Seneca Falls Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This hastily organized but well-attended convention is generally credited with launching the women’s rights movement and firing the first shot in the struggle for woman suffrage.

Summary of Event

The Women’s Rights Convention assembled in Seneca Falls, New York, July 19-20, 1848, is widely held to have launched the women’s rights movement in the United States. Organized and led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the convention had its participants approve the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions written by Stanton. The ninth of the declaration’s twelve resolutions, and the only one that was seriously challenged at the convention, called for woman suffrage. Seneca Falls Convention (1848) Women’s movement[Womens movement];Seneca Falls Convention Mott, Lucretia [p]Mott, Lucretia;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] Stanton, Elizabeth Cady [p]Stanton, Elizabeth Cady;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] New York State;Seneca Falls Convention [kw]Seneca Falls Convention (July 19-20, 1848) [kw]Convention, Seneca Falls (July 19-20, 1848) Seneca Falls Convention (1848) Women’s movement[Womens movement];Seneca Falls Convention Mott, Lucretia [p]Mott, Lucretia;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] Stanton, Elizabeth Cady [p]Stanton, Elizabeth Cady;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] New York State;Seneca Falls Convention [g]United States;July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Convention[2640] [c]Women’s issues;July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Convention[2640]

Lucretia Mott.

(Library of Congress)

The Seneca Falls Convention had its origins in 1840, when Mott and Stanton met in London, England, during the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Mott and her husband, James Mott, active Quakers and supporters of abolition, were delegates to the convention, as was Henry Brewster Stanton, Elizabeth’s husband. Perhaps fortuitously for the women’s rights movement in the United States, the convention determined to exclude women from the floor of delegates. Although Stanton and Mott were upset by this action, their exclusion from the floor debates gave Stanton the opportunity to engage in extended conversations with Mott, who was twenty-two years her senior and an experienced and dedicated reformer. They determined that, upon their return to the United States, they would call a convention to consider the status of women. Thus, it might be said that an act of discrimination against women in England enabled the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Eight years passed before Stanton and Mott’s London decision became a reality. In 1848, when Lucretia Mott was visiting in the Seneca Falls region, which was the home of the Stanton family, the two women met again. Aided by Mott’s sister, Martha Wright; Jane Hunt; and Mary McClintock, Mott and Stanton planned the women’s rights convention, which took place with only one week’s preparation. The call to the convention was made in the July 14 issue of the Seneca Country Courier and stated that

a Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, New York, on Wednesday and Thursday, the nineteenth and twentieth of July, current; commencing at 10 o’clock a.m.

The announcement went on to inform attendees that the first day’s sessions would be exclusively for women and those of the second day would be for the general public. After announcing the meeting, the organizing committee set about planning the agenda for the two-day convention. They also drafted a statement of their “sentiments” and resolutions for the assembly to consider.

The text of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions is a seminal statement of the women’s rights movement. It articulates the rationale and the goals of the movement and provides the agenda for its leaders into the twentieth century. Its writing fell primarily to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose early education and background in the law made her the natural choice for this task.

Born into a well-known, upper-middle-class family, Stanton had received an education rare for American women of her day. Partly self-educated, relying on books used by her brothers, she gained a grounding in the classics. Later she attended Emma Willard’s Female Seminary, where she benefited from the best formal education available to American women during the 1830’s. After returning home from the seminary, she read law in her father’s office. That effort gave her an initial grounding in the current civil laws and the legal status of women’s rights, or more correctly, lack of rights. This background, enhanced by association with the abolitionist movement before and after her marriage, made Stanton the theoretical voice, literally and in print, of the women’s movement throughout the late nineteenth century.

