Seneca Falls: The Movement Beings

The women’s suffrage movement began — officially — at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. It was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a mother from upstate New York, and Lucretia Mott, a well-known speaker, abolitionist and co-organizer of the Philadelphia anti-Slavery Society.

Stanton and Mott met at an abolition convention, but while Mott was active in the anti-slavery cause, Stanton’s philosophy was “more egotistical” (Terborg-Penn). She was committed to the cause of white women’s rights and displayed a lack of understanding of the plights of African Americans, even slaves

Seneca Falls and the Declaration of Sentiments

As noted before, it’s unclear whether or not there were any Black women at the convention. What is known is that Frederick Douglass became the first man (Black or white) to publically support women’s suffrage when he spoke at Seneca Falls. 

Roll of Honor, Seneca Falls Convention 1848

Roll of Honor, Seneca Falls Convention 1848
Roll of Honor, Seneca Falls Convention 1848

At the convention, Stanton drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions” that deliberately resembled the Declaration of Independence, starting with the phrase,“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

The declaration listed the many ways American laws and customs violated women’s rights, including requiring women to submit to laws in which they had no say, taking women’s property and wages without their consent, and the subordinate status of women to men. 

One of the 11 resolutions set forth in Stanton’s “Declaration” was the goal of achieving the “sacred right of franchise,” or the right to vote. It was the only resolution that was not adopted unanimously with agreement of all people involved, and it almost didn’t pass because it was considered so radical.

The Movement Grew into Suffrage, but Didn't Start There

Even before 1848 women were active in progressive causes, including slavery abolition and temperance anti-alcohol; one of the organizational strategies of the temperance movement was to shed light on the fact that domestic violence spiked when husbands had been drinking, and many women like Sojourner Truth connected alcohol to the political abuse and corruption that hurt her people. Involvement in these causes was an act of defiance a refusal to obey something or someone against the social norms that insisted a woman’s place was in the privacy of her home, under the control of her husband.

The women’s rights movement that grew out of the Seneca Falls meeting was not a suffrage movement at first. Women reformers started by fighting against social, economic and educational barriers that limited women’s rights. The time was right for this kind of political activism. More women had joined the formal workforce, and a growing number of educated, urban professionals supported increased rights for women. Through these activities, women learned skills like public speaking and community organizing that prepared them to take on the issue of suffrage.

In the early years of the women’s rights movement, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, a Massachusetts teacher, formed a potent partnership. Armed with Stanton’s speeches, Anthony toured the country, speaking out against social and economic barriers to women’s freedom. Efforts pushing for the political rights of women, especially voting rights, gained more momentum and structure after the Civil War.

Overlapping Goals and Intersectional Oppression

As the movement grew into the 1850s, white and Black women had some overlapping needs and goals. For both, the ability to vote would legally give them more autonomy freedom from external control or influence; independence as well as the political leverage power or ability to act or to influence people, events, decisions to get policies like temperance passed, along with any number of issues.

However, Black women, generally speaking, did not have the same amount of time or access to education that most white women did and they were dealing with many challenges that were foreign to white women.