While traveling in western New York last month, I could not resist the opportunity to go to Seneca Falls. (okay, I admit it: I agreed to go there BECAUSE of Seneca Falls. But the region really is quite lovely.) I knew it was the birthplace of the women’s rights movement, but I had no idea the area was a hotbed of progressivism throughout the 19th century. Within a 50-mile radius you can visit not only the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (of whom more anon), but also of William Seward, who not only got Alaska for the U.S. but was also a passionate and effective abolitionist, and of Harriet Tubman. And the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the website for which is a great resource when you want to know which famous woman accomplished what. The region was also home to many leaders of the temperance movement, but I skipped those memorials.
For me, unsurprisingly, it was the Women’s Rights National Park in the town of Seneca Falls that was the lure. The Park commemorates the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, at which more than 100 women, led by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and three others, gathered to declare their determination to achieve equality. Or at least legal recognition.
Over two days they discussed the status of women (negligible), the discrimination they faced (overwhelming), their desire to be treated equally (voracious). On the second day they permitted men to attend; in fact, Frederick Douglass prepared the minutes of the second day, and lent his support to the convention.
And then they wrote down their beliefs.
Recognizing the beauty and the compelling nature of the original Declaration of Independence, they adopted it – with the addition of two critical words:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . .
They went on to list their grievances, in the “Declaration of Sentiments”. You can see them all here, but a few are particularly noteworthy and poignant. Enumerating the evils that men had perpetrated on women, they lamented
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. (And we had to wait only 72 more years before that was achieved. Good for us.)After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it. (Hello, Tea Party! You think you have it bad? You’re on easy street.)He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
“Civilly dead.” What an evocative phrase, capturing the non-status of women so cogently and concisely. We have progressed monumentally since then, but of course full equality remains elusive. Still, when I looked at the memorial listing the 100 women who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, as well as the 30 men who signed in support, I felt a swell of pride and renewed energy to keep the fight going. I have to, because I --- and you --- cannot disappoint those women who conceived of, fought for, and launched a movement that has changed society for the better.