Written by Morgan DeLisle
Edited by Steven Spear, Jr.
Narrative has certain powers unlike anything else. It can cross the boundaries of time, culture, form, and language to move people to laughter, tears or even change. Stories have always existed, serving as explanations, inspirations and culminations of a people’s identity. The U.S. has libraries full of its stories, with narratives of its people – past and present – forming the lifeblood of the country. It is one of these stories that we will begin in March, Women’s History Month, as a tribute to the women who inhabit it and as a reminder of the importance of our history and the lessons it can teach us. So, without any further preamble, let’s talk about the Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments.
Until my junior year of college, I had never heard of either of these, so don’t be too concerned if you haven’t either. Or, be very concerned that in all of the history classes you may have taken, it never came up, because this was one of the origin moments of the women’s suffrage movement, which is a really big deal for at least half of America’s population. But I digress.
The story of the Seneca Falls Convention (Seneca Falls is a city in New York) actually begins across the pond in London, at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention. As the western world began to move toward freedom and equality, people from all over the world gathered to debate and lecture and learn about what a world without slavery would look like. Two American women, Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were among those gathered, but were outraged when they were relegated to a section away from the convention floor and out of the sight of men, where there would be no danger of them contributing to the events of the convention. The two women shared a heated indignation at the inequality of this and began to talk of their mutual anger toward women’s rights in the United States.
Returning home, the two joined forces with other like-minded women and—eight years later—word was spread that
“A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions 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.”
This announcement was published in the Seneca County Courier on July 14, and was read widely enough to draw over two-hundred women to the convention on the first day, where even men were waiting to be admitted (these men were forced to wait until the second day, and somewhere between forty and fifty arrived then).
As a statement of what would be discussed at the convention, Stanton drafted a treatise, The Declaration of Sentiments, that would be debated and then voted on. This Declaration was closely modeled after the Declaration of Independence, standing as a stark reminder that the freedom the country had fought so hard to achieve had not been won for every citizen. On the second day of the convention, men joined the meetings (including famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass) and the Declaration was adopted and passed. Twelve other resolutions were also passed, calling on equal rights for women. Eleven of these passed unanimously, but the one that caused the most debate might be a little surprising.
The ninth resolution, calling for the “elective franchise” for women was hotly debated, and Douglass joined Stanton in debating the necessity of women’s ability to vote. Eventually, this resolution was passed as well, and it opened the convention to such ridicule that some of the signers of the Declaration lost faith and quit supporting it.
Many continued to fight for the equal rights of women in the U.S., however, and we have them to thank for the independence and freedoms that women enjoy today. Theirs are the stories that will be further examined in the later articles in this series, and theirs are the stories that can guide women and anyone seeking equality toward the liberties they seek.