Seneca Falls: The Birthplace of Women's Suffrage

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
The mid-1800s was a period of great change for American women, as discussions of the civil and political rights of women began to take center stage. As first-wave feminism gained traction, more women came to support the cause, and on July 19-20 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. This convention marked a pivotal moment for the movement, and is largely considered the birthplace of women’s suffrage. Here, we’re diving into the history of suffrage movement, and how the convention came to shape American history.

The Birth of a Movement

 At the start of the 19th century, women were generally precluded from most political conversations. But in 1832, abolitionist Willian Lloyd Garrison began encouraging women to join in his efforts to organize anti-slavery operations. Garrison was one of the few leading voices in the abolitionist movement that offered a place for women, seeing that there was untapped potential for his own movement. Around this same time, a handful of women writers began seeing their work published. Lydia Maria Child and Frances Wright wrote on women’s rights and social reform, both getting published in the 1830s. Women began speaking publicly at abolitionist rallies, which gave rise to their role in reform.
 
By 1840, Garrison had asked Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two women who would become central leaders of the women’s rights movement, to attend an anti-slavery convention in London. During the voyage, Stanton and Mott developed a close bond, and began forging plans for their own convention - one centered on the progress of women’s rights.

A drawing of a young Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a central figure in the women’s suffrage movement.Mott and Stanton met again in Boston in 1842 to discuss the possibility of a convention dedicated to women’s liberation. Meetings led by Mott and Paulina Wright Davis began in Philadelphia in 1846 to further discuss the issue. Members of the abolitionist movement who also favored women’s rights joined in these meetings. By 1847, there was a widespread desire to host a convention for women’s rights.

Planning for the Convention

On Sunday July 9, 1848, Mott, Stanton, Jane Hunt, Martha Coffin Wright, and Mary Ann M’Clintock met for an afternoon tea in Hunt’s home in Waterloo, New York. Once again, the women found themselves discussing the viability and need for a women’s rights convention. After discussing some basic logistics, the women created an ad for the Seneca County Courier which read “Women’s Rights Convention - A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women.” Only women were invited to the first day of the convention – the second day would welcome both men and women to the discussions. The advertisement was quickly noticed, and other local publications like Frederick Douglass’s North Star printed the advertisement to their own readers.
 
The group chose to hold the Seneca Falls Convention at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. Over the years, the chapel had become a popular location for rallies, speeches, and lectures pertaining to social reform. In the days leading up to the convention, the five women met often to discuss the key points they hoped to convey through their speeches. They drafted ten resolutions that demanded equality for women in jobs, education, religion, politics, family, and morals. Their declaration was modeled off the Declaration of Independence, and was titled the Declaration of Sentiments. Stanton’s husband, a lawyer, helped determine exact places in the law that undermined women’s rights, which Stanton used to support their requests in the Sentiments.

Two Days at the Convention

Stanton was the first to take the stage on the first day of the convention. In her speech, she pushed each woman in the crowd to take control of their own life and independence. She asked them to “understand the height, the depth, the length, and the breadth of her own degradation.” Mott spoke next, asking the women to take up with the women’s rights cause, again spelling out where they had been wronged by society. Stanton then read the Declaration of Sentiments and the women discussed if men should also be allowed to sign it.
 
In the afternoon, Stanton and Mott spoke again. This time, there was more engagement with their speeches from women in the crowd as they offered changes to be made to the Sentiments. By the end of the afternoon, there were eleven resolutions put forth by the women. That evening, Mott addressed a massive audience. At the center of her speech was the progress of other reform movements, and how these could be used as framework for women’s rights. After Mott concluded her speech, the National Reformer called it “one of the most eloquent, logical, and philosophical discourses which we have ever listened to.”

Lucretia Mott, who helped plan the convention with Elizabeth Cady Stanton.The next day, the women opened their doors to an even larger crowd. Frederick Douglass, M’Clintock, Stanton, and Mott all spoke, making further amendments to the Sentiments with input from women in the crowd. During the afternoon session, each of the eleven resolutions were voted on by the men and women in attendance. The only resolution that received some setback was the ninth: “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
 
There were several attendees who worried this ninth resolution was too far-fetched for the current movement, and would make the entire effort lose traction. At this moment, Douglass stepped forward. He stated that as a black man, he could not accept the right to vote if that same right was not awarded to women. He expected the world to be better if women were to be included in the political sphere. Douglass’s words hit home for attendees torn about the ninth resolution, and it passed by an overwhelming margin.

Results of the Seneca Falls Convention

Media responses to the convention were largely mixed. The National Reformer regarded the convention as a resounding success that marked the beginning of substantial change in America. Contrarily, the Oneida Whig criticized the convention as the “most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity.” Soon after these local publications remarked on the event, nationwide newspapers picked up the story.
 
These national responses mirrored the smaller local newspapers, with mixed feedback from critics. However, it could be agreed upon that the Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of women’s rights conventions up and down the east coast. The Rochester Women’s Rights Convention occurred two weeks after, with Mott serving as key speaker.
 
Only one of the original five women lived to see the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, which was finally ratified in 1920. Today, the influence of these early feminist leaders and the Seneca Falls Convention is visible nationwide. The Women’s Rights National Historic Park was established in 1980, and covers roughly 7 acres of where the convention took place. The homes of Stanton and M’Clintock, where most of the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted, has been preserved for visitors to explore.
 
The Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of a movement toward gender equality in the United States. Stanton, Mott, and others are today credited as the founders of the movement. Their legacies have carried on through the decades, and Seneca Falls rightfully remains the birthplace of women’s suffrage.