The Seneca Falls Conference and Women’s Rights

This week (July 19) in 1848, the first conference in American history specifically organized to discuss the civil and political rights of women began in Seneca Falls, New York.  The convention was the brainchild of two of history’s most famous suffragettes, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who had met years earlier in London, where they had traveled to attend the World Anti Slavery Convention.  Alas, being female, they were barred from the convention.  A conference to address their second-class status suddenly seemed like a good idea.

Actual planning for the conference took place in early July and included placing an advertisement in the local newspaper announcing that a two-day women’s rights conference would be held on the 19th and 20th of that month.  The ad noted that only women were allowed to attend the first day, while the general public was invited to join them on day two.

Stanton then drafted a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which she modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  Indeed, much of the language was purposely similar, although, rather than King George III being the main target of their grievances, it was … Tom himself — and Dick, and Harry.  “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and all women are created equal,” Stanton wrote, and later added, “The history of mankind is the history of repeated injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman.”

On the conference’s opening day, 300 women attended, and Stanton read her Declaration, which, in addition to a list of complaints against their oppressed state, included 12 resolutions calling for economic, political and legal equality for women.

The following day, participants of both sexes debated and finally voted on Stanton’s resolutions, passing eleven unanimously.   The most important read:  Resolved, That all laws which prevent women from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority.

Ironically, the only resolution to meet opposition called for women “to secure to themselves” the right to vote.  But after several speakers, including Stanton, argued that a woman’s right to vote was critical to every other resolution, it too passed.

It was, indeed, a significant first step, but the journey was still a long one.  Thanks to Stanton, Mott and many others, women made significant political, social and economic gains over the years, including working in all professional fields and access to most institutions of higher learning. However, it would be another 72 years before the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was finally passed.