‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal’, begins the Declaration of Sentiments, which was read by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. The Declaration of Sentiments aired grievances against inequality that women experienced in the US by using constitutional language to demonstrate inconsistencies between American ideals as laid out in the Constitution and the realities of women’s experience in the country.
Reformers had started calling for women’s rights in the 1830s, and by 1848, it was a divisive issue. The organisers of the Seneca Falls Convention, originally known as the Women’s Rights Convention, were chiefly arguing for property rights for women, rights to divorce and the right to vote.
Though the organisers did not achieve the right to vote in their lifetime, the Seneca Falls Convention laid the groundwork for later legislative victories and drew the nation’s attention to the issue of women’s rights. It is widely regarded by many historians as one of the key events of the burgeoning feminism movement in America.
The Seneca Falls Convention was the first of its kind in the US
The Seneca Falls Convention took place over two days between 19-20 July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, at the Wesleyan Chapel, and was the first women’s rights convention held in the United States. One of the organisers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, introduced the convention as a protest against the government and the ways in which women were not protected under US law.
The first day of the event was open to women only, while men were allowed to join for the second day. Though the event was not widely advertised, some 300 people participated. In particular, mainly Quaker women residing in the town were in attendance.
Other organisers included Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright and Jane Hunt, who were all women who had also campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Indeed, many of the attendees had and were involved in the abolition movement, including Frederick Douglass.
There was a fight over the demands of the group
On the second day, with about 40 men in attendance, Stanton read the group’s manifesto, known as the Declaration of Sentiments. This document detailed grievances and demands and called upon women to fight for their rights as US citizens with regards to equality in politics, family, education, jobs, religion and morals.
In all, 12 resolutions proposed for women’s equality, and all passed unanimously except for the ninth, which called for women’s right to vote. There was a heated debate about this resolution, but Stanton and the organisers did not back down. The argument stated that because women were not allowed to vote, they were being subjected to laws that they did not consent to.
Frederick Douglass was a supporter of the resolution and came to its defense. The resolution finally passed by a tiny margin. The passage of the ninth resolution did result in some participants withdrawing support from the movement: however, it also marked a pivotal moment in the fight for women’s equality.
It was met with much criticism in the press
By the end of the Seneca Falls Convention, around 100 participants had signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Though this convention would ultimately inspire the women’s suffrage movement in the US, it was met with criticism in the press, so much so that several supporters later removed their names from the Declaration.
It did not deter the organisers, however, who reconvened the convention on 2 August 1848 to bring the resolutions to a larger audience at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York.
The Seneca Falls Convention was not inclusive to all women
The Seneca Falls Convention has been criticised for excluding poor women, black women and other minorities. This is especially pronounced since black women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were simultaneously fighting for women’s rights.
The effect of such exclusion can be seen in women’s suffrage being passed into law: white women were granted the right to vote in 1920 with the passing of the 19th Amendment, but Jim Crow-era laws and methods for excluding black voters meant black women weren’t ultimately guaranteed the right to vote.
Native American women gained the right to vote in 1955 with the passing of the Indian Citizen Act. Black women’s right to vote was protected under the Voting Rights Act in 1965, whereby all US citizens were finally guaranteed the right to vote.
However, the convention is still considered to be the birthplace of American feminism, and in 1873 women began celebrating the anniversary of the convention.
It had long-lasting effects on women’s fight for equality
The Seneca Falls Convention was successful in that the organisers legitimised demands for women’s equality by appealing to the Declaration of Independence as the basis of their logic. This event laid the groundwork for later legislative victories, and the Declaration of Sentiments would continue to be quoted in the coming decades as women petitioned state and federal legislators.
The event brought national attention to women’s rights, and it shaped early feminism in the US. Stanton would go on to create the National Women’s Suffrage Association with Susan B. Anthony, where they built on the declarations made at the Seneca Falls Convention to push for the right to vote, even though they did not achieve this aim in their lifetime.