified by Illinois. What Does That Mean?” The New York Times. May 31, 2018.
“Illinois Becomes 37th State to Ratify ERA.” Associated Press. May 30, 2018.
Content copyright 2018 Karen Rodriguez