1848: Context of the First Woman's Rights Convention

What was the environment in which the first women's rights convention was held?

number 1848 on corkboard
Jone Johnson Lewis

That the first woman's rights convention in America was held in 1848 was not an accident nor a surprise. The mood in Europe and in America had been increasingly for liberalization of laws, for more inclusion of who had a voice in government, and for more civil freedoms and rights. I've listed below some of what was going on in the world—not just in women's rights, but in human rights in general—that shows some of the agitation and reform-mindedness of the time.

Expanding Opportunities for Women

Although the sentiment had not been widely shared at the time of the American Revolution, Abigail Adams had made the case for women's equality in letters to her husband, John Adams, including her famous "Remember the Ladies" warning: "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

After the American Revolution, the ideology of Republican Motherhood meant that women were to be responsible for raising an educated citizenry in the new self-ruling republic. This led to increased demands for education for women: how could they educate sons without themselves being educated? how could they educated the next generation of mothers without themselves being educated? Republican Motherhood evolved into the ideology of separate spheres, with women ruling the domestic sphere or private sphere, and men ruling the public sphere. But to rule the domestic sphere, women would need to be educated to properly raise their children and to be the moral guardians of society.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened in 1837, including science and mathematics in the curriculum requirements. The Georgia Female College was chartered in 1836 and opened in 1839, a Methodist school that went beyond "women's role" education to include science and mathematics, also. (This school was renamed the Wesleyan Female College in 1843, and much later became coeducational and was renamed Wesleyan College.)

In 1847, Lucy Stone became the first Massachusetts woman to earn a college degree. Elizabeth Blackwell was studying at Geneva Medical College in 1848, the first woman admitted to medical school. She graduated in January, 1849, first in her class.

After her 1847 graduation, Lucy Stone gave a speech in Massachusetts on women's rights:

"I expect to plead not for the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere. Especially do I mean to labor for the elevation of my sex." (1847)

Then in 1848 Stone took up a career organizing and speaking for the anti-slavery movement.

Speaking Out Against Slavery

Some women worked for more presence for women in the public sphere. Better education for women both fueled that interest and laid the groundwork for making it possible. Often this was justified, within the domestic sphere ideology, by asserting that women needed more education and more public voice to bring their moral role into the world. And often the expansion of women's power and roles were justified on more Enlightenment principles: natural human rights, "no taxation without representation," and other political ideology that had become more familiar.

Many of the women and men who joined the evolving women's rights movement in the middle of the 19th century were also involved in the anti-slavery movement; many of those were Quakers or Unitarians. Also, the area around Seneca Falls was heavily anti-slavery in sentiment. The Free Soil Party -- anti-slavery -- held meetings in 1848 in upstate New York, and those who attended had much overlap with those who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention.

Women within the anti-slavery movement had been asserting their rights to write speak on the topic. Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké and Lydia Maria Child began writing and speaking for the general public, often met with violence if they addressed audiences that also included men. Even within the international anti-slavery movement, the inclusion of women was controversial; it was at an 1840 meeting of the World's Anti-Slavery Convention that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton first decided to hold a women's rights convention, though they were not to implement it for eight years.

Religious Roots

Religious roots of the women's rights movement included the Quakers, who taught an inherent equality of souls, and had more room for women as leaders than most other religious groups of the time did. Another root were the liberal religious movements of Unitarianism and Universalism, also teaching equality of souls. Unitarianism gave rise to Transcendentalism, an even more radical affirmation of the full potential of every soul -- every human being. Many of the early women's rights advocates were connected with the Quakers, Unitarians, or Universalists.

