165th Anniversary of Seneca Falls Convention


Friday was the 165th anniversary of the opening of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the more or less official beginning of American feminism. It began with Elizabeth Cady Stanton reading a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. And though that declaration referred to a “creator,” Stanton herself was a freethinker. Stanton wrote an essay called Has Christianity Benefited Woman? in 1885, which said:

“All religions thus far have taught the headship and superiority of man, [and] the inferiority and subordination of woman. Whatever new dignity, honor, and self-respect the changing theologies may have brought to man, they have all alike brought to woman but another form of humiliation.”

Stanton was hardly alone. Many of the early feminists were freethinkers, including Ernestine Rose. I don’t believe Rose attended the Seneca Falls convention, but she did attend the National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1856, where she replied to a religious heckler:

“Do you tell me that the Bible is against our rights? Then I say that our claims do not rest upon a book written no one knows when, or by whom. Do you tell me what Paul or Peter says on the subject? Then again I reply that our claims do not rest on the opinions of any one, not even on those of Paul and Peter, . . . Books and opinions, no matter from whom they came, if they are in opposition to human rights, are nothing but dead letters.”

A year prior to that, Rose had traveled to Bangor, Maine to give a talk on the evils of slavery and a local Congregationalist minister, Rev. G.B. Little, had said of her, “We know of no object more deserving of contempt, loathing, and abhorrence than a female atheist. We hold the vilest strumpet from the stews to be by comparison respectable.”

Not all of the early feminists of the mid-1800s were freethinkers, of course, but nearly all of the freethinkers of that period were feminists, including Robert Ingersoll.

Comments

  1. wilsim says

    Love the quotes.

    And I learned that as a feminist, I have much more to learn about early modern feminism.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Maybe you’ve heard this joke:
    Why is Susan B. Anthony on some U.S. dollar coins?
    Because Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a freethinker.

  3. says

    @Reginald Selkirk #2 – And that is about the long and short of it. Most of those women were rabble-rousers and hell-raisers with strong freethought influences. They not only attacked the oppression of women, but also the social and religious roots of that oppression, which offended a great many people.

    Anthony was as well know for her abolitionist speeches as for her women’s rights speeches; she held fairly conservative, conventional religious views (for a Quaker) and generally worked within the religious expectations, finding Scriptural support for equality rather than attacking Scriptural support for oppression. That made her much more palatable, and that is why she gets the credit and fame rather than Stanton, Lucrecia Mott, Elizabeth M’Clintock or any of the other women who had worked on women’s rights for decades before Anthony appeared on the scene.

  4. Childermass says

    Maybe you’ve heard this joke:
    Why is Susan B. Anthony on some U.S. dollar coins?
    Because Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a freethinker.

    One could argue Anthony was a freethinker too assuming one is not making a freethinker into a synonym for atheist. She was born into a Quaker family and became a Unitarian which means she is in Hell in anything resembling Protestant Christianity is true. She drifted into agnosticism by the end of her life and was certainly not all that fond of most versions of organized religion though she was willing to work with religious people who supported the notion that women deserved the vote.

  5. says

    Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony were friends for 70 years. Lucretia Mott was a contemporary of them both.

    Ken Burns’ excellent documentary tells about their friendship on the backdrop of the abolitionist and women’s rights movements in the 19th century: http://www.pbs.org/stantonanthony/

    Neither of them lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment pass. But without the work of these two women, and that of countless others, women still wouldn’t have the right to vote. Stanton was considered the “voice” of the movement and Anthony was considered to be the “legs”. In the end of her life, Stanton became considered too radical for most in the Suffragist movement and that caused strain and a schism between the women.

    And, as in politics today, they found they had to focus on a single issue (the vote) to get anything done. Women’s rights, apart from suffrage, are still statutorily based and not constitutional, which is why we need the Equal Rights Amendment.

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