April 1, 2023

Seneca Falls

Seneca Falls

In the summer of 1848, women from across the country gathered in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss their rights. Included in their demands was a right that would launch a massive coalition - the right to vote.

Tune in as I dive into the details of Seneca Falls. How did it come together? And what is its legacy?

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Allgor, Catherine. "Coverture - the Word You Probably Don't Know but Should."National Women's History Museum, September 4, 2014 (LINK)

“American Women: Resources from the Law Library.” Library of Congress. (LINK)

“Declaration of Sentiments.” Women’s Rights National Historical Park. National Parks Service. (LINK)

“Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention.” Women’s Rights National Historical Park. National Parks Service. (LINK)

“Seneca Falls in 1848.” Women’s Rights National Historical Park. National Parks Service. (LINK)

Wellman, Judith.The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention. (University of Illinois Press, 2004) 

Wellman, Judith. "The Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention: A Study of Social Networks."Journal of Women's History3, no. 1 (1991): 9-37.


“Woman’s Rights Convention - A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman, will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, New York, on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th, of July current; commencing at 10 o’clock a.m. During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be present on the second day, when Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, and other ladies and gentleman, will address the convention,” 

Seneca County Courier, July 14th, 1848

Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee. 



Hey everyone, welcome back. 


Last year during women’s history month, I did an episode spotlighting women’s experiences in politics throughout American history. In that episode, I shared that many of the topics I highlighted would get a more robust treatment later. Included in that episode was the convention for women’s rights, Seneca Falls. 


Held over two days in the western New York town, the convention to discuss women’s rights was the first of its kind and attracted attendees from far and wide. And while many likely anticipated calls for rights such as access to education, many in the audience were stunned when organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton took the podium and demanded access to one key piece of the political process - the right to vote. 


So this week, I am diving into the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. How did it come together? Who was in attendance? And what was its legacy?


Grab your cup of coffee peeps. Let’s do this. 


Before we dive into the convention, let’s review the status of women during the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout the United States, women had limited options and a strict set of societal expectations to live up to. Many young girls were lucky to receive any education. And if they did, the education they did receive was limited - almost entirely focused on domestic duties and the bare minimums in areas like math and science. Women were raised and taught to be mothers and wives - caring for their families and their husbands. 


Additionally, coverture was still the law of the land and served to erase women’s individual identity upon marriage. This meant that, legally speaking, she ceased to exist. She could own no property - and any property she did own automatically came under her husband’s control - and she could not enter into any contract. Women were also prohibited from participating in the political process in any tangible way. Despite the laws impacting their everyday life, women had no opportunity to run for office or vote for or against representatives who served in Congress. 


Several factors led to the convention in New York. The robust abolitionist activity demonstrated that women were capable of organizing and engaging in the political process. Making speeches and writing letters in support of the end of slavery, women began to recognize their collective strength. Additionally, Seneca Falls was home to a large conglomerate of Free Soil Party members. These individuals were steadfast in their support of the abolition of slavery and recognized the similarities between women demanding their rights and their calls to end slavery. 


Additionally, in the run-up to Seneca Falls, women were pushing the boundaries to carve out rights - bit by bit. Beginning in 1839, several women pushed to retain their property after marriage. These fights in various states became known as Married Women's Property Laws and protected a woman’s separate property brought with her into marriage from her husband's debts. While women retained ownership of their property, they rarely had control over how it was used - those decisions still legally fell to the husband. 


Regardless of any minor legal victories, women had been and continued to be discontent with their station in life. Discussions about organizing a women’s rights convention were numerous, but nothing seemed to come to fruition. Despite the historic nature and enduring legacy of the convention at Seneca Falls, the entire convention plan came together by chance. Lucretia Mott, a long-time abolitionist, feminist, and activist, was in town visiting indigenous nations and meeting with formerly enslaved individuals when she decided to join her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, and a few friends for tea at the home of Jane Hunt. Also in attendance were Mary Ann M’Clintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At tea time, the subject of women’s rights came up - as it had in the past. Reflecting upon her experience at the tea party later in life, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote quote: “My experience at the World’s Anti Slavery Convention, all I had read of the legal status of women, and the oppression I saw everywhere, together swept across my soul, intensified now by many personal experiences. It seemed as if all the elements had conspired to impel me to some onward step,” end quote. 


And so - while sipping tea and discussing the issues of the day, this small group of women decided to launch a convention to discuss their status. This was partially due to perfect timing. Lucretia Mott was a well-known orator and abolitionist and the women believed her attendance would ensure a robust crowd. Since Mott was only visiting, their window of opportunity was small. Wasting no time, the women wrote up their announcement to publish in the newspapers - the quote used in the opening of this episode. None of the women in attendance had any experience in organizing a convention but did not shy away from the task - fully committed to their overall demand for female equality. 


The women knew they had to have a powerful statement. Committed to having a declaration of sorts, but unsure of what exactly they wanted to say, the women took to reviewing the works of those who came before them - much like Thomas Jefferson did in his crafting of the Declaration of Independence. And of course, if you’ve read the main document that came from the women’s convention at Seneca Falls then you are already aware that the text the women chose to emulate was none other than the demand for individual rights and liberties launched by the colonies decades prior - the Declaration of Independence. 


