On July 19, 1848, over 300 women and men converged on the small town of Seneca Falls, New York, for what purported to be the first convention in the history of the nation to focus explicitly on women’s rights. Organized by prominent abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Women’s Rights Convention is popularly regarded as the birthplace of the women’s rights movement in America and the opening salvo of the decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage. While certainly an important moment in the history of women’s collective action, does it really deserve this pride of place?
Seneca Falls features prominently in Women March, the immersive New-York Historical exhibition that showcases American women’s collective action over the last 200 years. While the Museum is temporarily closed to help contain the spread of COVID-19, the Center for Women’s History remains committed to sharing the exhibition’s ideas from afar. Woman March aims to complicate familiar narratives about U.S. women’s history by incorporating a more diverse cast of women and a broader view of women’s political activity beyond voting. We present Seneca Falls not as the origin of the American women’s movement, but—as historian Lisa Tetrault has argued—a symbolically important moment in the centuries-long movement of American women to secure political, legal, and social equality with men.
When London hosted the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, it attracted American abolitionists like Mott and Stanton to attend. But the refusal of the male convention organizers to seat Mott and Stanton underscored the sharp limitations on women’s political rights and citizenship that had hindered their efforts to topple the slave system. Eight years later, Mott and Stanton organized “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” in Seneca Falls. Stanton and her colleagues compiled the grievances aired during the convention into the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document mimicking the tone and structure of the Declaration of Independence.
Signed by 100 of the 300 attendees (including Frederick Douglass), the Declaration of Sentiments enumerated the many ways in which men had historically deprived women of the political rights they enjoyed, including:
“He has not ever permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.”
“He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.”
“He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.”
“He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.”
“He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her.”
Each of these grievances pointed to voting as a means for women to secure and defend their political rights. By 1860, ten national conventions on women’s rights unfolded across the country, all of them demanding access to the franchise as the centerpiece of a movement to end women’s oppression. That brass ring would not be won on a national scale until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally ratified. Even then, the vote would be limited to white women in practice until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated many of the barriers for poor and nonwhite women.
The history books that declare Seneca Falls to be the beginning of the women’s movement in the United States do so largely because Stanton declared it to be. Between 1881 and 1886, she co-wrote the first three volumes of the History of Women’s Suffrage alongside fellow suffragists Matilda Joslyn Gage and Susan B. Anthony. The huge tome— six volumes in all— was a heroic bid to claim a place in the historical record which had too often ignored women. Neither Gage nor Anthony attended the Seneca Falls Convention, but Stanton nonetheless began History of Women’s Suffrage with it, effectively positioning herself, her close protégé Anthony, and her organization (the National Women’s Suffrage Association) as the mothers of the women’s movement and the midwives of women’s citizenship in the United States.
But as Women March shows, a much more diverse movement of women had been collectively organizing to expand their citizenship rights decades before Seneca Falls. Under the banner of other movements for abolition and labor rights, they too articulated the gender-based grievances listed in the Declaration of Sentiments, and often prescribed the vote as a remedy.
For example, in 1832, Maria W. Stewart became the nation’s first Black woman orator. She made her living lecturing before mixed audiences of men and women, white and Black, and calling for better educational opportunities for women (and Black women in particular). She linked women’s access to education to the abolition of slavery, recognizing that Black women’s intellectual and social progress would never succeed if any portion of her race was held in bondage.
Through the 1830s, the abolitionist movement fostered growing numbers of Black and white women who objected to the limits on their political power. Between forming female anti-slavery societies, raising funds, and petitioning the government (the only political representation available to women in the absence of the vote), abolitionist women wrote extensively on their oppression as women. Angelina Grimkè’s An Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States (1837) and Sarah Grimkè’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837) anticipated the arguments made at Seneca Falls that the denial of full citizenship to women hamstrung their ability to effect change in the world. Their bold claims to citizenship drew the ire of their male colleagues in the abolition movement. A violent mob burned down Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia in 1838 in response to Angelina Grimkè and Abby Kelley giving an oration, and the American Anti-Slavery Society itself fractured in 1840 when four women were elected as officers.
The growing numbers of unmarried women who took up industrial work in the 1820s and 1830s realized that they were exploited and underpaid by their employers due to their gender. After a series of unsuccessful strikes in 1834 and 1836, female textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts founded the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1845. They demanded a ten-hour workday, equal pay, and protection for married women’s wages which under the legal principle of coverture became her husband’s property. New York State passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848 in response to working women’s organizing, protecting married women’s wages from their husbands months before the Seneca Falls Convention.
By showcasing the century that preceded the 19th Amendment, Women March tells a longer, more nuanced story of women’s suffrage that places the pivotal Seneca Falls Convention in its proper context. The Center for Women’s History will continue to tell the story of the women’s suffrage in August. Stay tuned for upcoming posts grappling with the Suffrage Centennial!
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History
Top image: Sister Marches, Seneca Falls, New York Sister March. Creative Commons.