Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The history of the Seneca Falls Convention, the first national conference for women’s rights in the United States, is not complete without acknowledging the critical work of lesbian organizers and leaders.

Summary of Event

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is considered by most historians to be the birth of the organized women’s rights movement in the United States and also of first-wave feminism. The convention was conceived on July 13, 1848, when Lucretia Mott visited her sister, Martha C. Wright, in Waterloo, New York. The sisters had held a gathering with Jane C. Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton from nearby Seneca Falls. The women, with the exception of Stanton, all embraced Quakerism, a Christian religious denomination that permitted a degree of sexual equality within its meetings and affirmed the spark of the divine in all persons regardless of gender. Mott was a recognized minister in the Society of Friends. All of the women were familiar with antislavery efforts, temperance meetings, and other liberal reform movements. [kw]Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention (July 19-20, 1848) [kw]Women’s Rights Convention, Seneca Falls (July 19-20, 1848) [kw]Convention, Seneca Falls Women’s Rights (July 19-20, 1848) Feminism;in nineteenth century United States[United States] Seneca Falls Convention (1848) [c]Feminism;July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention[0010] [c]Organizations and institutions;July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention[0010] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention[0010] [c]Publications;July 19-20, 1848: Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention[0010] Mott, Lucretia Stanton, Elizabeth Cady Hunt, Jane C. McClintock, Mary Ann Wright, Martha C. Douglass, Frederick

A contemporary illustration of seven women who attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

(Library of Congress)

The women resolved to declare their equality and enumerate women’s grievances with men at a convention planned for July 19-20, 1848. Stanton was assigned the task of drafting a document, the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions (1848) Sentiments and Resolutions, Declaration of (1848) to be debated, discussed, and ratified by the convention delegates. Stanton modeled the Sentiments on the Declaration of Independence, and its structure and diction parallel Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 text. In the Sentiments, Stanton declares “the causes that impel” her and four Quaker women to launch the long struggle for women’s rights. Stanton also spells out a list of women’s grievances concerning the “absolute tyranny” of men over women. The number of “injuries and usurpations” noted in the document—eighteen in total—is equal to the number of grievances presented to King George III of England in the Declaration of Independence.

Stanton concluded the Sentiments with a list of eleven resolutions to be considered by the convention delegates. The most controversial resolution was the ninth, a call for women “to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” The delegates unanimously approved ten of Stanton’s eleven resolutions in addition to a twelfth introduced by Mott on the floor of the convention. The only resolution to pass without unanimity was the resolution supporting women’s right to vote. Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the Sentiments. The full text of the document, and a list of its one hundred signatories, was printed in the July 28, 1848, edition of the Rochester North Star, edited by abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who attended the convention and argued in favor of voting rights for women.

Significance

The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and its Declaration of Sentiments represent the weaving together of several strands of U.S. history and culture, including the struggle for political rights and suffrage, demands for economic and social equality, feminism, and gender differences, reflecting larger trends in Western civilization as a whole. The convention marked the challenges faced by abolitionists, feminists, suffragists, and other progressives as they pressed forward with their various reform agendas. Seneca Falls also had underscored conflicts between the ideals expressed in revolutionary documents and the realities of political organization in the nineteenth century.

Seneca Falls was the culmination of many cultural and social forces that had been gathering since the birth of the republic. Much of the idealism of its leaders—women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who looked at Jefferson’s work for guidance in penning the Sentiments—was inspired by the nation’s founding premise that all human beings are created equal.

The democratic idealism and natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence had been to early America what the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) had been to Europe. Just as the United States struggled to accommodate, compromise, and contain abolition, sexuality, slavery, suffrage, temperance movements, and worker unions, so too did Europe.

Already in an economic downturn in 1848, Europe had been rocked by a series of revolutions. Unrest erupted in Austria, Bavaria, Berlin, Frankfurt, Hungary, Milan, Naples, Piedmont, the Rhineland, Rome, Saxony, Sicily, and Venice. Calls for constitutional rights, universal suffrage, and national unification reverberated in the revolutionary fervor.

The early women’s rights movement, the first wave of feminism, set against this dramatic backdrop of nationalism and revolution in the Western world, was preoccupied with the question of political rights, or women’s suffrage. Seneca Falls, despite negative media portrayals of a republic of petticoats, was the impetus that launched organized efforts to secure the right to vote for women; it was a right that would not be secured in the United States until nearly three-quarters of a century later with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. More broadly, the convention awakened among some middle-class, liberal reformers, a wide array of concerns that women struggled with in the nineteenth century and, in many ways, still struggle with. These concerns ranged from equal rights and fair labor practices to the ordination of women and to family-life issues.

By 1920, the women’s movement launched by the convention of 1848 had morphed into second-wave feminism, especially the struggle for cultural legitimacy and socioeconomic equality. Among the issues that have divided feminists are differences surrounding socioeconomic status and sexuality, particularly lesbian sexuality. Some scholars have questioned the sexual orientation of the leaders of the Seneca Falls Convention, including that of Lucretia Mott. However, the role played by sexual orientation in the lives of historical figures continues to be a topic of heated scholarly debate. It is difficult to imagine how the sexuality of reformers and other leaders of the convention would have no impact on their work in the same way that it is impossible to understand the significance of James Baldwin’s fiction without considering the complex nature of his literary, racial, and sexual inheritances. Nevertheless, many traditionalists in academia continue to obstruct scholarship on the impact, meaning, and significance of human sexuality on the lives and work of women such as Jane Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martha Coffin Wright, who were pivotal in the development, growth, and evolution of universal human rights. Feminism;in nineteenth century United States[United States] Seneca Falls Convention (1848)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ginzberg, Lori D. Untidy Origins: A Story of Women’s Rights in Antebellum New York. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gurko, Miriam. Ladies of Seneca Falls. Studies in the Life of Women. New York: Pantheon, 1987.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Library of Congress. Seneca Falls Convention Exhibit. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr040.html.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Welman, Judith. The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Women’s Rights Convention. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

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March 22, 1972-June 30, 1982: Equal Rights Amendment Fails State Ratification

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January 22, 1973: Roe v. Wade Legalizes Abortion and Extends Privacy Rights

November 18-21, 1977: National Women’s Conference Convenes

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