On this day in 1848, the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention, was held in New York, focusing on “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights” of women.
Organised principally by female quakers, they approached prominent female orators like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to lead proceedings. Mott, like many others, had felt empowered to action in 1840 following the World Anti-Slavery Convention’s decision to exclude women from proceedings. During the Convention, six sessions occurred including a focus on law and rights but also more humorous, entertaining aspects.
Following this, two preprepared documents were unveiled, the first being the Declaration of Sentiments and the second being a list of resolutions to be debated and voted upon. One of these resolutions included female suffrage, an incredibly progressive concept for the era and one which even many women opposed.
The Declaration of Sentiments was modelled off of the Declaration of Independence which had sealed the sovereignty of the 13 colonies in 1776 and is considered to have been one of the most important documents for female enfranchisement. The parallels were obvious, as the Declaration of Independence had claimed that the unaccountable tyranny of the unelected could not have jurisdiction, women felt that their lack of representation and voice represented a similarly intolerable injustice. As such, the Declaration highlighted the grievances of women in the hopes that their united voice would lead to change. Furthermore, societal progressivism seemed to indicate that they would have success, with Britain fully abolishing slavery in 1843* and the US abolitionist movement seemingly strong.
*technically, The Slave Trade Act of 1807 had ended the slave trade and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 had ended ‘slavery’ entirely, but there were exceptions for the East India Company until 1843.
Of the 300 present, 100 signed the document; 68 women and 32 men. However, it was not until 1919 that the 19th Amendment was ratified and women in the US gained the vote nationally.
Furthermore, the American Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865 and the subsequent Reconstruction Era diminished the focus given to women’s issues, despite the fact in countries like the UK, women’s movements were gaining traction. For example, the introduction of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s had prompted the formation of powerful groups devoted to defending women from the Acts repressive conditions. Ultimately, the UK would go on to see the largest and best organised female suffrage organisations and women would be fully enfranchised by 1928**.
**again, technically women gained the vote with the 1918 Representation of the People Act, but this was conditional for women over 30 with property, unlike for men who simply had to be 18 so was far from equal.
However, although it would take 70 years before American women were properly enfranchised and the Civil War prevented the annual conventions occurring beyond 1861, the Declaration of Sentiments and Seneca Falls Convention served as a foundation for women’s rights groups like American Equal Rights Association (1866) and National Women’s Suffrage Association (1869) to build upon and gave the movement a legacy.