One hundred seventy years ago this weekend (July 19-20, 1848), a group of 68 women and 32 men (or thereabouts*1) signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the climax of The Seneca Falls Convention. The document paralleled the Declaration of Independence in form, style, and tone. This wasn’t an accident: when Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her great work A Vindication of the Rights of Men, she herself was paralleling in language (such as the use of “sublime”) and in many of the arguments Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke. Though she made truly novel arguments as well, and many of them, one line of critique in AVRM was that Burke’s traditionalism and conservatism betray his own goals. In short, she thought he wrote of aspiring to ideals that the tactics and policies he advocated would make difficult or impossible to achieve.
The attendees of The Seneca Falls Convention felt much the same way about the founders of the United States of America. While they, like Wollstonecraft two generations before, were willing to part dramatically with the thinking of prominent patriarchal men, again like Wollstonecraft they sought to use the ideals and rhetoric of those patriarchs to gain something like a common understanding of what a nation and a society should be, then used their own arguments to show that current social and political policies undermined those goals.
They also paralleled the abolitionist activism of the time: largely because they were the abolitionist movement. TSFC came about because Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended London’s World Anti-Slavery Convention but were refused the ability to participate on the basis of gender.*2 The attendees of TSFC itself were largely Quakers and (almost?) entirely abolitionists. The natal feminist movement, then, was a subset of the anti-racist Abolitionist movement. As that mother movement made frequent rhetorical use of references to the Declaration of Independence, from today’s historical position we can another reason why something of the form of the Declaration of Sentiments was nearly inevitable.
Lucretia Mott was probably the best known organizer speaking globally, but Stanton was likely the best known and/or best respected in the Seneca County/Finger Lakes area. Stanton, as a non-Quaker, was also important in broadening the attendance beyond the local Quaker community which perhaps boosted the national importance of TSFC by ensuring it could not be dismissed as a sectarian activity relevant only to a minority religion. Together with their families – Mott’s sister Martha Coffin Wright was a stationmaster on the underground railroad and a respected activist in her own right, and Mott’s and Stanton’s husbands, both prominent abolitionists – the M’Clintock family and a woman named Jane Hunt, they were able to generate momentum for the conference quite quickly. It drew mainly locals, despite being advertised by Frederick Douglass in his national abolitionist paper, the North Star, and a few other outlets beyond the Finger Lakes area. But with Mott, Stanton, and Douglass in attendance, it did not lack for star power.
Many things that we would not now find controversial were debated seriously at the conference. In the crafting of the Declaration of Sentiments, Mott herself argued against including a women’s suffrage provision. Eventually, however, the arguments that this was to be an aspirational document and also that it would piss off the patriarchs with or without a suffrage provision convinced Mott and any other doubters. In the end, they produced this:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master—the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given; as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women—the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.
After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.
He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction, which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education—all colleges being closed against her.
He allows her in Church as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.
He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.
He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation,—in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf.We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.
Firmly relying upon the final triumph of the Right and the True, we do this day affix our signatures to this declaration.
I think it is useful, from time to time, to revisit this document to see exactly what we have and have not achieved over the last 170 years. If you have any thoughts on any of these provisions, I’d love to see them below. Over the rest of the summer, I plan to produce periodic posts contemplating one of these provisions at a time. Your comments might just help me decide which provisions need attention, and if I use any of your observations, I’ll certainly credit you.
*1: We can, of course, not access information about the gender identity of those involved, but we can say that 68 persons were assigned to the gender role woman and 32 to the gender role man.
*2: They knew going in that they would be initially excluded, but there was to be a resolution allowing women to fully participate. The resolution failed and Mott and Stanton were left having traveled across the Atlantic only to be turned away at the door – presumably because they already had too many people working to end slavery and had to turn away half.