Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY
Why a Woman’s Rights Convention?
“I was born and lived almost forty years in South Bristol, Ontario County–one of the most secluded spots in Western New York, but from the earliest dawn of reason I pined for that freedom of thought and action that was then denied to all womankind … But not until that meeting at Seneca Falls in 1848, of the pioneers in the cause, gave this feeling of unrest form and voice, did I take action.”
For Emily Collins, who went on to start a local equal rights organization, and for other women of the 1840s America, the news of a women’s rights convention was a vivid reminder of their inferior status. By law or by custom, an unmarried woman generally did not vote, speak in public, hold office, attend college, or earn a living other than as a teacher, seamstress, domestic, or mill worker. A married woman lived under these restrictions and more: she could not make contracts, sue in court, divorce an abusive husband, gain custody of her children, or own property, even the clothes she wore. Though middle-class wives reigned over the domestic sphere, legally their husbands controlled them. Individual women publicly expressed their desire for equality, but it was not until 1848 that a handful of reformers in Seneca Falls, New York, called “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of Woman.”
Why Seneca Falls? A significant reform community emerged in western New York in the 1830s and 40s. Among these reformers were abolitionists who joined relatives and started businesses in Seneca Falls and Waterloo. Here and elsewhere, Quaker women such as Philadelphia Lucretia Mott took an active role in the effort to end slavery. For Mott, her sister Martha Wright, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and 32-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the next step was to demand rights for women. In July 1848 they planned the convention and hammered out a formal list of grievances based on the Declaration of Independence, denouncing inequities in property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family, and suffrage. The demand for the “elective franchise” was so radical that even Mott protested, but Stanton had her way. On July 19 the Declaration of Sentiments was presented before an audience of 300. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” announced Stanton at the First Women’s Rights Convention.
The advocates expected controversy. True ladies, a Philadelphia newspaper wrote after the convention, would be foolish to sacrifice their status as “Wives, Belles, Virgins and Mothers” for equal rights. Many signers of the declaration removed their names. But 12 days later a second convention was held in Rochester. By the turn of the century, armies of women marched for suffrage. Today, many of the convention’s most radical demands are taken for granted. The Declaration of Sentiments was the start; its words have a relevance that reaches far beyond that warm July day in Seneca Falls.
Adapted from the Women’s Rights brochure, published by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1994.