SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK — 1848
Inspired by the United States’ Declaration of Independence, one of many spearheads of the women’s rights movement Elizabeth Cady Stanton sought to – and succeeded – produce an official document which listed grievances held by women at the time, while also offering solutions to these complaints. Women and men of various ages and backgrounds convened nearly two centuries ago to sign this document, hoping for a fairer, more inclusive future replete with gender equality. In fact, two-thirds of these signers were women whose ages ranged from fourteen to sixty-eight years old (Lerner, 221).
To comprehend fully the reasoning behind initiating the Declaration of Sentiments, it is essential to know of its history, beginning with its conception. In 1840, Stanton attended the World Antislavery Convention in London, England, with Lucretia Mott. Upon being denied seating and the right to vote, both left the convention fueled with anger and, simultaneously, inspiration. The duo agreed to channel this fury into protest; hence, the Seneca Falls convention (Lerner, 223).
Eight years after gender-based discrimination enraged Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in England, the two American abolitionists, along with the support from three Quaker activists Martha Wright, Jane Hunt, and Mary Ann M’Clintok, arranged a convention in Seneca Falls. Bringing forth her draft of the Declarations of Sentiments, Stanton allowed debate and conversations regarding the written grievances. One day later, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed this document (Lerner, 224).
Was the Declaration of Sentiments radical for its time? Absolutely. Were its criticisms sufficient to represent a wide array of women, whose experiences differed across racial and socioeconomic identities? Absolutely not.
At a time when women were considered “civilly dead” under the law when married, the very concept of women’s suffrage was controversial, even to many of the 300 convention attendees. Therefore, this inclusion has been credited as one of the most essential resolutions in the Declaration (Lerner, 225). As such, the Declaration of Sentiments is known as a radical yet progressive document in history, due to the fact that the Nineteenth Amendment, allowing women’s suffrage, was signed in 1920, seventy-two years after this Declaration. So, most, if not all, of the convention-goers and organizers would have been dead by the time this amendment was enacted.
Another revolutionary aspect of the Declaration of Sentiments was the following:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.
By stating the cause for sexism as masculinity’s inherent and oppressive control over women, this historic remark has been used throughout feminism’s existence as one of its foundations; hence, the name “feminism,” a moniker used to denote the protection and preservation of femininity itself because of masculinity’s violence throughout time. Such a statement as the aforementioned may be considered too radical for today’s standards, as it portrays men as oppressors of women. Nonetheless, this statement remains one of the most important and powerful in the Declaration, due to its timelessness and transcendence of the era in which it was written.
Critics of the Declaration of Sentiments may point to its lack of inclusivity. Truly, this document was written by and for mainly white, middle- and upper-class women; it wasn’t until later that more modern waves of feminism began to include women of all identities under their umbrella. However, everyone must start somewhere, and for Stanton and the other signers and attendees, the Declaration existed as a channel through which they could officially voice their concerns, hopefully igniting a movement of change for the better. After all, this was the very first women’s rights convention to be held by women – it is only natural that some voices or concerns were left out from the conversation. Therefore, though the Declaration was not free from fault, it engendered more awareness regarding women’s rights in the United States, which earns the Declaration a distinguished spot in history.
All in all, the convention organized in Seneca Falls, New York, was instrumental in bringing individuals together to voice their grievances due to age-long inequity. From its revolutionary declaration that man, not God, was the sole creator of sexism, to the desire to allow women’s suffrage, the Declaration of Sentiments marks a watershed in United States history as being drafted by and for women, which, considering the time period, was a revolutionary act in itself.
Lerner, Gerda. The Meanings of Seneca Falls, 1848–1998. Dissent, 1998.