This article originally appeared in the July 17, 1948, issue.
In July, 1848, the same year in which Karl Marx issued his Communist Manifesto, a group of determined American women gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, to issue what Mary R. Beard has called “a startling manifesto of woman’s rights.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton instigated the Seneca meeting; and her Declaration of Sentiments has had in some ways as profound an influence on human thought and behavior as Jefferson’s demand for political freedom in the Declaration of Independence or Marx’s insistence on economic liberty in the Communist Manifesto. Elizabeth Cady Stanton maintained that both ideas were fine but that their application should not be limited to the male half of the human race.
The first woman’s-rights convention was conceived at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. There the veteran crusader, Lucretia Mott, met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was twenty-two years her junior. Mrs. Stanton had already proved herself a rebel by forsaking orthodox religion, by attending woman’s-rights lectures, and by flouting the wishes of her father by marrying the fiery young Abolitionist, Henry Stanton. Elizabeth, a gay young bride on her honeymoon, was highly receptive to the ideas of Lucretia Mott. The friendship of the two women was sealed when, after a heated debate, British officialdom excluded them and the other American women as official delegates from the convention–because they were women. Even William Lloyd Garrison, the giant of the convention, could not alter the decision; he could only protest by taking his place in the balcony with the women. Then Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth put their heads together and decided to stage a convention of their own when they returned to America–not to free the black man but all women.
It was eight years before they carried out their resolution. Lucretia was meanwhile absorbed in anti-slavery work and Elizabeth all but immersed in the problems of domesticity and a growing family. In 1848 the dynamic pair met again and this time set a definite time and place for the convention. Mrs. Stanton drafted an unsigned invitation to the public. It announced a conference “to discuss…the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women,” and was published in the Seneca County Courier.
During the next few weeks Elizabeth worked evenings on the details of the meeting. Her lawyer husband helped and supported her until she submitted for his approval Resolution No. 9: “Resolved: that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure for themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
This was too much for Henry, and after a heated debate he issued an ultimatum of his own. Unless Elizabeth took out Resolution No. 9, he would leave town and attend none of the meetings. Even Lucretia Mott lost patience with her youthful partner, exclaiming in despair, “Oh, Lizzie, if thou demands that, thou will make us ridiculous. We must go slowly.” But “Lizzie” refused to compromise and kept Resolution No. 9 on the agenda.
The convention, though it was off to a bad start in the minds of the inner circle, began as scheduled. On July 19, 1848, curious men and women drove up in their carriages to the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls. According to schedule, the first day’s sessions were for women only, but the men were allowed to stay.
At eleven o’clock James Mott, Lucretia’s husband, tall and dignified in his Quaker dress, took the chair as presiding officer, a position no woman a century ago dared take in a mixed gathering. Lucretia spoke next, and she urged the women, despite the tradition against their speaking in public, to express themselves freely. It was now Elizabeth’s turn. With assurance and conviction she presented a Declaration of Sentiments and a Declaration of Principles. Eighteen legal grievances of women, corresponding with the eighteen listed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, were carefully enumerated. Women were deprived of the baIlot, of property rights, of the right to their persons, of rights over their children. Married women were civilly dead, and single women who owned property were taxed without representation. Educational Opportunities were denied women. So ran the list. Elizabeth pleaded with her hearers for a serious consideration of these injustices, and she was happy when they responded, not with banter, as many of them had planned to do, but with serious discussion.
On July 20, the second day of the convention, the Declaration of Sentiments was considered. One by one, the first eight resolutions were presented, discussed, and adopted. But as Henry and Lucretia had predicted, when Resolution No. 9 was presented, there was a long and heated debate. Yet when the resolution was put to a vote, it was carried. The majority was small, but the first formal demand for woman suffrage in America had been made.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Resolution No. 9 set the tone of the woman’s-rights movement in both America and England. “Hen” conventions, as they were sarcastically called, were held everywhere, and the slogan “Votes for Women” rang from hall and housetop. Newspaper headlines screamed about “the reign of petticoats” and “insurrection among women.” Clergymen searched the Bible for passages with which to stop the women. Susan B. Anthony left her schoolteacher’s desk, dropped her temperance work and her petitions for the Anti-Slavery Society, and began her lifelong crusade for women. Lucy Stone, staging the first national woman’s-rights meeting at Worcester in 1850, proved that she could run as good a show as Lizzie Stanton. Mrs. Taylor, later Mrs. John Stuart Mill, inspired by Lucy’s meeting, wrote the first feminist statement in England and later collaborated with her husband on his famous essay on the Subjection of Women.
The Seneca Falls convention was the beginning of the seventy-two-year battle to obtain the vote for women which ended only in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment: “The rights of citizens of the United States shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
The feminist movement in America was not only bellicose: it was also narrow in its aims. The emphasis was laid mainly on the right to vote–in demanding the vote Elizabeth Cady Stanton struck a spectacular note which Susan B. Anthony picked up and never let go.
It is interesting to speculate on the course American feminism might have taken if Margaret Fuller had accepted Pauline Wright Davis’s invitation to appear as presiding officer on the platform of the Worcester convention in 1850. Margaret Fuller’s broad philosophical stand on woman’s rights as shown in the first written statement of feminism in the New World, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, published eight years before the Seneca Falls convention, had little influence on Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Stanton. Margaret would have considered Susan’s compulsive crusade to win the vote smug and narrow. If, then, she had staged her own variety of feminine revolt, the results might have been far-reaching. If, likewise, the outstanding American men of the period had given more time and thought to the women’s movement, its course might have been less limited. To be sure, Emerson, Channing, Samuel Gridley Howe appeared in behalf of women’s rights, but the evidence indicates that most of them actually resented and despised strong-minded, aggressive women.
So, as it happened, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had it all their own way. They broke with Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and the more conservative workers and created a militant women’s movement based on the dogma of women’s complete historical subjection to men, a dogma which Mrs. Beard described in her “Women as Force in History” as “one of the most fantastic myths ever created by the human mind.” Liking nothing better than a good fight, they showed their long-suffering sisters how to win freedom from the tyrannical male by signing petitions and storming state legislatures; belligerence rather than logic motivated their movement.
The thesis of woman’s subjection to man has left its imprint on the women’s movement of today. The National Woman’s Party hopes to solve all women’s problems through the equal-rights amendment. Gladys Dickason of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, in an address commemorating the Seneca Falls Convention at the Woman’s Bureau Conference in February of this year, said: “American women have come a long way since that historic meeting in Seneca Falls a hundred years ago. They have won political equality and extended their legal rights; they now enjoy most of the educational advantages formerly restricted to men; and the steadily increasing number of working women has gained some measure of economic security.”
But before concluding with Miss Dickason that these obvious “gains” must be maintained and extended, it is well to note the argument of another speaker at the same conference, who contended that modern woman’s needs are largely psychic, a claim substantiated by Amram Scheinfeld in “Women and Men,” Helene Deutsch in “The Psychology of Women,” and Lundberg and Farnham in “Modern Woman–the Lost Sex.”
The centennial of the first woman’s-rights convention is a time, then, not only for commemoration but for revaluation of the lives of the “founding mothers” in the light of modern psychiatric knowledge. It is well to consider the hitherto unanalyzed weaknesses as well as the obvious strengths of the movement which was begun at Seneca Falls; it is healthy to unveil not only marble statues to their memory but the inner motives of the first feminists. A clear, unprejudiced evaluation of the first women’s convention and the century of commotion it called forth should be helpful in the redefinition of feminism so much needed today.