The Ball Starts Rolling: Seneca Falls 1848

Photo courtesy of National Park Service. Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y., now part of the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

By Cherry Sokoloski

The 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., is widely considered to be the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement. So, it’s ironic that the right to vote almost failed to make it onto the agenda.

The year before, Elizabeth Cady Stanton had moved with her family from Boston to Seneca Falls, a small town where her husband Henry was starting a new law practice. Stanton already had three small children, and domestic chores were all-consuming.

This was not the life she was accustomed to. As a child growing up near Albany, N.Y., Elizabeth rubbed elbows with some of the most important progressive thinkers of the day. Her abolitionist cousin, Gerrit Smith, was interested in all the current reform movements, and a steady stream of progressive thinkers came to his home, including the famous Grimké sisters. This provided a stimulating atmosphere for the young Elizabeth, and she eagerly joined the spirited discussions and debates.

After Elizabeth’s marriage, she and Henry moved to Boston which also boasted an exciting intellectual environment. Stanton regularly attended lectures and meetings about the social reform movements of the time. She became friends with writers and reformers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The move to Seneca Falls, then, was akin to putting one’s brain on ice. As Stanton recalled later, “I suffered with mental hunger, which, like an empty stomach, is very depressing.”

In July of 1848, Stanton was excited to receive an invitation to tea in a nearby town – especially when she learned that Lucretia Mott would be there. Stanton and Mott had become fast friends at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where women (even official delegates such as Mott) were forbidden from participating.

Mott, a Quaker with six children, was 22 years Stanton’s senior. A gifted public speaker who was ordained as a Quaker minister at age 28, Mott provided a powerful role model for Stanton. She encouraged the younger woman to trust her own opinions and to speak her mind. Mott’s marriage also inspired Stanton, since she and her husband John respected each other as equal partners.

Both women were angered by the convention snub, and before they left London they made a pact: they would organize a convention as soon as they returned home, and push for equal rights for women.

Life delayed the women’s plan a bit, but when the two met again in upstate New York in 1848, they were able to fulfill their promise.

Tea and revolution

There were five women at tea that summer day, all of them wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Besides Stanton and Mott, the group included Mary Ann McClintock, Martha Coffin Wright, and Jane Hunt. All had complaints about the injustices of their daily lives, and together they were inspired to take action: They would organize a meeting where women could discuss the challenges facing the female sex.

The women did not delay. After taking tea on July 13, they ran a notice in the daily paper on July 14 for a convention to be held on July 19 and 20 in Seneca Falls. On the 16th, they met again to plan the meeting. Each would prepare a speech, and Stanton volunteered to take the words of the Declaration of Independence and fashion a new Declaration of Sentiments calling for women’s rights.

Stanton’s Declaration included these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” It also stated, “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.”

Stanton also drafted 12 resolutions promoting women’s equality in education, employment, property rights, religion, and suffrage. Only the suffrage resolution faced stiff opposition from the other convention organizers, who thought to ask for the vote was far too radical.

Stanton stood firm, however, believing that voting rights were critical if women were to fight for other social changes.

The women were not optimistic about attracting a large crowd to the convention. After all, the public had received less than a week’s notice of the event, and it was haying season. But, on the morning of July 19, the organizers arrived at the Wesleyan Chapel to see dozens of people already gathered and more still arriving.

In the end, more than 300 people attended the first Woman’s Rights Convention. Eleven of Stanton’s resolutions passed easily, but – again – suffrage was hotly debated and resisted. However, Frederick Douglass was in attendance, and he saved the day. He gave an impassioned speech in support of voting rights for women, and after hours of discussion, the resolution finally passed, by a narrow margin.

By the close of the convention, one-third of those in attendance had signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Among them was a 19-year-old farmer’s daughter, Charlotte Woodward, already an enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights. Excited by the newspaper ad, she had even recruited six of her friends to attend the meeting. 

Woodward was the only signer who would live long enough to see the passage of the 19th Amendment.

The Seneca Falls Convention made headlines across the country – but it was negative attention, with most newspapers ridiculing the organizers and their goals. Nonetheless, a prominent Quaker woman organized a second convention just two weeks later, in Rochester, N.Y. Other women’s rights meetings followed in Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

Indeed, as Stanton said, the Seneca Falls convention had “set the ball in motion.”

Source: Votes for Women! by Winifred Conkling, 2018.

March suffrage events: 

The Loveland Museum at 503 N. Lincoln Ave. has several events planned for March. Info: 970-962-2410 or lovelandmuseumgallery.org. 

The women’s suffrage series will be continued monthly throughout 2020.

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