This past October, during a brief residency at Cornell University Law School, the retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, accompanied by other female lawyers, visited the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. The group stood on the spot once occupied by the Wesleyan Chapel, which was the place where the Seneca Falls convention issued its “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848. “We read Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech [the Declaration of Sentiments],” she told a Cornell Chronicle reporter. “It was so moving it brought tears to our eyes.” Stanton, daughter and wife of lawyers, had written in the Declaration of how the generic “mankind” had denied to women “all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself.” No women, she continued, were allowed to be teachers of “theology, medicine, or law,” and colleges were closed to them. Considering that O’Connor graduated near the top of her class at Stanford Law School in 1952 but was offered only a position as a legal secretary, is it any wonder she was moved when she heard those words?
More than a decade younger than Justice O’Connor, I too was deeply moved when I first visited the site of the Wesleyan Chapel soon after it opened to the public in the summer of 1993, and to this day in my women’s history courses, I find it hard to keep myself from tearing up when I read Stanton’s famous lines. They deliberately mimic the Declaration of Independence, substituting “man” for George III: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal…. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” When I related this to a few students I took to Seneca Falls myself, they looked surprised. One remarked later that she had felt no special emotion but supposed that she owed her absence of feeling to the success of the women’s rights movement since the 1970s, which meant that she had never had to confront the barriers that O’Connor and, to a lesser extent, women of my generation had faced.
Perhaps my student’s lack of connection to Seneca Falls helps to explain what has been until quite recently a relative dearth of studies of the history of the nineteenth-century movement for women’s political and legal rights, which formally began there in 1848. Before the development of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, the few books available on American women’s history focused almost exclusively on that movement, but between the mid-1970s and the late ’90s, most historians of nineteenth-century American women concentrated on topics like religion, sexuality or immigration, or on women who participated in benevolent associations or abolitionism. Somehow the history of women’s rights seemed as antiquated as Wesleyan Chapel, or at least less urgent than exploring hitherto unknown aspects of nineteenth-century women’s lives.
But that seems to be changing. Groundbreaking books by historians Judith Wellman, Lori Ginzburg and Jean Baker, among others, have appeared in the past few years, and more are in the publication pipeline. Wellman and Ginzburg uncovered important new information about women’s rights activity in upstate New York in the years before 1848, and Baker produced an elegantly written, well-received joint biography of five suffragist leaders. One reason for the renewed focus on the history of the first women’s rights campaign is quite likely a sense that feminism has stalled in the face of a concerted backlash–witness women’s ongoing struggle to break the “glass ceiling” of political and corporate leadership and the considerable success of the antiabortion movement during the past two decades. To contemporary feminists, as to their nineteenth-century counterparts, a woman’s right to control her own body is a fundamental principle. This right was most recently called into serious question by the Supreme Court decision Gonzales v. Carhart (2007), which upheld the federal statute prohibiting so-called “partial-birth” abortion. Such a situation tends to direct historians’ attention to investigations of similar political struggles. Further fueling the renewed interest in American women’s political history is the ongoing effort–under the able editorship of Ann Gordon–to produce a definitive edition of the papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the two key leaders of the women’s rights movement. The fourth and most recent volume of letters and selected speeches appeared in 2006.