The fight for equal rights for women has been a long one, marked by notable gains as well as tragic setbacks. A high point in this trajectory was the Seneca Falls Convention, July 19-20, 1848, the first gathering for women’s rights in the United States. Today I celebrate his 174th birthday, in the shadow of the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn deer, despite the unpopularity of the abortion ban and widespread support for women’s reproductive rights. This controversial 5-4 decision was a shock to our nation, and it reminded me once again of the consequences we face when women are not fully represented in our government.
Before this ruling of today’s black dresses, it was easier to forget that in the mid-19th century, women were severely restricted in how we could participate in society and politics. We were barred from property, barred from getting a higher education, we had restricted job opportunities, and, of course, we couldn’t vote. Women were to be seen and not heard, rarely allowed to speak in public. Women also had minimal roles in the church and other major institutions, and men had significant control over women’s activities and decisions, whether as fathers, husbands, legislators, bosses or religious leaders.
No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, it is hard to avoid the fact that following this ruling by a male-dominated Supreme Court, decisions regarding women’s reproductive rights will continue to be taken by men at the state level, as they also outnumber women in elected and appointed positions. Historically, men have had significant control over women’s lives, and the recent ruling and upcoming new reproductive laws seem to perpetuate that control…as if we were still living in a story we thought was in the mirror background.
In 1848, women faced even greater obstacles. As America neared a bloody civil war over slavery and racial equality, a women’s rights convention (as it was first named) brought together forward-thinking trendsetters of the day in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss and inspire each other about women’s rights. This convention, although small with only about 300 attendees, was an important catalyst for the women’s movement which was to grow over the next seven decades until women won the right to vote.
The convention was organized by five courageous women who have been active in the fight for civil rights. This included activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Mary M’Clintock, Martha Coffin Wright (Lucretia Mott’s sister), and Quaker Jane Hunt.
Stanton started 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 shameful laws. like giving the man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages she earns, the property she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.
What exactly happened that day, 174 years ago? Stanton, who was tired and frustrated at being subjected to laws she had no say in because women weren’t yet allowed to vote, unveiled the Statement of Sentiments that she, Mott , M’Clintock and Wright wrote together. This declaration is inspired by the Declaration of Independence, although an important distinction was made to affirm the equality of women: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and womenare created equal.
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On the second day of the convention, attendees, mostly women but some men, voted on a series of 11 resolutions as part of the Declaration of Sentiments. The most controversial of these was the ninth resolution which encouraged women to take the lead in establishing the right to vote for themselves. This resolution sparked debate throughout the convention. It wasn’t until abolitionist Fredrick Douglass gave a powerful speech, expressing his support for women’s suffrage, that they were able to get enough votes to pass the resolution. In his journal titled The North starDouglass later wrote of the intersection between women’s rights and abolitionist movements:
“As far as political rights are concerned, we consider that women are entitled to all that we claim for man… Everything that distinguishes man as an intelligent and responsible being is also true of woman … There can be no reason in the world to deny woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in the making and administration of the laws of the land. Our doctrine is that “the right n has no sex”.
Douglass’ presence at this first women’s congress was an important act of solidarity. Indeed, the anti-slavery movement as a whole was integral to the establishment of the women’s rights movement. Without the push for the abolition of slavery, women would not have had the framework to successfully push for their own rights. Although there was a wide range of opinions on female slavery, the issue nevertheless came to the fore in people’s lives before the Civil War.
Some women’s rights advocates first became involved in the anti-slavery movement, including many Seneca Falls Convention organizers. Because of their involvement in the anti-slavery movement, women began to notice how women were also oppressed (albeit in very different ways) and to draw parallels between slavery laws and marriage laws. The abolitionist movement brought a number of women into the center of politics, which radicalized these women. Over time, women not only began to realize their own desire for equality, but they also learned the tools to be able to make their case better. Quaker women in particular began to take action within their faith to challenge these norms.
Organizations like the American Anti-Slavery Society have provided a platform for women to develop their public speaking and organizational skills. The anti-slavery movement encouraged women to stand up for what they believed in, as did those who fought for abolition. The movement established arguments for equality because it demonstrated how one group of people (blacks) should not be subordinated to another (whites); this allowed women to argue that the same “principle of equality” should apply to them. Without the anti-slavery movement, women might not have been equipped with the knowledge and courage to defend themselves.
For this anniversary, we are reminded both of how far we have come and how far we still have to go to achieve the ideals dreamed of by the organizers of the convention. It took 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention for women to actually get the right to vote. Today, 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 when progress can seem hopeless, it is important to remember these words:
“When you get into a tough spot and everything is going against you, until it seems like you can’t hold on for another minute, never give up then, because that’s just the place and when the tide turns.”
-Harriet Beecher Stowe
At a time when the oppression of women was so deeply rooted and, to some extent, normalized, the memory of the brave 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, especially at a time when our rights are under threat and the time goes back to 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 remember the progress we have made, and to revitalize my hope for a brighter 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.