Picture, if you will, an auditorium in London in 1840. In your mind’s eye, picture the rich wood of the banisters, the rows of curved, cushioned seats, a great clamor happening on the stage and the floor. Men from all over the world, dressed in their Victorian best, are debating how to end slavery. Above this din, on the balcony, sit a smattering of women in long skirts and bonnets; among them, two women sit whispering to each other as they watch the action below. One of the women is young, a blushing bride, in fact, on her honeymoon; the other is a middle aged woman, and well-known abolitionist in the United States. These two American women, incensed at their banishment to the balcony (a custom to which they are unfamiliar), are plotting a Convention of their own.
I often like to fantasize about that conversation between Elizabeth Cady Stanton (the blushing bride) and Lucretia Mott (the well-known abolitionist). I’m sure it was a fiery and learned conversation, considering these were two very smart very passionate women. It would take eight more years before they could realize their promise to each other to unite and hold a Women’s Rights conference in the United States, but they did, in Seneca Falls New York, 1848.
It is so hard for us to imagine sometimes what this world would have looked like because it is so foreign to us. We are accustomed to our technological advances, and think nothing of zipping across the state, the nation, or the world at a moment’s notice, in record time. Stanton and Mott would have spent about a month making the voyage to London. When they met 8 years later, it was at a tea party at Jane Hunt’s house in Waterloo, NY, which, at just 4 miles down the road took considerably less time. We could drive it in five minutes today, but it would have taken more than an hour via horse and buggy on dirt roads for Stanton to get there from her house in neighboring Seneca Falls.
Though the Seneca Falls Convention on Women’s Rights kicked off the first wave of American women’s rights activism, it was nearly an impossible feat. Stanton and Mott only reconnected around July 10th, and they staged the convention at local Wesleyan Chapel little more than a week later, on July 19th & 20th. They announced their intentions via the Seneca County Courier on July 16th as a “convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” Because they thought the move was bold enough to warrant attack, they scheduled the first day for women only, inviting men to participate on the second day. However, many men did show up on that first day and they were not turned away, nor did they heckle or try to disrupt. Most were supportive of the effort, and many were among the 100 signers of the document issued by the convention, The Declaration of Sentiments.
Declaration of Sentiments
Some of the words had already been written 72 years earlier in the Declaration of Independence. Those words were so powerful and true that they almost begged to be employed to a larger end than designed. The first paragraph differs because the aim is different. Rather than trying to disentangle from a distant tyranny, the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments sought to join a group with others in a show of unity that was the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. To that most famous of lines, a single word was added–women.
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
And as the Declaration of Independence ends with a long list of wrongs to be righted, so did the Declaration of Sentiments have its resolutions. While all of them are of note in the context of the time, I point to these two as my personal favorites:
Resolved, That woman is man’s equal–was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.
Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
The first was not the reality then, and is not even the reality now, though we have come a long way since 1848. That it’s still not true is part of what drives this movement. The second is the truth and heart of the matter–it did take women working together toward a single end, for many women to the exclusion of all else, as well as another 72 years to bring the second resolution to fruition.
That women are the equal of men seems so obvious today that it hardly needs to be stated, but in 1848 this was a radical notion. At that time, women had no rights unless they were unmarried, and even then they had precious few. Marriage was practically compulsory, and as soon as she married, a woman became the property of her husband, as did any children created by the union. She was expected to surrender herself body and soul to her husband and family, was denied working opportunity unless her husband was a deadbeat or her family was so poor her work was required. Her options were limited generally to domestic work like cleaning, sewing, and cooking for others. Even teaching was at that time a male-dominated field. It was this world that these women and men gathered together in order to change. Women in America today enjoy so many of the freedoms that they do, including the right to vote for any candidate they choose, because of the long fight born at this historic event.
Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton nor Lucretia Mott lived to see the 19th Amendment passed. They never got the chance to vote, a fact worth remembering next time you find yourself in the voting booth. Only one woman in attendance at Seneca Falls in 1848, one of the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments, Charlotte Woodward (Pierce), lived to see the 19th Amendment ratified.
When I get tired or frustrated, I remember these ladies and the men who joined them. I think of that tiny town in New York, with its colonial houses and dirt roads, the river just a stones throw from the Chapel itself. I think of those streets on those hot July days, the women wrapped in the fashions of the time, sweating under so many layers, speaking loudly and solemnly before the gathering crowd. I think of the men in their short pants with tights, the shirts and jackets, the cufflinks and high collars and shoes they would wear. I imagine the stench of horses and sweat, of food wilting in the July heat. I picture the face of young Charlotte Woodward, just 18 years old and earnest, an instant and life-long convert to the cause.
The constraints these women and men faced were enormous. What they accomplished on these two July days was tremendous, and the freedoms we women have today, to vote, to choose our destinies, to have an education and rights to our children, all of this we owe to Stanton and Mott and the women and men who attended those two days and were transformed by the experience. These women worked tirelessly during the 19th century to make the rights we have today possible. They had no rights, and had precious few choices themselves. While most would not live to see women granted the ultimate right, the right to vote, they are responsible for it nevertheless.
When we meet next week, you will read the incredible tale of the final push for the right for women to vote. It is the most compelling tale we have in American women’s history, and it started with this event, the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848.