“I often wonder, when reflecting back on the Seneca Falls Convention, who of us - men and women - would have left our homes, our families, our work to make that journey one hundred and fifty years ago. Think about the incredible courage it must have taken to join that procession. Ordinary men and women, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors. And just like those who have embarked on other journeys throughout American history, [...] These men and women were motivated by dreams of better lives and more just societies…. Help us imagine a future that keeps faith with the sentiments expressed here in 1848.”
This is an excerpt from a speech given by former first lady Hillary Clinton on the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention. Her words highlight the importance of this event, known as the launch of the women’s rights movement in the United States.
The Seneca Falls Convention
Held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention was one of the first women’s rights events to take place in the United States. Led by Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the main purpose was to have “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women” - topics that had been systematically ignored in all areas of life.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were two of the many educated women who had been outspoken in the anti-slavery movement and other social justice issues. Their voices, however, remained silenced and ignored in decision-making arenas due to their gender. Despite their clear capacities as leaders, they were deprived of autonomy related to finances, properties, children, and other basic adult responsibilities. As a result, they joined forces in organizing a convention to finally call for action and equality.
The final product, the Seneca Falls Convention, took place over a two-day period, with almost 300 attendees.
The first day was exclusively for women. For the first time, they read the Declaration of Sentiments, a document drafted by Elizabeth Stanton, which eloquently discussed women’s subjugation to men and their status as second-class citizens. The document in itself was provocative for its time, starting with the remark that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…” which alluded to the Declaration of Independence. Collaboratively, they discussed and edited the document. In the process, women were encouraged to participate in the arguments. The group was mainly composed of highly educated women, but also included some who had not had access to education in their lives. Inclusivity in this regard is important to note, because feminist struggles would be marked by class and race differences in the years to come.
During the second day, men joined, and everyone voted on the resolutions agreed upon in the Declaration of Sentiments. Some of these resolutions, regarding giving women more power within the church, more job and educational opportunities, and control of property, were widely accepted amongst the participants. The only resolution deemed controversial, and not passed unanimously, was women’s suffrage. Some of the women thought that it would create public outrage and undermine their other political efforts, while other participants thought it was core to achieving equality. One of the male participants to give their support for women’s suffrage was national abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention.
After the Convention, more conversations started taking place in the public sphere regarding a woman’s right to vote. And so the fight for women’s suffrage began.
The Seneca Falls Convention marks the beginning of what would become years of women’s struggle to achieve gender equality. More than just a symbolic event, the Convention engaged and called for political action to change the role of women in society. Historically, this marked a “before and after” in terms of societal recognition of women’s rights, because their activist efforts were introduced into the mainstream.
The disagreements that existed regarding women’s suffrage, as well as the division between educated and non-educated women, serve as examples of current divides that exist in feminist movements. It showcases that the feminist movement was always filled with socioeconomic differences, which can affect the outcomes of activism. Subsequently, it makes us reflect on who that activism was (and currently, is) catered towards. At the time of the Seneca Falls Convention, individuals who advocated for equal rights were mainly upper-class, white, educated women. Understanding their position as activists also helps us understand power in the context of the 21st century.
Lastly, it is widely known that women’s history has been neglected in classrooms for a long time. The inclusion of women’s history in the curriculum could enhance young girl’s self-esteem and motivation by acknowledging that, unlike common belief, women have been a part of constructing the society we live in at all times. Learning about the foundations of women’s rights movements is then core to a more inclusive future in education and all areas of life.