Right is of no sex

I have always felt a strong partiality to the month of July. My mother, my maternal grandmother and one of maternal great-grandfathers were born in July [July 3rd, July 5th, July 4th respectively] so I’m rooted in the month. It’s summer and hot which I prefer to winter’s bone-piercing cold. When I was a youth July meant the height of summer vacation and freedom from school. July also contains much great history to talk about & to reverently remember.

Flyer about the convention

On this day, July 19th, in Seneca Falls, New York, a group of women, with a few men, assembled at the first national women’s rights convention. Those present included Lucretia Mott and her husband James; Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Frederick Douglass; women with such beautiful and intriguing names as Experience Gibbs, Antoinette E. Segur, Hannah J. Latham, Delia Mathews, Catharine C. Paine, Malvina Seymour, Phebe Mosher, Catharine Shaw, Sophrone Taylor and Hannah Plant; and men named Azaliah Schooley, Elias J. Doty and Saron Phillips. (Oh, I love 18th and 19th century names!) About 300 people total, only 40 of them men, attended one or both days of the convention.

Lucretia Mott-1841

They gathered in part because back in 1840, at the World Ant-Slavery Conference in London, England, the convention refused to seat Lucretia Mott and seven other American women who had been properly selected as delegates by their abolitionist societies. In addition, the presiding males required the women to sit in a segregated area. The men who voted to exclude women argued that women’s exclusion represented the “ordinance of almighty God.” (You know, that Pauline thing about not letting women speak in the assembly?) Several of the American men attending the convention, including William Lloyd Garrison, Nathaniel P. Rogers, William Adams, and Charles Lenox Remond, a black activist, opted to sit with the women in the segregated area. Garrison, one of the anticipated speakers, declined to give his major address. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her husband, Henry B. Stanton, one of the infamous “Lane Seminary Rebels,” attended the convention while on their honeymoon. (How’s that for a honeymoon?) Stanton and Mott became friends and even while in London began planning a convention on the rights of women. [On the Lane Rebels, see William Lloyd Garrison’s issue of The Liberator, dated January 10, 1835; The Lane Rebels: Evangelicalism and Anti-slavery in Antebellum America by Lawrence T Lesick., Metuchen, NJ, 1980.]

I believe it’s no historical accident that these women convene in Seneca Falls in the same year that democratic revolutions sweep through Europe. While those student & worker revolutions in Europe would be suppressed by autocratic powers in France, Prussia, Russia, Italy and Austria and it would take 72 years for American women to gain to right to vote by constitutional amendment, yet the world changed and was forever significantly different after 1848. “Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream,” declared the prophet Amos. As my favorite prof in law school pointed out, a mighty stream is built drop-by-drop-by-drop. Those 1848 mavericks added a lot of drops to the stream of justice.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with two of her children-1848

In the Resolutions which she attached to her magnificent paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:

“Resolved, that the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.

Resolved, that the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in feats of the circus.

Resolved, that woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.

Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.

Resolved, that the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.

Resolved, that the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.”

Her demands for equal suffrage and equal opportunity in all professions and businesses, scared some, including Lucretia Mott. When it looked as though the Declaration of Sentiments and the attendant Resolutions might be tabled or actually voted down, it was the self-educated former slave, Frederick Douglass, who came forward and spoke, exhorting the gathering to take a strong stand. “In this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world.” The suffrage resolution passed by a large majority. About 100 of the persons present affixed their names to the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.

Frederick Douglass--1848

A few days afterward, the first editorial in American journalism in support of the rights of women appeared in Douglass’ North Star. With a flourish, he wrote, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making andadministering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is that‘Right is of no sex.’” The ex-slave understood what the issues were all about. Henry B Stanton did not. Like most men of the day, he did not favor women gaining the right to vote. Because he planned on running for public office, he left Seneca Falls before the convention began in order to avoid being connected with such strange ideas.

The later history filled with some unfortunate things. Elizabeth Cady Stanton distanced herself from African Americans, making clear that by “women” she meant educated, middle-class and upper class white women. She considered such women to be better than black men, black women, European immigrant women and men who spoke little or no English. When in the 1880’s a women’s rights convention met in a southern state for the first time, it was Susan B Anthony who took upon herself the unpleasant task of asking her old friend Frederick Douglass not to give a speech. Yet Douglass never abandoned his allies. The day he died he was preparing a speech to give that evening at a women’s rights conference in Washington. Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony all died before the adoption of a woman suffrage amendment. Only one of the Seneca Falls women, Charlotte Woodward, still lived in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment passed.

Many scholars assert that Seneca Falls marks the beginning of “first wave feminism” in the United states, a wave which lasts until 1920. They feel that then there is a gap until “second wave feminism” of the 1960s & 1970s appears. However I strongly disagree. I believe that there is no time in American history when you cannot find women, and sometimes with male allies, actively seeking what today would be called a feminist agenda–equality of rights, fairness of opportunity, justice before the law. Consider Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Anne Bradstreet, Deborah Sampson, Mary Dyer, Margaret Fuller, Ernestine Rose, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Grimke sisters, Mary Kies, Mary Goddard and many like them. I believe that the Seneca Falls Convention marks the start of organized action by women on their own behalf. In addition, most of the Seneca Falls women were active in the anti-slavery struggle. There, in the abolition struggle. they had acquired skills, learned tactics and utilized strategies which they moved to using on their own behalf. Abolition provided a consciousness-raising as well: for black women, they knew they were in the struggle for themselves and their families; for white women, it didn’t take too long to see that their status was much like that of slaves. From that point on–July 19, 1848–American history could never be the same. We remain indebted to those women.


“My conviction led me to adhere to the sufficiency of the light within us, resting on truth for authority, not on authority for truth.”–Lucretia Coffin Mott


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