The struggle for women’s equal rights has been a long one, marked by noteworthy gains as well as tragic setbacks. A high point along this trajectory was the Seneca Falls Convention, July 19-20, 1848, the first women’s rights gathering in the US. Today I’m celebrating its 174th anniversary, in the shadow of the US Supreme Courts’ recent decision to overturn Roe, despite the unpopularity of bans on abortion and widespread support for women’s reproductive rights. That controversial 5-4 decision was a jolt to our nation, and it reminded me once again of the consequences we face when women are not fully represented in our government.
Prior to this decision of today's Black Robes, it was easier to forget that in the mid-nineteenth century, women were severely restricted in how we could participate in society and politics. We were barred from owning property, excluded from obtaining a higher education, we had restricted employment options, and of course we could not vote. Women were to be seen and not heard, rarely allowed to engage in public speaking. Women also had minimal roles within the church and other major institutions, and men had significant control over women’s activities and decisions, whether it be as fathers, husbands, lawmakers, bosses or religious leaders.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, it's hard to avoid the fact that, following this decision by a male-majority Supreme Court, now decisions about women's reproductive rights will continue to be made by men at the state level, as they also outnumber women in elected and appointed positions. Historically, men have had significant control over the lives of women, and the recent decision as well as the new reproductive laws to come feel like a perpetuation of this control.…like we are still living in a history we thought was in the rear view mirror.
In 1848, women faced even bigger obstacles. As America lurched closer to a bloody civil war over slavery and racial equality, a Women's Rights Convention (as it was first named) gathered forward-looking thinkers of the time in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss and inspire each other over women’s rights. This convention, though small with only around 300 attendees, was an important catalyst for the women’s movement that was to gather momentum for the next seven decades until women gained the right to vote.
The convention was organized by five brave women who were active in the fight for civil rights. This included activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionists Lucretia Mottand Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright (the sister to Lucretia Mott) and Quaker Jane Hunt.
Stanton began the convention with these powerful words:
“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.”
What exactly took place on this day, 174 years ago? Stanton, who had grown tired and frustrated of being subjected to laws in which she had no say, as women did not yet have the right to vote, unveiled the Declaration of Sentiments which she, Mott, M’Clintock, and Wright drafted together. This declaration was modeled off the Declaration of Independence, though a significant distinction was made to affirm women’s equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and womenare created equal.”
On the second day of the convention, the attendees, mostly women but also some men, voted on a series of 11 resolutions within the Declaration of Sentiments. The most controversial of these was the ninth resolution that encouraged women to take the initiative to establish the right to vote for themselves. This resolution sparked debate amongst the entire convention. It wasn’t until abolitionist Fredrick Douglassgave a powerful speech, expressing his support for women’s suffrage, that they were able to get enough votes to pass the resolution. In his newspaper entitled The North Star, Douglass later wrote about the intersection between the women’s rights and abolitionist movements:
“In respect to political rights, we hold women to be justly entitled to all we claim for man…All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman...There can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is, that ‘Right is of no sex.’”
Douglass’s presence at this first women’s convention was a significant act of solidarity. Indeed, the antislavery movement as a whole was integral to establishing the women’s rights movement. Without the push for the abolition of slavery, women would not have had the framework to be successful to push for their own rights. Though there was a wide array of opinions on slavery from women, the issue was nonetheless pushed to the forefront of peoples’ lives leading up to the Civil War.
Some women rights advocates got involved first with the antislavery movement, including many of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention. Because of their involvement in the antislavery movement, women began noticing how women were also being oppressed (although in a much different way), and to draw parallelsbetween the laws of slavery and the laws regarding marriage. The abolition movement brought a number of women into the center of politics, which in turn radicalized these women. Over time, women not only started to realize their own desire for equality, but they also learned the tools to be able to better make their arguments. Quaker women in particular began taking steps within their faith to challenge these norms.
Organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society provided a platform for women to develop their public speaking and organizing skills. The antislavery movement emboldened women to stand up for what they believed in, just as those fighting for abolition did. The movement established arguments for equality because it demonstrated how one group of people (black people) should not be subordinated by another (white people); this allowed women to argue the same “equality principle” should apply to them. Without the antislavery movement, women may not have been empowered with the knowledge and courage to stand up for themselves.
For this anniversary, we are reminded of both how far we have come and how far we still have to go to achieve the ideals that the organizers of the convention dreamed of. It took 72 years following the Seneca Falls Convention for women to actually receive the right to vote. Now, women are still vastly underrepresented at all levels of government, business and other major institutions. But the anniversary of the convention also reminds us of the importance of collaboration, collective action, and perseverance in the fight for equality. At times where progress can feel hopeless, it is important to remember these words:
"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn."
― Harriet Beecher Stowe
During a time where the oppression of women was so deeply entrenched and to an extent, normalized, remembering the courageous women who fought for equality empowers me. The Seneca Falls Convention means so much more than just a small group of people discussing women’s rights, particularly in this current moment where our rights are being threatened and the clock is being turned back toward the 19th century. This convention was an act of rebellion and a refusal to accept injustice. I look to groundbreaking events like these to inspire me, to recall the progress we have made, and to revitalize my hope for a better future in which full equality is actualized.
To learn more about how we can all work together to help build women’s political power and get more involved in the women’s rights movement, check out RepresentWomen’s Take Action page.