I just returned from a wonderful trip to the Finger Lake region in upstate New York. We enjoyed beautiful lake scenery, award-winning Rieslings, delicious freshly made cheeses and ice cream. But what came as a most revelatory finding was learning that the town of Seneca Falls, New York was the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement. I call myself a feminist, always rooting for women and their rights, always looking for equality for women. And yet I must admit, I knew so little about the history of the Women’s Movement. Sure, I knew about Susan B. Anthony: something about the Suffrage Movement and she’s on a dollar coin. And I knew about Gloria Steinem and the 1960’s and 70’s Women’s Movement. But I must admit I was unaware of so much more history that helped inspire Susan B. Anthony, and shape the role and the rights that I enjoy today as a woman in Western society.
So here’s a recap of what I learned in Seneca Fall.
1840: One Passion Feeds Another
A World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London and was attended by delegates from numerous countries. The meeting was supposed to be exclusively for “men”. Among the abolitionist delegates were seven women who despite the rules, decided to attend, creating quite the commotion and after much debate they were allowed to stay but in a separate room all together from the main convention. It was at this fateful meeting that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would meet and commiserate over the status of women in society and the lack of women’s rights. They discussed the possibility of holding a meeting to address women’s rights and issues.
1848: The stars align.
July 9th- Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived in Seneca Falls, New York. Lucretia Mott came to visit her sister Martha C. Wright who lived in Waterloo, a town near Seneca Falls. Stanton, Mott, Wright, together Mary Ann McClintock and Jane Hunt met for a social visit. I like to imagine that it was over tea and cake that these women decided it was time to hold a public forum, a convention, in which they would discuss the social, civil, and religious issues facing women and the rights of women. Although they realized that the convention would probably be a small event, Mott said to Stanton, “It will be a start”. And what a start it was.
July 19th – 20th
The convention was held at the Quaker Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls. Approximately 300 women and men attended the event. Stanton and Mott wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, the document that was presented, debated, modified, approved, and signed by the attendees of the convention. The document drew inspiration from the preamble of the Declaration of Independence and presented grievances and resolutions regarding women’s rights. Among the male attendees was Frederick Douglass who was a strong advocate of abolition and women’s rights. He was instrumental in encouraging the attendees to add the resolution around the issue of suffrage. In the end, 68 women and 32 men signed this Declaration of Sentiments presenting 12 resolutions calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.
1851: Further Introductions and Friendships
Amelia Bloomer edited the first newspaper for women, The Lily. The Lily was published from 1849 -1853. It was Bloomer who introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is believed that this introduction together with attending the 1852 Syracuse Convention and listening to Lucy Stone’s speech were the events that inspired Anthony to join the women’s rights movement. And we know what she went on to do.
Trivia about Lucy Stone
Lucy Stone was the first woman in her state of Massachusetts to earn a college degree. When she married her husband, Henry Blackwell, in 1855 she opted to keep her own last name, something unheard of at the time. She and her husband recognized that the marriage laws treated women unfairly when compared to men. They wrote a statement to deliver at their wedding which said that the laws “refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess”. Women of the time who chose not to change their names when marrying referred to themselves as “Lucy Stoners”.
Although most of the history I learned about in Seneca Falls takes place beginning in 1840, I would add that prior to 1840 there had been many feminist and activist women who had already been discussing women’s rights in the US and abroad. The key events of 1848 would serve only as a catalyst. It would take until 1920 for the 19th amendment of the U. S. Constitution to be passed granting voting rights to women. The renewed women’s rights movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s would bring to light the continued inequality and discrimination towards women. We have accomplished a lot in 166 years, but I know there is still much more to do. We must continue to stay diligent and proactive so that future generations of women can enjoy equal rights around the world.
A Note About Bloomers
Note in the picture above of the statue that Amelia Bloomer is wearing the “bloomer costume”, the Turkish pantaloons and knee-length skirt. Although it was Elizabeth Smith Miller who introduced this outfit, it was named after Amelia Bloomer because she wrote about dress reform and this particular outfit extensively in her women’s paper, The Lily. Although a popular choice of outfit for the modern women of the times, it was eventually abandoned after a lot of negative press. I suppose we can call it the predecessor to current day women’s pantsuits.
For further reading:
For the Full Declaration of Sentiments
Women’s Rights Movement