A History of the Seneca Falls 1848 Women's Rights Convention

Seneca Falls Report - from The Recorder, August 3, 1848 - Syracuse
From The Recorder, August 3, 1848 (Syracuse).

Library of Congress

The roots of the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, the first women's rights convention in history, go back to 1840, when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were attending the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in London as delegates, as were their husbands. The credentials committee ruled that women were "constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings." After a vigorous debate on the role of women at the convention, the women were relegated to a segregated women's section which was separated from the main floor by a curtain; the men were permitted to speak, the women were not. Elizabeth Cady Stanton later credited conversations held with Lucretia Mott in that segregated women's section for the idea of holding a mass meeting to address the rights of women. William Lloyd Garrison arrived after the debate about women speaking; in protest of the decision, he spent the convention in the women's section.

Lucretia Mott came from a Quaker tradition in which women were able to speak in church; Elizabeth Cady Stanton had already asserted her sense of women's equality by refusing to have the word "obey" included in her marriage ceremony. Both were committed to the cause of abolishing slavery; their experience in working for freedom in one arena seemed to solidify their sense that full human rights must be extended to women, too.

Becoming a Reality

But it was not until an 1848 visit of Lucretia Mott with her sister, Martha Coffin Wright, during an annual Quaker convention, that the idea of a women's rights convention turned into plans, and Seneca Falls became a reality. The sisters met during that visit with three other women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Ann M'Clintock, and Jane C. Hunt, at the home of Jane Hunt. All were also interested in the anti-enslavement issue, and slavery had just been abolished in Martinique and the Dutch West Indies. The women obtained a place to meet in the town of Seneca Falls and on July 14 put a notice in the paper about the upcoming meeting, publicizing it mainly in the upstate New York area:

"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, N.Y., 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 others, ladies and gentlemen will address the convention."

Preparing the Document

The five women worked to prepare an agenda and a document to be considered for passage at the Seneca Falls convention. James Mott, Lucretia Mott's husband, would chair the meeting, as many would consider such a role for women to be unacceptable. Elizabeth Cady Stanton led the writing of a declaration, modeled after the Declaration of Independence. The organizers also prepared specific resolutions. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocated for including the right to vote among the proposed actions, the men threatened to boycott the event, and Stanton's husband left town. The resolution on voting rights stayed in, though the women other than Elizabeth Cady Stanton were skeptical of its passage.

First Day, July 19

On the first day of the Seneca Falls convention, with over 300 people in attendance, the participants discussed women's rights. Forty of the participants at Seneca Falls were men, and the women quickly made the decision to allow them to participate fully, asking them only to be silent on the first day which had been meant to be "exclusively" for women.

The morning didn't begin auspiciously: when those who had organized the Seneca Falls event arrived at the meeting place, Wesleyan Chapel, they found that the door was locked, and none of them had a key. A nephew of Elizabeth Cady Stanton climbed in a window and opened the door. James Mott, who was supposed to chair the meeting (it still being considered too outrageous for a woman to do so), was too ill to attend.

The first day of the Seneca Falls convention continued with a discussion of the prepared Declaration of Sentiments. Amendments were proposed and some were adopted. In the afternoon, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke, then more changes were made to the Declaration. The eleven resolutions -- including the one that Stanton had added late, proposing that women get the vote -- were debated. Decisions were put off until Day 2 so that men, too, could vote. In the evening session, open to the public, Lucretia Mott spoke.

Second Day, July 20

On the second day of the Seneca Falls convention, James Mott, Lucretia Mott's husband, presided. Ten of the eleven resolutions passed quickly. The resolution on voting, however, saw more opposition and resistance. Elizabeth Cady Stanton continued to defend that resolution, but its passage was in doubt until an ardent speech by formerly enslaved man and newspaper owner, Frederick Douglass, on its behalf. The closing of the second day included readings of Blackstone's Commentaries on the status of women and speeches by several including Frederick Douglass. A resolution offered by Lucretia Mott passed unanimously:

"The speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for securing to women of equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce."

The debate about men's signatures on the document was resolved by permitting men to sign, but below the women's signatures. Of about 300 people present, 100 signed the document. Amelia Bloomer was among those who did not; she had arrived late and had spent the day in the gallery because there were no seats left on the floor. Of the signatures, 68 were of women and 32 were of men.

Reactions to the Convention

The story of Seneca Falls wasn't over, however. Newspapers reacted with articles mocking the Seneca Falls convention, some printing the Declaration of Sentiments in its entirety because they thought it was ridiculous on its face. Even more liberal papers like that of Horace Greeley judged the demand to vote to be going too far. Some signers asked to have their names removed.

Two weeks after the Seneca Falls convention, a few of the participants met again, in Rochester, New York. They resolved to continue the effort, and organize more conventions (though in the future, with women chairing the meetings). Lucy Stone was key in organizing a convention in 1850 in Rochester: the first to be publicized and conceptualized as a national women's rights convention.

Two early sources for the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention are the contemporary account in Frederick Douglass' Rochester newspaper, The North Star, and Matilda Joslyn Gage's account, first published in 1879 as National Citizen and Ballot Box, later becoming part of A History of Woman Suffrage, edited by Gage, Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony (who was not at Seneca Falls; she did not become involved in women's rights until 1851).

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A History of the Seneca Falls 1848 Women's Rights Convention." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/seneca-falls-womens-rights-convention-3530488. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, February 16). A History of the Seneca Falls 1848 Women's Rights Convention. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/seneca-falls-womens-rights-convention-3530488 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A History of the Seneca Falls 1848 Women's Rights Convention." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/seneca-falls-womens-rights-convention-3530488 (accessed April 1, 2023).

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