Retooling it and renaming their demands the Declaration of Sentiments - borrowed from the founding document of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 - the ladies reviewed the Declaration of Independence and noticed there were 18 separate charges against King George. What, the women wondered, would be their grievances? While they received help from men who supported their mission, Stanton knew she wanted to include a key right in their declaration. A right, in Stanton’s mind, that impacted everything else the women were asking for. Something that would allow them to retain their property; go to school; work for a wage. The right to vote. 


Granting women the right to vote in 1848 was about as far-fetched as men landing on the moon before 1969. It just made no sense. It was such a controversial issue that even Stanton’s husband, Henry, was against the idea. Upon hearing his wife’s determination to demand the right of the franchise for women, Henry said quote, “you will turn the proceedings into a farce,” end quote. Not exactly what you want to hear from your beloved husband. But Stanton refused to back down, apparently responded quote, “I must declare the trust as I believe it to be,” end quote. 


The announcement of the convention went out just a few short days ahead and as such, there were concerns about whether anyone would be in attendance. However, much to their delighted surprise, when the time came to open the meeting on Wednesday, July 19th, 1848 - carriages filled with women were present and anxious to get inside the Wesleyan Chapel. Though Stanton shared with her husband her desire to push for women’s access to the franchise, she had not yet brought it forward to her fellow attendees. And despite the charge of the meeting - to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women - no one was expecting voting to come up in the conversation. 


Stanton shared with her fellow attendees her thoughts on demanding the right to vote. Lucretia Mott - one of the most famous women in attendance - initially demurred. She was unsure of how the demand for the vote would go over and was concerned the push would make the whole convention seem ridiculous. But she was willing to listen and after some debate, the resolution was included which read quote, “that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” end quote. Remembering her husband’s derision, Stanton was understandably nervous about sharing her ideas about the franchise with the assembled group. To her delight, the women present listened with intent, taking her demands seriously. 


Another topic of discussion during the convention was whether or not it would be appropriate to have any men in attendance sign their declaration. This debate was quite robust, but ultimately the women voted in favor of allowing men to sign but held their final decision until they had a chance to take in the crowd expected to gather the following day. To end the first day Lucretia Mott took the stage and, according to attendee Eliab W Capron, Mott’s speech was quote, “one of the most eloquent, logical and philosophical discourses we ever listened to,” end quote. 


By the second day of the convention, the chapel was packed. Men and women from all over had traveled to listen to the women demand equal treatment. The idea that a community had gathered in such a manner was historic. As historian Judith Wellman wrote the convention was quote, “a revolution of women against patriarchal institutions: the law, the family, religion, work, education, and most startling of all, of politics,” end quote. 


After listing all the ways men had actively oppressed the rights of women - and making the point that under God’s law, all beings were equal, the women of the convention made the most controversial statement yet quote, “in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half of the people of this country, their social and religious degradation - in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States,” end quote. Mic. Drop. 


Despite the controversial stance and the list of demands for equal treatment, the convention was an overall success and counted over three hundred in attendance over the two days. Of those in attendance, 100 individuals signed the declaration - 68 women and 32 men. Women were allowed to sign the declaration itself - but men were only permitted to sign a separate document signaling their support of the declaration. Of those who signed, only a few became notable including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass. 


The last piece of business for the convention was to appoint a group of women responsible for preparing the notes of the meeting for publication. The women selected were Mary Ann M’Clintock, Eunice Newton Foote, Amy Post, Elizabeth M’Clintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As I’ve mentioned in prior episodes, the notes of the convention were routed to Frederick Douglass who had no qualms about including the transcript in his paper The North Star. 


The first meeting to discuss the rights of women would not be the last. The success of Seneca Falls led to several other conventions including another in Rochester, New York and even spawning an annual meeting in Massachusetts beginning in 1850. In her analysis of Seneca Falls, Judith Wellman asserts the convention - and the demands shared by the women in attendance served to quote, “set off an immediate and far-reaching public debate about the role of women in a democratic republic,” end quote. Stanton’s controversial demand for the right to vote in 1848 helped propel the issue into the national conversation and normalize the idea of voting rights for women. Her push was pivotal and influential that by the time women gathered in 1851 for the National Women’s Rights convention, the right to vote was considered basic. 


In the aftermath of the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued in her dogged pursuit of securing political rights for women - including her failed attempt at running for the house of representatives in 1866. The other big name of the convention, Lucretia Mott, continued her fight for the abolition of slavery. In 1850 she, along with her husband, protested the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and also aided escaped enslaved individuals. She became the first president of the Equal Rights Association in 1866 and joined Stanton in criticizing the 14th and 15th amendments for their exclusion of the female sex. While successful in their pursuits of the abolition of slavery, both women died long before the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. 


Aimed at addressing the political and social shortcomings women faced daily, and one put together without prior experience and with such short notice, Seneca Falls proved to be one of the strongest launching pads for women’s activism in the nineteenth century - prompting several women to demand equality under the law while influencing a new generation of female activists and proponents of change. 


Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.