1848: the first Convention for Women's Rights opened in Seneca Falls, New York.
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the rest of the convention's organizers arrived at the Wesleyan Church on the morning of July 19, they found a small crowd of men and women already waiting outside. The turnout was encouraging, but it called attention to a problem: The church was locked and no one had a key. The sun was blazing and the women were getting uncomfortable; even their summer attire, with its framework of corsets, bustles, and hoop skirts, weighed upward of 25 pounds. The men were feeling the effects too, in their starched collars and coats. Someone boosted Stanton's 12-year-old nephew through a window, and he unbarred the church door from the inside so people could find relief in the shade. Once that was resolved, the organizers turned their attention to another sticky wicket: the men. They had been invited to the second day of the conference, but not the first. Finally it was decided that they should be allowed to stay, since they were already there, but they were asked not to participate in the discussion. An hour later, at 11 a.m., the first women's rights convention in American history got underway.
The seed had been planted eight years earlier, in the fertile ground of the abolitionist movement. Lucretia Mott and her husband were traveling to London to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Aboard the ship, they met a pair of newlyweds — Henry and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — who were also on their way to the conference for their honeymoon. Once in London, the six female delegates, including Mott and Stanton, found that they would not be seated and could only attend the conference behind a drapery partition, because women were "constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings." Mott and Stanton were outraged, and together they agreed that they really should organize their own convention.
It didn't happen for eight years. Stanton got down to the business of running a household and raising the children — the first three of which were boys — in her home in Boston. Mott went back to her home in Philadelphia and her work as a Quaker minister and public speaker for the abolitionist movement. When the Stantons moved from Boston to the small town of Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes region in western New York, Elizabeth missed the intellectual stimulation of the city. She began to think again about the rights of women. She met Mott again on July 9, 1848, at a tea party in nearby Waterloo, and there she poured out her frustrations. She and the other women — all Quakers, except for Stanton — resolved that the convention for women's rights needed to happen, and soon, while Mott was still in the area. The convention would be held at the Wesleyan Church in Seneca Falls. Built by abolitionists in 1843, it wasn't a fancy building; it was plain red brick, unadorned by architectural embellishments, and didn't even look like a church. But it met the two main requirements of the organizers: It was big enough, and its doors were open to the cause of women's rights.
On July 11, they ran an unsigned announcement of the convention in the Seneca County Courier, a weekly newspaper that went to the farms of Seneca County. It 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." Three days later, former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass also ran a notice in his paper, The North Star, in Rochester.
On July 16, just three days before the convention, the five organizers sat down at a mahogany tea table in Mary Ann M'Clintock's parlor to draft their resolution. M'Clintock suggested using the Declaration of Independence as a model, so they changed a few words to suit it to their needs. "All men are created equal" became, of course, "all men and women are created equal," and so on. Stanton took the document home with her, and over the next couple of days, she drafted what she called a Declaration of Sentiments. She included a list of 18 "injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman," and a list of 11 resolutions calling for religious, economical, and political equality. The ninth resolution called for women to be given the vote, and Mott was not in favor of it; she was afraid that it went too far and would undermine the rest of the demands. "Why, Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous." Stanton held firm, and the resolution stayed in.
Though the convention had only been publicized over a small area, and with only a few days' notice, 300 people — 40 of them men — turned out in the 90-degree heat. The first day was largely spent in reading and discussing the Declaration of Sentiments, although it was broken up by the reading of a humorous article written by Mott's sister Martha. Stanton took the podium for the evening session, and she compellingly placed the struggle for women's rights in the tradition of the other progressive reforms like the temperance and anti-slavery movements. The second day saw voting on the grievances and resolutions; the grievances passed unanimously. As for the resolutions, they passed unanimously too — except for the ninth, the demand for the right to vote. Stanton defended its inclusion, believing that "the power to make the laws was the right through which all other rights could be secured." Frederick Douglass also spoke, saying, "In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world." Eventually, the resolution passed, and one hundred people — 68 women and 32 men — signed the Declaration of Sentiments, after two days, six sessions, and 18 hours of discussion, talks, and readings.
Reaction in the press and the pulpit was mostly negative. The New York Herald published the entirety of the Declaration of Sentiments, intending to mock it. Stanton took the pragmatic view that any publicity was good publicity, and remarked: "Just what I wanted! Imagine the publicity given to our ideas by thus appearing in a widely circulated sheet like the Herald. It will start women thinking, and men too; and when men and women think about a new question, the first step in progress is taken."
The Oneida Whig wrote: "This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity. If our ladies will insist on voting and legislating, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners and our elbows? Where our domestic firesides and the holes in our stockings?"
Philadelphia's Public Ledger and Daily Transcript declared: "A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. The ladies of Philadelphia ... are resolved to maintain their rights as Wives, Belles, Virgins and Mothers."
And the Albany Mechanic's Advocate claimed that equal rights would "demoralize and degrade [women] from their high sphere and noble destiny, ... and prove a monstrous injury to all mankind."
In response, Douglass wrote in The North Star: "A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and the good of our land, than would be a discussion of the rights of woman."
Later in her life, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in her diary, "We are sowing winter wheat which the coming spring will see sprout and which other hands than ours will reap and enjoy." It would be 72 years before women would be granted the right to vote. Only one of the signers of the original Declaration of Sentiments was still living in 1920. Charlotte Woodward, who had been 19 and working in a glove factory in 1848, was too ill to cast her ballot.