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Seneca Falls Convention.                 more selected entries

The first women's rights convention in the United States (originally known as the Woman's Rights Convention) was held at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls (Seneca Co) on 19-20 July 1848. This formal public meeting on behalf of women's social and political equality was sparked by the politicization of women in the abolition movement, long-standing discussions of equality among New York State reformers, and an emerging determination among the first women's rights activists to redress gender inequality.

The state's reformers had considered issues of equality for about 20 years before the Seneca Falls Convention. A belief in absolute human equality prompted abolitionists to oppose slavery. Women abolitionists' egalitarianism, experience with gender discrimination, and emerging awareness of their own enslavement led them to question the condition of women. Legal reformers' challenges to state laws prohibiting married women from owning property also sparked discussions of equal rights. By 1848 questions of egalitarianism had become a divisive issue within some New York State political and religious communities, as seen in the departure of Free Soil Democrats from the larger Democratic Party and of egalitarian Hicksite Quakers, many of whom lived in Rochester and Waterloo (Seneca Co), from the main body of their denomination. Nearby Seneca Falls was a community riven by these fault lines.

Seneca Falls was also the home of emerging women's rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Introduced to abolitionists' ideas of gender equality through her friendship with Quaker orator Lucretia Mott, Stanton had done some work for women's property rights reform in the early 1840s. By 1848, as her husband Henry B. Stanton stumped the state for the Free Soil Party, Stanton grew increasingly frustrated with staying at home raising small children. News of Mott's visit to dissident Quakers in Waterloo incited her to act. In early July Stanton persuaded Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock to help her call the convention and to draft its Declaration of Sentiments, a manifesto appropriating the language of the Declaration of Independence to describe women's oppressed condition. Challenging current definitions of citizenship and the purported democracy arising from the American Revolution, the Declaration of Sentiments asserted women's equality based on their natural and constitutional rights and identified political rights as the remedy for inequality.

On the first day of the convention nearly 300 participants heard speeches, the Declaration of Sentiments, and 11 resolutions proclaiming the natural equality of all people and declaring illegitimate all laws and social customs that subordinated women. On the second day the participants discussed the Declaration of Sentiments before it was signed by 68 women and 32 men, most of whom lived locally and had connections to either the legal reform community, dissident Quakers, or the Free Soil movement. Next the convention discussed the resolutions, which passed unanimously except for the radical ninth resolution proposing women's enfranchisement. After speeches in its defense by both Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the suffrage resolution was narrowly adopted. The convention concluded with calls for further action. It reconvened some two weeks later on 2 Aug 1848 at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester and its principles were reconfirmed before a larger audience. Subsequent meetings over the next few years culminated in a movement that eventually transformed women's legal, social, and political status.

Isenberg, Nancy. Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America (Chapel Hill: Univ of North Carolina Press, 1998)

Proceedings of the Woman's Rights Conventions held at Seneca Falls and Rochester, N.Y., July and August, 1848 (1870; repr New York: Arno and New York Times, 1969)

Wellman, Judith. "The Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention: A Study of Social Networks," Journal of Women's History 3 (Spring 1991): 9-37

Laura E. Free


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