Seneca Falls Convention
The Seneca Falls Convention, which took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, was the first national women's rights convention and a pivotal event in the continuing story of U.S. and women's rights.
The idea for the convention occurred in London in 1840 when ELIZABETH CADY STANTON and Lucretia Mott, who were attending a meeting of the World Anti-Slavery Society, were denied the opportunity to speak from the floor or to be seated as delegates. Mott and Stanton left the hall where the meeting was taking place and began to discuss the fact that while they were trying to secure rights for enslaved African Americans, American women found themselves treated unequally in numerous ways. They concluded that what was needed was a national convention in which women could take steps to secure equal rights with men. Although they agreed that the need for such a convention was a pressing one, they were not to take action on their plan for several years.
Both Stanton and Mott were progressive leaders who had been active in reform movements. Mott, a former teacher who had grown up in Boston, had become interested in women's rights when she discovered that because she was female, she was earning a salary that was exactly half that of male teachers. In 1811 she married fellow teacher James Mott and moved to Philadelphia. She became a member of the Society of Friends (also known as the Quakers) and began to travel the country speaking on the topic of religion and issues including temperance, peace, and the ABOLITION of SLAVERY. In 1833 Mott attended the founding meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Shortly afterwards she founded a women's auxiliary, the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society, and was elected president of the group. Her new position caused a rift within the Society of Friends, and some sought to revoke her membership. Undeterred by the conflict, Mott was an organizer of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1837.
Stanton, the daughter of a lawyer and U.S. congressman, had studied her father's law books. In 1840 she married Henry Brewster Stanton, a lawyer and abolitionist. The command for the wife to "obey" her husband was left out of their wedding vows. Like Mott, Stanton and her husband were active members of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Following her meeting with Mott in London, Stanton returned to the United States where she began to travel and speak on the subject of women's rights. In 1848 Stanton helped circulate petitions that led to the enactment of a New York State married women's property bill. This law allowed married women to keep in their own name property they brought into the marriage. The law also gave them the right to keep the wages they had earned and to retain guardianship of their children in cases of separation or DIVORCE.
In 1848, Stanton and Mott met with Mott's sister, Martha Coffin Wright, along with Jane Hunt and Mary Ann McClintock to organize the long-awaited women's rights convention. The plan was to hold a meeting in Seneca Falls, New York (where Stanton lived), on July 19 and 20, with follow-up meetings to take place in Rochester, New York. An announcement in the Seneca County Courier, a local periodical, stated that there would be "A Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman" and gave the particulars. The first day of the meeting was to be exclusively for women who were "earnestly invited to attend," with the second day open to the general public to hear a speech by Lucretia Mott.
The historic meeting took place at the Wesleyan Church chapel in Seneca Falls. Despite the plan to have the first day for women only, a large crowd of both men and women sought entry to the locked chapel. A male professor from Yale volunteered to enter through an open window and once the doors were opened, the crowd streamed in. Approximately 100 to 300 people were in attendance, including many men who supported the idea of women's rights. Although the majority was Caucasian, there were also some African Americans in attendance. Because none of the women felt capable of overseeing the proceedings, James Mott presided.
On the first day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the organizers' Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. The Seneca Falls declaration was carefully patterned on the Declaration of Independence that had been crafted by the colonial revolutionaries. The declaration written primarily by THOMAS JEFFERSON stated that all men are created equal. The Seneca Falls declaration held that "all men and women" are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Declaration of Independence listed 18 charges against George III, the king of England. The Declaration of Sentiments described 18 charges of "repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman" including the denial of the right to vote, unfair laws regarding separation and divorce, and inequality in regard to religion, education, and employment. It stated the hope that the convention in Seneca Falls would be followed by a series of conventions throughout the country. The 12 resolutions enunciated in the Declaration of Sentiments called for the repeal of laws that enforced unequal treatment of women, the recognition of women as the equals of men, the granting of the right to vote, the right for women to speak in churches, and the equal participation of women with men in "the various trades, professions, and commerce."
After much discussion and debate, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions was passed largely as written. The biggest obstacle was the resolution that called for women's right to vote, known as woman suffrage. Numerous attendees, men and women alike, felt that the right to vote was too radical an idea to gain public acceptance. Lucretia Mott was open to discarding the resolution, but Stanton held firm with strong support from the prominent African–American abolitionist FREDERICK DOUGLASS. After Douglass
stated that "Suffrage is the power to choose rulers and make laws, and the right by which all others are secured," the woman suffrage resolution passed by a very narrow margin.
After two days of vigorous discussion and debate, 100 women and men signed the Seneca Falls Declaration, although some later removed their names after being subjected to intense criticism. A storm of sarcasm and protest broke out after the convention prompting Frederick Douglass to write that a discussion of ANIMAL RIGHTS would have brought forth less opposition than a call for women's rights. James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the widely read New York Herald, published the entire declaration as a gesture of ridicule. Welcoming the publicity, Stanton and many of the Seneca Falls attendees hailed Bennett's move as a way to disseminate their message on a broader scale.
For the next several decades, Stanton, Mott and temperance supporter SUSAN B. ANTHONY led the struggle for women's rights including the vote. Stanton helped co-found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. The following year the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT that secured the right to vote for African–American males was ratified by Congress. In 1876 Mott and the NWSA issued a Declaration and Protest of the Women of the United States that renewed the fight for women's rights and sought the IMPEACHMENT of political leaders who permitted women to be taxed while denying them representation and who also did not allow women on juries thus denying them the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Mott, who continued to actively support the abolition of slavery as well as temperance, peace, and women's rights, died in 1880. In 1890 the NWSA merged with a rival organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association, to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Stanton was elected president. She was succeeded in 1892 by Anthony. In 1878 Stanton had drafted a federal woman suffrage amendment that continued to be introduced in each new term of Congress. Stanton died in 1902 and her amendment continued to be brought up until it was passed in the form of the NINETEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. At the time that woman suffrage passed, only one signer from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Charlotte Woodward, lived long enough to cast her ballot.
Despite the long delay before women were politically enfranchised, the movement that emanated from the Seneca Falls convention made slow but inexorable progress. Some colleges began to admit women as students and more states enacted married women's property acts.
Bernhard, Virginia, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, eds. 1995. The Birth of American Feminism: The Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention of 1848. Naugatuck, Conn.: Brandywine.
Griffith, Elisabeth. 1985. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Miller, Bradford. 1995. Returning to Seneca Falls. Herndon, Va.: Lindisfarne Books.