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The women's’ rights movement in the United States was launched 170 ago at the first American woman’s rights convention, a prominent two-day event at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention’s organizers were all Quakers, with the exception of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton had met another main organizer, Lucretia Mott, at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, where they were told that women were not allowed to speak or vote and had to sit in a roped-off gallery.
After this experience, Mott and Stanton decided it was time for a women’s rights convention to be held. Together with three other women who were also active in the abolitionist movement, they quickly organized the convention and advertised it on July 11, 1848 in the Seneca County Courier. On July 19, the first day of the convention -- which was open only to women -- Stanton made her first public speech:
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 disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws test against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute-books, deeming them as a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the nineteenth century.…
She also read the Declaration of Sentiments, whose language was closely modeled after the Declaration of Independence. It documented the injustices that women faced and was a call to action for women across the U.S.
The second day of the convention was open to men, and drew many leading activists including African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances was signed and adopted, along with 12 resolutions calling for specific equal rights for women. The most controversial resolution, and the only to not pass unanimously, concerned the enfranchisement of women. Mott argued against it, while Douglass spoke passionately in favor. After a lengthy debate, it passed narrowly.
The resolution caused the convention to be shrouded in ridicule, and some backers of the women’s rights movement withdrew support. However, the convention had an undeniable impact, and was followed two weeks later by a larger meeting in Rochester. In the subsequent years, national conventions were held annually. As Frederick Douglass said in his “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York in 1857, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
It is sobering to realize that the grievances listed in the Declaration and the issues addressed by the resolutions have yet to be solved, more than a century and a half later. Women are still far from parity in government, and women’s rights continue to be attacked at all levels of government. The Seneca Falls Convention was a major milestone in the lengthy battle for women’s rights.
One hundred seventy years ago, women activists ignited a national conversation and movement. It is up to us to commemorate their contributions and to continue the fight.