One hundred sixty-nine years ago today, after a lengthy planning period totaling ten days, a group mostly consisting of Quakers (including the visiting Lucretia Mott and a number of Seneca County locals) held a convention to discuss the state of women’s political and social rights in the United States. They were largely inspired by a local non-Quaker Elizabeth Cady Stanton who was an important part of the organizing team and the lead-off speaker.
Though the organizers were mostly experienced activists, their activism to that point had largely been abolitionist. Nonetheless, Mott’s visit was the occasion for a series of energetic discussions during which Stanton is credited with sparking a conversation diverging from the intended topic, slavery, and digging deeply into frustrations common to those women activists present. That particular conversation on that particular day apparently woke an urgent need to discuss US society’s sexism more publicly, to give it the treatment slavery currently received and so to insert women’s freedoms into the agenda of public discussion with (hopefully) an equal priority.
As appropriate to the immediate needs – both of the local women’s general desire to let no more time waste as well as the more specific desire to hold a public convention while the inspiring thinker and speaker Mott was still in town – they announced the meeting on July 11th in the Seneca County Courier before an agenda was even established. The paper of Stanton’s friend Fredrick Douglass, the North Star, picked up the announcement three days later, but there was little time for any national support for the convention. The convention was so spontaneous that, according to Wikipedia (relying on a source I could not immediately confirm), the convention’s chosen location, Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, was locked when the attendees arrived. Daniel Eaton, the young son of attendee Harriet Cady Eaton and the nephew of Eaton’s sister Stanton, was helped up to a window so that he might clamber through and unbar the door of the church and allow the convention to begin. Despite the rapid and imperfect planning 300 or so attended, mostly adult women.
The meeting lasted two days, from July 19 to July 20. Stanton’s speaking included a reading of a proposed Declaration of Sentiments. Stanton had hastily drafted the document in less than 5 days, with most of the work performed in about 60 hours from July 16 to July 18 though she continued to craft the Sentiments even on the morning of July 19. The attendees subsequently went through the statement in a detailed manner, with changes that seemed to have consensus being incorporated in a new draft overnight, along with some suggestions of which Stanton personally approved. The final draft was presented to the convention on July 20th and signed by 100 of the persons attending, reports listing them as 68 women and 32 men.
It’s very likely that the short time frame affected Stanton’s choice to closely follow the Declaration of Independence for significant portions of the Declaration of Sentiments, but whether she was more forced by time or more inspired by rhetorical genius, the use of language from the DoI undoubtedly helped the Sentiments, and by extension the convention, to garner immediate press coverage.
The New York paper, the Oneida Whig reported:
They set aside the statute, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands;” they despise the conduct of the learned Portia … who was the lord of a fair mansion, master of her servants, queen over herself, committed … her house, her servants, and the same herself … to the care and keeping of her lord.
Her lord being not any god, but merely her husband. Although perhaps the Oneida Whig might dispute such a distinction.
In any case, the Oneida Whig’s coverage is perhaps best summed up not with a statement, but with their own question from that same coverage of the now-legendary Seneca Falls Convention:
Was there ever such a dreadful revolt?
No, Mssrs Whig. I’m sure that to your minds there never had been such a dreadful revolt. However, I do happily invite you to the 21st century in which I’m sure you can experience any number of meetings, conferences, and conventions just this summer whose calls for justice would make the rhetoric of Quakers, abolitionists, and the odd early women’s suffragist sound quite tame by comparison.