With the declaration written, the planners of the convention awaited the arrival of attendees. Reports differ on the exact number of people who attended. Some reports estimated as many as three hundred people. What was especially significant was the number of men who arrived: twenty-two, including the African American abolitionist and publisher Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick [p]Douglass, Frederick;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] . The fact that men attended caused the planners to alter their original plan to reserve one day exclusively for women. They also asked Lucretia’s husband James to chair the session. Lucretia Mott, a well-known and articulate spokesperson and the only previously announced speaker, was joined by a host of well-known, or soon-to-be-well-known, spokespersons on a wide-ranging list of human rights, specifically the rights of women. Mary and Elizabeth McClintock spoke, and Ansel Bascom Bascom, Ansel reported on the consideration of women’s rights during New York State’s recently adjourned constitutional convention.

Stanton’s speech captured the essence of the convention, stating unequivocally her position and summarizing the views she had been developed for several years. As a result, she was launched into a leadership position in the women’s rights movement. Her initial statement is a distillation of her thinking:

I should feel exceedingly diffident to appear before you at this time, never having spoken in public, were I not nerved by a sense of right and duty, nor did I not feel the time had fully come for the question of women’s wrongs to be laid before the public, did I not believe that woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length, and the breadth of her own degradation. Man cannot speak for her, because he has been educated to believe that she differs from him so materially, that he cannot judge of her thoughts, feelings, and opinions by his own. Moral beings can only judge of others by themselves. The moment they assume a different nature for any of their own, they utterly fail. . . .

Day two of the convention focused on consideration of the Declaration of Sentiments Declaration of Sentiments (1848) Women’s movement[Womens movement];Declaration of Sentiments (1848) and Resolutions. The declaration was obviously and consciously modeled on the text and style of the Declaration of Independence. Following its preamble—fifteen examples of men’s “absolute tyranny” over women—the declaration insisted that women have “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” Twelve resolutions followed. They were unanimously supported and signed by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men.

The only resolution that caused serious debate was the ninth, which stated, straightforwardly and unambiguously, that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” For Stanton, this resolution was the key to the accomplishment of all the other goals. She believed that the electorate must be representative of all views and needs if legislatures were to pass laws securing and protecting the rights of all, specifically those ensuring the rights of women. With the help of Frederick Douglass Douglass, Frederick [p]Douglass, Frederick;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] , the noted abolitionist, Stanton was able to secure narrow passage of this resolution, thus becoming the first public voice within the women’s rights movement for woman Suffrage, woman;and Seneca Falls Convention[Seneca Falls Convention] suffrage.

Significance

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 drew immediate reaction, much of it unfavorable. Frederick Douglass continued his support and documented the event in an editorial in his paper, The North Star, North Star, The a week after the convention ended. Despite criticism, the women’s rights movement had begun, and a follow-up session was held in Rochester, New York. Other leaders emerged, various agendas took precedence, and debate continued for many years before woman suffrage finally was realized with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, seventy-two years after Stanton and Douglass had persuaded a reluctant delegation to support it.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banner, Lois W. Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Woman’s Rights. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Informative and basic biography of Stanton that provides a highly readable picture of her life and thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cromwell, Otelia. Lucretia Mott. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. Chapter 12 of this biography covers the Seneca Falls Convention and is helpful in understanding Mott’s role and her positions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donovan, Josephine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1985. Conveys the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the women’s movement, of which Stanton is recognized as a key theorist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Du Bois, Ellen Carol, ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. New York: Schocken Books, 1981. An excellent source for original texts, with critical commentary provided by W. E. B. Du Bois.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Women Suffrage and Women’s Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1998. Collection of essays that provide an excellent review of the woman suffrage movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffin, Elizabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. Excellent biography of Stanton, with a helpful bibliography. Chapter 4 provides a detailed account of the Seneca Falls Convention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mott, Lucretia. Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott. Edited by Beverly Wilson Palmer, Holly Byers Ochoa, and Carol Faulkner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002. Well-annotated selection of letters that Mott wrote between 1813 and 1879.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schneir, Miriam, ed. Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. New York: Random House, 1972. Contains a helpful introduction, as well as commentaries on key texts of the women’s rights movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wellman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Women’s Rights Convention. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004. Chronicles the events that took place during the historic women’s rights meeting, describing how abolitionism, radical Quakerism, and the campaign for legal reform shaped both the convention’s proceedings and Stanton’s life.

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