Jul 21 2012

Where, gentlemen, will be our dinners and our elbows?

My friend Mary Ellen pointed out an item about the Seneca Falls convention this morning.

The Seneca Falls Convention — the first convention for women’s rights — began on this date in 1848. The seed had been planted eight years earlier, and grew out of the abolitionist movement. Lucretia Mott and her husband were traveling to London to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Aboard the ship, they met a pair of newlyweds — Henry and Elizabeth Cady Stanton — who were also on their way to the conference for their honeymoon. Once in London, the six female delegates, including Mott and Stanton, found that they would not be seated and could only attend the conference behind a drapery partition, because women were “constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings.” Mott and Stanton were outraged, and together they agreed that they really should organize their own convention.

Huh. That sounds vaguely familiar…

Eight years later, on July 11, they ran an unsigned announcement in the Seneca County Courier that read: “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y. [...] During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend.” Just a few days before, Stanton took the Declaration of Independence as her model and drafted what she called a Declaration of Sentiments, calling for religious, economical, and political equality.

Reaction to the convention in the press and the pulpit was mostly negative. The Oneida Whig wrote: “This bolt is the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity. If our ladies will insist on voting and legislating, where, gentlemen, will be our dinners and our elbows? Where our domestic firesides and the holes in our stockings?”

The opposition is a little different now. Less about firesides and stockings, more about bitches and sexual harassment.

Philadelphia’s Public Ledger and Daily Transcript declared: “A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. The ladies of Philadelphia [...] are resolved to maintain their rights as Wives, Belles, Virgins and Mothers.”

And the Albany Mechanic’s Advocate claimed that equal rights would “demoralize and degrade [women] from their high sphere and noble destiny, [...] and prove a monstrous injury to all mankind.”

In response, Frederick Douglass wrote in The North Star: “A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and the good of our land, than would be a discussion of the rights of woman.”

Frederick Douglass rocks.


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  1. 1
    'Tis Himself

    Frederick Douglass rocks.

    He does. His Collected Works ($1.99 for Kindle) are well worth reading, particularly the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”.

  2. 2
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]


    (That’s all, just “yes”.)

  3. 3

    Matilda Joslyn Gage was unable to attend Seneca until its third year, when she addressed the convention. With Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Gage co-edited “The History of Women’s Suffrage.” Opposed to the Church for its role in the oppression of women, she had a falling out with her two suffragist sisters when Gage objected to an alliance with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and so lapsed into obscurity, except for her rather famous son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, whose book she encouraged him to publish: “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. She’s a really interesting character, yet nearly forgotten. When Baum was living in Chicago, she spent winters with her daughter and son-in-law in her last years, where they frequented the top spiritualist mediums of the day, experiences that led to the creation of Baum’s character of the humbug Wizard of Oz. Matilda Joslyn Gage page

  4. 4

    Collected Articles of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

    From Project Gutenberg no cost


  5. 5

    I get the dinners thing, but “where will be our… elbows?”? Huh?

  6. 6

    I think that’s got to be a slang definition that’s fallen out of use. An elbow can refer to anything that joints at a right angle, which is why we have elbow macaroni. Perhaps some common household item that’s no longer used today?

    A quick online search turns up nothing, though.

  7. 7

    It might be the thing where women hold the man’s elbow whilst walking? That doesn’t quite make enough sense for me though.

  8. 8

    Elbows? Seeing as there’s also mention of holes in stockings, it’s most likely a reference to the long-lost domestic art of darning. Or maybe sewing on leather patches to prevent damage. Remember, clothes made of all natural fibres are very susceptible to wearing into holes at various points of stress.

  9. 9

    Well, obviously the gentleman was right. You have no knowledge of etiquette without the kind reminder of genteel lady in attendance.
    The wages of feminism are revealed. Elbows off the dinner table, you over indulged, ruffians.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    I was assuming it was darning, but now that I look more closely that doesn’t seem to fit (since holes in stockings are spelled out). No dinner table to rest the elbows on? No bit of lace draped over the arms of the armchair to put our elbows on? I dunno – it’s enigmatic.

  11. 11

    The elbow reference is enigmatic. It also doesn’t lend itself well to research via search engine. I wonder if the usage might be related to a man walking with his wife holding his elbow. In certain social situation a proper male of a certain status would be expected to appear with his wife on his elbow, wife’s status as “arm candy” if you will.

  12. 12

    Matilda Joslyn Gage rocks. I had no idea she was related to Baum.

  13. 13
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    My wife works and I do all the cooking… and I have this weird patch of dry scaly skin on my left elbow. Maybe my household situation has caused some sort or elbow leprosy, and soon my elbows will fall off?

  14. 14
    Marie-Thérèse O'Loughlin

    Frederick Douglass also rocks in Ireland – where he spent four happy months. His name is synonymous with (Irish emancipator) Daniel O’Connell. The latter of whom passionately opposed slavery. Upon meeting an American, before shaking hands, he routinely asked whether the visitor was a slaveholder. If the answer was yes — no handshake. Despite the age discrepancy 27/72 there was such a great regard for each other. Both were very gifted oratorical speakers. O’Connell — still revered in Ireland today as “the Liberator” — soon took to calling Douglass “the Black O’Connell of the United States. O’Connell shaped Douglass’s world-view. When Barack Obama came to Ireland there was homage paid to FD and connections pertaining to DO’C.

  15. 15

    Eight years later, on July 11, they ran an unsigned announcement in the Seneca County Courier that read: “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, N.Y. [...] During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend.”

    It’s always nice to learn about heroic people.

    As for the elbow business, I’m not sure. I think a ‘gentleman’ of the time would offer his arm rather than his elbow and that was the terminology used, as far as I know. It’s not like women grabbed a man’s elbow, they put their arm through his.

    At his instigation only, of course. The man would offer his arm. I wonder if it was possible for women to decline.

  16. 16

    I wonder if it was possible for women to decline.

    By ‘possible’ I mean ‘acceptable’, of course. If a man offered his arm, could the woman reject it without being treated with the sort of labels we’re still seeing today?

    Or if we’re going with the alternative hypothesis, if a man offered his elbow, could the woman decline to darn his jacket?

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