Lessons of Seneca Falls, 165 years later
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
This week marks the 165th anniversary of the world’s first “Woman’s Rights Convention.” It was held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19-20, 1848, and the founders hailed it as “the inauguration of a rebellion such as the world had never before seen.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, harassed by housewifely and motherly chores, was suffering “with mental hunger” after a move from Boston to rural New York. After spending a day in the company of Quaker reformer Lucretia Mott and friends, Stanton poured out her “long-accumulating discontent,” and together they penned a paragraph calling for a “Woman’s Rights Convention.” They announced that in five days’ time “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” would take place.
Three days before the convention, they met to hurriedly rewrite the Declaration of Independence, substituting “all men” for “King George” in their Declaration of Sentiments. As the first feminists correctly noted in this historic document, the “disenfranchisement of one-half the people” leads to “their social and religious degradation.”
Among the 12 resolutions entertained was one by Stanton so radical that it provoked Mott to warn her: “Thou will make us ridiculous. We must go slowly.”
That resolution? “Resolved: It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
Although the short announcement was published only in a small semi-weekly newspaper, the roads to Seneca Falls were clogged with carriages early on July 19 filled with excited women and as many as 40 male backers.
As the “History of Woman Suffrage,” co-authored by Stanton, notes, the convention demanded just about every right later to be claimed by feminists: the right to attend a university, to be part of trades and professions, to vote, to run for office, to equality in marriage, to “personal freedom,” to property, to wages, to make contracts, to sue and be sued, and to testify in court.
The only resolution not adopted unanimously was Stanton’s — but she and her ally Frederick Douglass ultimately prevailed on suffrage at the convention, as in law, even though that took 72 years.
It is these rights to personal freedom that remain the nub both here and worldwide.
From Ireland to Chile, women are being denied the right to an abortion.
In Pakistan, the Taliban is shooting and terrorizing young girls who dare seek an education.
In the United States, more than 40 restrictions on abortion at the state level have passed this year already. And now the religious right is setting its sights on removing contraceptive insurance coverage from Obamacare.
That “rebellion like no other” must intensify if women are to be fully free.
Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., and is editor of the newspaper Freethought Today and the anthology, “Women Without Superstition: No Gods — No Masters.” She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.