By Marielle Gage, HAI Archivist
American History is filled with mythic moments: Washington crossing the Delaware, Rosa Parks refusing to stand on a bus, and Reagan challenging Gorbachev in front of the Berlin Wall. Moments that encapsulate a long-standing struggle in a single, comprehensible, inspirational instant. Today, we celebrate the 175th anniversary of one such moment: the Seneca Falls Convention, the first organized conference on women’s rights in United States history.
As the story goes, on 9 July 1848 Jane Hunt, an abolitionist and feminist, held a tea party at her home in Waterloo, New York. Her guests were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, and Mary Ann M’Clintock. Together, they planned a “Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition of woman”[i] to be held later that month at the Wesleyan Chapel in nearby Seneca Falls, New York on the 19th and 20th of July 1848.
And among the sessions, talks, and networking that would help form the national Women’s Rights Movement, the convention also produced one of the more significant manifestos of 19th century America: “The Declaration of Sentiments”. Consciously copied after The Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments expanded Jefferson’s language to include women in his Inalienable Rights, as well as draw attention to more specific issues plaguing women in a patriarchal society.
While today the Convention is best remembered for its advocacy of women’s suffrage, the Convention and its Declaration were also considered with such issues as property rights, equal pay, divorce law, education, and domestic violence. The Declaration is concerned with the entirety of life experienced by 19th century women; unable to earn the same degree, or even the same wage, as a man, she was therefore made dependent upon a man – who, to add insult to injury — assumed rights over any property she might have when they married — and had the “power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.”[ii]
Many of the Declaration’s points can still be heard today. It lamented the double standards for male and female behavior, asserting that “moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.”[iii] It called for equal pay for equal work, and railed against the all-too-frequent behavior of men against their wives that we today would recognize as emotional or physical abuse. The Declaration could stand almost as a wellness checklist, letting women see both how far they’ve come and how far our society has left to go.
But, for all its skillful rhetoric, the Seneca Falls Convention was neither the beginning nor the end of the Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. It is a mythic moment, and myths are “shorthand for the entire story”, as historian Lisa Tetrault puts it.[iv] But whose story is Seneca Falls?
In some respects–everyone’s, and certainly every women’s. But Seneca Falls, like all human moments, has limitations, biases, and agendas. Seneca Falls was organized by and for white women, and middle-to-upper class white women at that. Furthermore the Declaration, like its primary author Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had an individualist view of women’s rights, championing Woman as a rational, capable creature, rather than Women as a category. You can almost hear Annie Oakley singing “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” as you read the text. It is uplifting, inspiring. But it perhaps in this respect fails to consider Women as a category, a “protected class” to use today’s language, in need of and deserving laws to protect her just as men need and deserve laws to protect themselves against exploitative employers and violent thugs alike. The concerns of the enslaved, the impoverished, or the immigrant woman trying to carve out survival for herself and her children are lost somewhat in the high rhetoric of the Declaration of Sentiments.
The Civil Rights Movement didn’t begin on a bus in Montgomery Alabama; the Cold War didn’t end when Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” George Washington didn’t win American Independence on his own. Just so, the Convention at Seneca Falls isn’t the beginning or the end of its story, or the end-all be-all of its movement’s goals and ideals. The story of the Women’s Rights Movement is long and complicated, with victories and defeats, missteps and lessons learned, and even deals with the devil. The women at Seneca Falls were flawed, capable of bias and hubris both; and yet, this July 19th, consider raising a cup of tea in their memory, and in the memory of all the countless men and women whose names are not today remembered, but who gave their all in the cause of advancing rights to all humankind.
Read more about Seneca Falls and the Women’s Rights Movement here.