Seneca Falls Convention

167 Years Later, Celebrating the Seneca Falls Convention

Today marks a major anniversary for women’s rights: on July 19-20, 1848, advocates for equality for women gathered in Seneca Falls, NY., Event leaders advertised the first women’s rights convention, organized by women, as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of Woman.” Today, we celebrate the Seneca Falls Convention as a major milestone for women’s equality, both in its time and as the beginning of the women’s movement, sparking the monumental change that has occurred in the 167 years since.

The idea of a women’s rights convention was groundbreaking in the mid-nineteenth century, when—either legally or by cultural norm—women did not have the right to vote, speak in public, hold elected office, go to college or work outside the home other than in roles relegated to women, like teaching or working as a seamstress. Married women were subject to their husbands’ legal control and had few, if any legal rights of their own, leaving them unable to sue in court, own property, sign contracts, file for divorce or gain custody of their children.

In the decades leading up to the convention, it was not unheard of for individual activists to make public calls for women’s equality. But it was not until some 300 women and men gathered in Seneca Falls that these calls joined forces in an organized fashion, beginning a series of subsequent conventions and a centuries-long social movement.

Convention attendees centered much of their debate centered on the Declaration of Sentiments, a document listing and calling for a remedy to the vast injustices women faced in American society. Intense debate over the inclusion of a call for women’s suffrage divided convention attendees and leadership.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Declaration’s primary author, insisted that any comprehensive call for women’s equality would include a call for suffrage. Stanton had the support of Frederick Douglass, the convention’s only African American attendee, who said he could not advocate for his own right to vote as a black man without equally calling for his women peers’ right to make their voices heard.

Stanton and Douglass faced opposition from a camp led by Lucretia Mott, the famous orator and Quaker activist for women’s equality, who cautioned that calling for suffrage would be a step too far for many hearing the convention’s call and would ultimately prove a barrier to progress. The Declaration ultimately did include a call for women’s suffrage—its first provision.

Though she disagreed with Mott’s argument that calling for suffrage would discredit their broader call for equality, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was acutely aware of the barriers she and her fellow advocates faced. She acknowledged these challenges in the conclusion of the Declaration of Sentiments:

In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf.

As the first Jewish denomination to ordain women, and as a people long committed to fighting for women’s rights, we celebrate the accomplishments of the Seneca Falls Convention’s advocates and take pride in our tradition of advocating for equality for all people. We celebrate the progress we’ve made by advancing women’s roles in public, social, religious and political life, yet we cannot rest knowing that inequality continues—whether in public representation, in the halls of government, in educational opportunities, in the military, or in the workplace.

By improving women’s role in society, we create more role models for women’s engagement in public service, encouraging others—particularly young women—to raise their voices on the social justice issues that matter most to them, just as the Seneca Falls Convention leaders and attendees did 167 years ago today.

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Rachel Chung

About Rachel Chung

Rachel Chung is a 2014-2015 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the RAC. A 2014 graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Rachel is originally from Wyckoff, NJ and is a member of Barnert Temple.

One Response to “167 Years Later, Celebrating the Seneca Falls Convention”

  1. While we’re on the subject of wee quality, could RAC push passage this year of two Congressional joint resolutions that could break the logjam and get the three states needed to ratify the Equal Righrs Amendment? HJR 51 and SJR 15 would repeal the two arbitrary ratification deadlines, the last one in 1982. We need more members of Congress to co-sponsor the resolutions.

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