Standing before a crowd packed into Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, thirty-two-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal.” The intent of her statement was clear – to give new meaning to Jefferson’s often quoted phrase from the Declaration of Independence. Using Jefferson’s document as a model, Stanton created and presented the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document that became the grand movement for attaining civil, social, political, and religious rights for women.
The Seneca Falls Convention was first planned and discussed in 1840, when a group of abolitionists from around the world gathered in London for the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Several female delegates from the United States sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to attend the convention. However, on the first day of the proceedings a number of male delegates argued that women should not be allowed to serve as delegates. One of the most opinionated on the topic, was the Reverend Henry Grew of Philadelphia, who said, “The reception of women as a part of this Convention would, in the view of many, be not only a violation of the customs of England, but of the ordinance of Almighty God, who has a right to appoint our services to His sovereign will.” Other male delegates, like William Lloyd Garrison, thought the women should be allowed to share their opinions on the matter. A furious debate developed between the men while the women, who were given no opportunity to speak, sat and listened. Unfortunately, the British Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, who was the organizing authority, voted to ban women from participation in the convention. Women could remain present, it stated, but must sit behind a gallery curtain, where they would neither be seen nor heard.
Female delegates from the United States, who were prepared to argue and speak at this public meeting, were frustrated by the decision. They were forced to keep their ideas private and could not speak their mind on the abolition of slavery. However, the antislavery convention did provide women with a valuable opportunity to share a common problem and discuss their aggravated views on women’s rights. It was there that Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton – who would become two of the most prominent women’s rights activists – met and vowed to hold their own convention back in the States to address the concerns of women.
This convention would not take place until eight years later, in July of 1848, after Mott, Stanton, and three other friends gathered in New York for a social visit. During afternoon tea, Stanton spoke passionately about her frustration with the restrictions on women’s freedoms. She proposed a convention to “discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women.” They publicized the event mainly by word of mouth, although they did place a few notices in the local newspapers. They knew it would be a relatively small convention, but as Mott told Stanton, “It will be a start.” Although women’s rights had been a topic of discussion since 1792, when British writer Mary Wollstonecraft published the feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, never before had a group of women held a public forum whose specific purpose was to demand women’s social and political rights.
Although the efforts taken to create the Seneca Falls Convention were elaborate and well planned, it was a very difficult thing for five women to do at the time. The women had to establish an agenda and compose a statement of purpose. They began to consider their goals, though as Stanton later recalled, “they felt as helpless and hopeless as if they had been suddenly asked to construct a steam engine.” She began creating an outline of injustices and accompanying resolutions for change. With his legal background, Henry Stanton helped his wife Elizabeth locate particular laws to ground their concerns in...
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