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Seneca Falls Convention

From Academic Kids

The Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19 - July 20, 1848, was the first women's rights convention held in the United States, and as a result is often called the birthplace of the feminist movement.

Different groups at different times have turned to founding documents of the United States to meet their needs and to declare their entitlement to the promises of the Revolution of 1776. At Seneca Falls, New York in the summer of 1848, a group of American men and women met to discuss the legal limitations imposed on women during this period. Their consciousness of those limitations had been raised by their participation in the anti-slavery movement; eventually they used the language and structure of the Declaration of Independence to stake their claim to the rights they felt women were entitled to as American citizens in the Declaration of Sentiments.

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Background

America in the 1840s was in the throes of cultural and economic change. In the years since the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, the nation's geographic boundaries and population had more than doubled, the population had shifted significantly westward, and many Americans' daily lives had drifted away from Jefferson's vision of a nation composed of independent farmers. Instead, farmers, artisans, and manufacturers existed in a world built around cash crops, manufactured goods, banks, and distant markets. Historians generally refer to this shift from production for a local economy based on a series of shared relationships to production for a distant, unknown market as the Market Revolution. Not all Americans welcomed these changes, which often left them feeling isolated and cut off from traditional sources of community and comfort.

In an effort to regain a sense of community and control over their nation's future, Americans, especially women, formed and joined reform societies. Inspired by the message of the Second Great Awakening (a religious movement that emphasized man's potential and forgiveness of sin) and the Transcendentalist message of man's innate goodness, reformers joined together in organizations aimed at improving life in America. These groups attacked what they perceived as the various wrongs in their society, including the lack of free public school education for both boys and girls, the inhumane treatment of mentally ill patients and criminals, the evil of slavery, the widespread use of alcohol, and the "rights and wrongs" of American women's legal position. The Seneca Falls Convention is a part of this larger period of social reform movements, a time when concern about the rights of various groups percolated to the surface.

What brought three hundred men and women to this small upstate New York town in July 1848? Women of the Revolutionary era such as Abigail Adams and Judith Sargent Murray raised questions about what the Declaration of Independence would mean to them, but there had never been a large scale public meeting to discuss this topic until Seneca Falls. Many women participated in reform organizations whose goals were to improve the lives of others and to fight for the rights of those who could not speak for themselves, such as schoolchildren and the mentally ill, so the air was ripe for a close examination of women's rights as well. A consciousness-raising experience, however, was necessary to turn these women's thoughts to their own condition.

The triggering incident was a direct result of participation in anti-slavery organizations by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Anti-slavery societies proliferated in the Northeast region of the United States and in some parts of what today we call the Midwest. Many of these organizations had female members. In 1840 the World Anti-Slavery Convention met in London; some of the American groups elected women as their representatives to this meeting. Once in London, after a lengthy debate, the female representatives were denied their rightful seats and consigned to the balcony. It was at this meeting, while sitting in the balcony and walking through the streets of London, that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met. Eight years later Stanton and Mott called a convention to discuss women's rights.

The Call for Women's Rights 1848

On July 14, 1848, the Seneca County Courier announced that on the following Wednesday and Thursday a "convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women" would be held. The Convention issued a document titled the Declaration of Sentiments, a statement written by Stanton and modeled on the Declaration of Independence.

In adapting the Declaration of Independence, Stanton replaced "King George" with "all men" as the agent of women's oppressed condition and compiled a suitable list of grievances, just as the colonists did in the Declaration of Independence. These grievances reflected the severe limitations on women's legal rights in America at this time: women could not vote; they could not participate in the creation of laws that they had to obey; their property was taxed; and a married woman's property and wages legally belonged to her husband. Further, in the relatively unusual case of a divorce, custody of children was virtually automatically awarded to the father; access to the professions and higher education generally was closed to women; and most churches barred women from participating publicly in the ministry or other positions of authority.

Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed that "all men and women were created equal" and that the undersigned would employ all methods at their disposal to right these wrongs. David Walker, in his efforts to gain recognition of the legal rights of Black Americans, similarly used the Declaration of Independence in his call to the American people on behalf of th oppressed Black population, both freed and enslaved. In the 1840s and even today, the language of Thomas Jefferson resonates through American life. Americans from every background believe that the ideals of the Revolution are alive and well, and applicable to life in the present, just as the women of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention felt those ideals spoke to them.


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