Margaret Fuller had hosted "conversations" with women around Boston -- mostly from Unitarian and Transcendentalist circles -- which were intended to substitute for the higher education the women had not been able to attend. She advocated for women's right to be educated for and employed in whatever occupation she wanted. She published Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845, expanded from an 1843 essay in the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial. In 1848 was in Italy with her husband, the Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, and gave birth that year to her son. Fuller and her husband (there's some controversy over whether they were actually married) took part the next year in the revolution in Italy (see world revolutions, below), and died in a ship accident just off the coast of America in 1850, fleeing after the failure of the revolution.

The Mexican-American War

After Texas had fought for independence from Mexico in 1836, and was annexed by the United States in 1845, Mexico still claimed it as their territory. The U.S. and Mexico fought over Texas, beginning in 1845. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 not only ended that war, but ceded large amounts of territory to the United States (California, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and parts of Wyoming and Colorado).

Opposition to the Mexican-American War was fairly widespread, especially in the North. The Whigs had largely opposed the Mexican War, rejecting the doctrine of Manifest Destiny (territorial expansion to the Pacific). Quakers also opposed the war, on general principles of nonviolence.

The anti-slavery movement also opposed the war, fearing that the expansion was an attempt to expand slavery. Mexico had banned slavery and Southern Democrats in Congress refused to support a proposal to ban slavery in the new territories. Henry David Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" was written about his arrest for failing to pay taxes because they would support the war. (It was also Henry David Thoreau who, in 1850, traveled to New York to search for Fuller's body and the manuscript of the book she'd written about the Italian revolution.)

World: Revolutions of 1848

Across Europe, and even in the New World, revolutions and other agitations for more civil freedoms and political inclusion broke out, mostly in 1848. These movements, in that period sometimes called the Spring of Nations, generally were characterized by:

  • the alliance of elements of the middle class, farmers, intellectuals, and/or the working class
  • liberal and reformist demands -- "bourgeois" -- rather than socialist and radical economic demands
  • ending of autocratic control
  • universal male suffrage
  • liberal freedoms like freedom of the press, freedom of religion
  • some anti-Catholicism, as the Pope and the Catholic church were blamed for the failure of some reforms and revolutions
  • national or ethnic group autonomy, unity

In Britain, the repeal of the Corn Laws (protective tariff laws) perhaps avoided a more assertive revolution. The Chartists, made a mostly peaceful attempt to persuade Parliament to reform via petitions and protests.

In France, the "February Revolution" fought for self-rule rather than royal rule, although Louis-Napoleon established an empire out of the revolution only four years later.

In Germany, the "March Revolution" fought for unity of German states, but also for civil freedoms and the end of autocratic rule. When the revolution was defeated, many of the liberals emigrated, resulting in greatly increased German immigration to the United States. Some of the women immigrants joined the women's rights movement, including Mathilde Anneke.

The Greater Poland Uprising rebelled against the Prussians in 1848.

In the Austrian empire ruled by the Habsburg family, a series of revolutions fought for national autonomy of groups within the empire as well as for civil freedoms. These were largely defeated, and many of the revolutionaries emigrated.

Hungary's revolution against the Austrian empire, for instance, fought for autonomy and a constitution, originally, and evolved into a war of independence -- the Russian Tsar's army helped defeat the revolution and institute rigid martial law over Hungary. The Austrian empire also saw nationalist uprisings in the Western Ukraine.

In Ireland, the Great Famine (Irish Potato Famine) began in 1845 and lasted until 1852, resulting in the death of a million people and a million immigrants, many to America, and fueling the Young Irelander Rebellion in 1848. Irish republicanism began to gather strength.

1848 also marked the beginning of the Praieira revolt in Brazil, demands for a constitution and the end of autocracy in Denmark, a revolt in Moldavia, a revolution against slavery and for freedom of the press and religion in New Grenada (today Colombia and Panama), a nationalist uprising in Romania (Wallachia), a war of independence in Sicily, and a new constitution in Switzerland in 1848 after a brief 1847 civil war. In 1849, Margaret Fuller was in the midst of the Italian revolution that was intended to replace the Papal states with a republic, another part of the Spring of Nations.