The Monumental Moment in Feminism Most Women Don’t Know About
170 Years Ago Today, 300 Women Did Something Radical
I confess — I did not know about the Seneca Falls Convention that took place on July 19 and 20, 1848. If I’d studied it in my New York City high school, I must have forgotten. But, I really think I would have remembered the story. After all, I was raised by a “women’s libber” and the school was all-girls. We probably spent a week or even month studying this major event in women’s history and the consequences that resulted from it. Maybe my memory is failing me. I emailed eight of my of my high school classmates, many of whom had a much greater interest in history than I did (I was a science person), all of whom had gone off to the Ivies — that is to say, these are smart women. But they, too, couldn’t recall ever studying the first convention for women’s rights. Yet, Seneca Falls was the meeting. Those were the days and the time and place in history that became the catalyst for the American women’s suffrage movement. This convention launched the careers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the organizer of the event, and Susan B. Anthony, whose name became synonymous with helping women in the U.S. obtain the right to vote. Yet, it doesn’t seem to have found an important place in our history textbooks, even at an all-girls school, even in the 1980s. Nor do we, as Americans, as women, celebrate this day or even recognize this day in a noticeable way.
The Seneca Falls Convention was the moment in time when our foremothers first banded together as a team, with the power and strength of hundreds of voices, to demand women’s rights. Historian Ellen Carol DuBois says, “For many years before 1848, American women had manifested considerable discontent with their lot… Yet women’s discontent remained unexamined, implicit, and above all, disorganized… The women’s rights movement crystalized these sentiments into a feminist politics… [and] began a new phase of in the history of feminism.”
Originally called the Woman’s Rights Convention, it was held in Seneca Falls, a town located between Rochester and Syracuse in upstate New York, and 300 women attended to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women. Cady Stanton’s address began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
The meeting concluded with the drawing up of 19 “abuses and usurpations,” a list pointing out and opposing male-centric laws intended to destroy a woman’s “confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
According to Constance B. Rynder, professor of history at the University of Tampa, “Press coverage was surprisingly broad and generally venomous, particularly on the subject of female suffrage. Philadelphia’s Public Ledger and Daily Transcript wrote [that] no lady would want to vote. ‘A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. The ladies of Philadelphia, . . . are resolved to maintain their rights as Wives, Belles, Virgins and Mothers.’” Rynder notes that the New York Tribune, and its liberal editor Horace Greeley, was the only major paper to treat the event seriously. “Greeley found the demand for equal political rights improper, yet ‘however unwise and mistaken the demand, it is but the assertion of a natural right and as such must be conceded.’”
From this first, organized event, it took women seven decades to ensure our right to vote. The 19th Amendment was passed on August 26, 1920. In two years, we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of female suffrage. This year, women in Britain celebrated their anniversary, winning their voting rights on June 10, 1918.
More than 100 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, in the 1960s, we’d had the right to vote for nearly a half-century, but our rights were still being compromised: pregnancy was a fireable offense, a woman couldn’t open a bank account without having her husband as the co-signer, and even when President John F. Kennedy announced the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, he said, “We want to be sure that women are used as effectively as they can to provide a better life for our people, in addition to meeting their primary responsibility, which is in the home.”
Where are we 170 years later, in 2018? A lot better, of course, but definitely not equal. Our forefathers and foremothers settled the first colony in 1607 — Jamestown, Virginia. We declared our independence from the British in 1776. That took 169 years. Serendipitous math, don’t you think?
One hundred and seventy years after Seneca Falls, we are still fighting for the right to control our own bodies and the right to equality in the workplace. There’s still no amendment to the Constitution that explicitly guarantees women equal rights.
And here’s another fact that we must remember, where we can show our strength and make a difference: We can vote — thanks to the women who came before us, those 300 women who took a risk and gathered at the Seneca Convention facing decades of ridicule and contempt from both men and women; and the women who took up the women’s rights movement after them, until their cause became our right 70 years later: We. Can. Vote!
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