From the very beginnings of what George Washington called “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness,” there were women who questioned why they were not to share in what the Declaration of Independence called “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In 1776, Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband John:
“. . . in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
In 1844, Margaret Fuller’s book, Woman in the 19th Century, one of the wellsprings of the American feminist movement, was as much excoriated as it was praised, but it foreshadowed the events at Seneca Falls:
“. . . Many women are considering within themselves what they need that they have not, and what they can have if they find they need it. Many men are considering whether women are capable of being and having more than they are and have, and whether, if so, it will be best to consent to improvement in their condition . . .”
And she noted: “. . . The past year has seen action in the Rhode Island legislature, to secure married women rights over their own property, where men showed that a very little examination of the subject could teach them much ; an article in the Democratic Review on the same subject more largely considered, written by a woman, impelled, it is said, by glaring wrong to a distinguished friend, having shown the defects in the existing laws, and the state of opinion from which they spring . . .”
But these were individual voices. What the Seneca Falls Convention started was a movement, of, by, and for women, to change the place of Woman in society and win for her the same rights which the laws of the land accorded to Man, a rebellion just as far-reaching as the American Revolution.
July 19, 1848, was the opening day of the Woman’s Rights Convention, which was quickly dubbed the Seneca Falls Convention, an event attended by 300 people, mostly local residents of Seneca Falls, already a hot bed of abolitionist and temperance activity. The convention was organized by Jane Hunt, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock. The first day was for women only, but the second day was also open to men.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave the keynote address on the 19th of July. She began with a bit of humor:
“We have met here today to discuss our rights and wrongs, civil and political, and not, as some have supposed, to go into the detail of social life alone. We do not propose to petition the legislature to make our husbands just, generous, and courteous, to seat every man at the head of a cradle, and to clothe every woman in male attire.”
She moved on to the purpose of the convention:
” . . . But 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; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty. It is to protest against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute books, deeming them a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century. We have met to uplift woman’s fallen divinity upon an even pedestal with man’s.”
Then she dropped the bombshell:
“And, strange as it may seem to many, we now demand our right to vote according to the declaration of the government under which we live.”
“. . . We do not expect our path will be strewn with the flowers of popular applause, but over the thorns of bigotry and prejudice will be our way, and on our banners will beat the dark storm clouds of opposition from those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of custom and authority, and who have fortified their position by every means, holy and unholy. But we will steadfastly abide the result. Unmoved we will bear it aloft. Undauntedly we will unfurl it to the gale, for we know that the storm cannot rend from it a shred, that the electric flash will but more clearly show to us the glorious words inscribed upon it, ‘Equality of Rights.’ “
How prophetic she was. For proclaiming “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal . . .” and especially for asserting a woman’s right to vote, the Seneca Falls Convention was subjected to public ridicule, and some backers of women’s rights withdrew their support. But the convention marked the beginning of the woman’s suffrage movement in America, a struggle which continued to 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally adopted. Yet the fight for universal suffrage and women’s equality continues to this very day.
For most of the women who stood on the platform at Seneca Falls, it was the first time they had spoken in public. How terrifying and yet exhilarating to stand up and speak your mind before a crowd.
Words that are as true today as they were
in the 19th century: