OTD in History… July 19–20, 1848, the first women’s rights convention is held in Seneca Falls
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history, July 19–20, 1848, abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organize the first women’s rights convention is held in Seneca Falls. The abolitionist movement founded William Lloyd Garrison was giving women a voice, and Mott and Stanton started planning the women’s rights convention after they were barred from the floor at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The two-day convention featured six sessions, the first day would only have women attendees, with men only allowed to join on the second day. The most significant achievement out of the convention was the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances the document modeled after the Declaration of Independence launched the women’s rights movement. As historian Judith Wellman notes in her book The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention, the declaration was “the single most important factor in spreading news of the women’s rights movement around the country in 1848 and into the future.”
On July 14, Stanton along with four Quaker women, Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane Hunt put in the Seneca County Courier announcement for their convention. The announcement read, “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July current; commencing at 10 o’clock A.M. During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be present on the second day, when Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, and other ladies and gentlemen, will address the Convention.”
On the first day of the convention, 200 women and 40 men attended. Stanton read to the audience the “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, it included women, who were overlooked in the nation’s founding document. The document began with “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” the documents included the women’s grievances and demands, which included the controversial right to vote. Mott spoke a number of times the first day, including the evening session, where local paper the National Reformer called her speech, “one of the most eloquent, logical, and philosophical discourses which we ever listened to.”
On the second day of the convention, more men attended included African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the only African American in attendance. The convention adopted the Declaration, and passed 12 resolutions, 11 unanimously. The only one that met resistance was the one demanding the vote for women, which read, “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” With Douglass’ support, the resolution passed. A hundred of the 300 attending the convention signed the Declaration including 68 women and 32 men.
The convention a start of a movement that radically altered women’s lives and their place in American history going from having almost no legal rights as married women, with barely any opportunities outside the home. Although laughed by the public at the time for a suffrage resolution, just over seventy years later in 1920 it would come to fruition. Major strides, however, would take over a century, outshining the dreams Stanton and Motts had as they started the convention. Over a hundred and 10 years later, starting in 1963, the modern feminist movement would take women on the quest for equality. In 1984, the first woman would be nominated to a major party ticket, when Democrat Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his vice presidential running mate, and coming close to pinnacle the Democrats would nominate Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, with her winning the popular but coming out short in the more important Electoral College.
Historian Sally McMillen in her book Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement notes, “This meeting changed the way American society (and much of the western world) thought about and treated women in the mid-nineteenth century. It unleashed a complicated, lengthy struggle that continues to this day. At Seneca Falls, for the first time, women and men gathered for the sole purpose of articulating female grievances and demanding female equality.” (McMillen, 15) Civil War historian James McPherson writing in the preface of Sally McMillen’s book concludes, “The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was indeed a pivotal moment in American history — not just the history of women, but all Americans.”
SOURCES AND READ MORE
McMillen, Sally G. Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.