In July 1998, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke in Seneca Falls, New York, as the head of the White House Millennium Council, an initiative to use the upcoming turn of the twenty-first century as a bridge between the nation’s past and its future. It was the 150th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Seneca Falls Convention, and Clinton asked her audience to “imagine if you will that you are Charlotte Woodward, a nineteen-year-old glove maker…. Every day you sit for hours sewing glove together, working for small wages you cannot even keep, with no hope of going on in school or owning property, knowing that if you marry, your children and even the clothes on your body will belong to your husband.” Of the 300 people who attended the Seneca Falls Convention, Charlotte Woodward was the only signatory of the meeting’s Declaration of Sentiments who would live long enough to see women get the right to vote more than seventy years later.
On July 14, 1848, organizers announced in the Seneca Falls Courier that in five days they would gather a “Women’s Rights Convention: a convention to discuss the social, civic and religious condition and rights of Woman.” The first day of the two-day event would be open only to women. The second day would be open to the “general public,” meaning men, and Philadelphian Lucretia Mott would address the delegates.
The convention was conceived by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an abolitionist and free-thinker, who despite being a devoted wife and mother of seven children, was an early advocate of women’s rights, including the right to divorce, to own property, to earn money, and to vote and hold public office— all of which were completely off the table for women in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1840, she had married well-known abolitionist Henry Stanton and spent her honeymoon in London, England, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention. There, she met Lucretia Mott, and both the impassioned speeches and the fact that women were separated from the men in the audience at that convention inspired the women to start championing the cause of women’s rights when they got back to the United States.
When it convened on July 19, their Women’s Rights Convention had many of the elements of the anti-slavery conventions they had attended, including lectures and discussions and even a humorous play. But the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls became part of our national history because that was where Cady Stanton nervously read the Declaration of Sentiments in front of a crowd for the very first time. Drafted by Cady Stanton just a few days earlier, the beginning of the document’s preamble was immediately recognizable: “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” Cady Stanton’s version, however, included a small but significant edit, “… 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.”
When news got out about such an alteration of the Declaration of Independence, there were those who thought it blasphemous. The lasting legacy of the Seneca Falls document, though, lay in the list of “sentiments” that followed the preamble, a series of grievances describing the natural rights denied to antebellum American women. Some of these had been agreed upon by Lucretia Mott and other women who had sat around the table drinking tea and providing feedback while the document was drafted. Men had taken away women’s right to own property and keep her earned wages, to receive a college education, and to divorce. Men had “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.”
But Cady Stanton had gone a bit rogue, adding that men had never “permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise,” had “compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice,” and had left “her without representation in the halls of legislation.” Ultimately, Cady Stanton concluded, men had “oppressed” women “on all sides.” Cady Stanton had gone beyond the “social, civic and religious” rights of women and ventured into politics, demanding women’s suffrage at a time when many abolitionists were not even advocating the same right for emancipated black men. The suffrage issue was the only point of contention when convention delegates discussed the Declaration of Sentiments. Henry Stanton thought the demand ludicrous, and Lucretia Mott wanted mention of the elective franchise removed from the document, but the eloquent endorsement Frederick Douglass, the only African American in the room, kept the clause in. Women’s suffrage was resolved that day and the document was signed.
We can trace modern feminism, and even Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, back to that meeting in rural New York State, but the immediate momentum of the Seneca Falls Convention was somewhat short-lived. The Civil War distracted the movement for women’s rights, and when the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men the right to vote in 1870, suffragists were divided about whether or not to support it. Cady Stanton, for her part, was outraged, believing that the opportunity to extend voting rights to all Americans regardless of sex had been wasted.
Cady Stanton continued to work for women’s suffrage tirelessly until her death in 1902. But it would take a new wave of suffragists to achieve that goal. Led by women such as Alice Paul, these activists implemented radical tactics learned from British colleagues and forced what would become the Nineteenth Amendment to be taken seriously. In August 1920, the United States Constitution was finally amended to say that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
Seneca Falls became synonymous with the women’s rights movement mostly because women’s groups continued to commemorate and celebrate what had happened there in July 1848. Suffragists around the world celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1888, and in 1908 reformers made a pilgrimage to Seneca Falls for the sixtieth anniversary. For the centennial in 1948, the U.S. Postal Service issued a special three-cent stamp and the governor of New York declared July 19th to be “Equal Rights Day.” In 1980, the Seneca Falls Wesleyan Chapel, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home, became part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. All of it was precursor to Hillary Clinton’s 1998 address, in which she encouraged her audience to remember what women’s suffrage had come to mean. “Every time we elect a woman to office,” Clinton said, “let us thank ground breaking leaders like Jeannette Rankin and Margaret Chase Smith, Hattie Caraway, Louise Slaughter, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, all of whom proved that a woman’s place is truly in the House, and in the Senate, and one day, in the White House, as well.”