The women’s suffrage movement in the United States had its legendary beginnings at a convention held in July 1848, in the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. Two women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott combined forces to issue a public call for a “convention” to “discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of woman.” Lucretia Mott was a prominent Quaker abolitionist from Philadelphia, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the daughter of judge from upstate New York. Together, they combined forces to organize a convention in a Seneca Falls church attended by more than 300 people, including many men.
The proceedings included Mott as a forceful keynote speaker advocating for the political rights of women. After two days of discussion, Stanton lent her pen to a “Declaration of Sentiments,” signed by 100 of the participants. Stanton modeled her resolution after the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “that all men and women are created equal,” and “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” Then, just as the Declaration of Independence had done, Stanton included a list of grievances on the part of women, which included, among many others: “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise,” and “Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.” Taken as a whole, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments argued that the legal and political order created by men had relegated women to an inferior place in all aspects of the law.
Seneca Falls is remembered as the flashpoint that ignited the women’s suffrage movement—but its centrality is likely exaggerated due to the role that Stanton went on to play as leader and chronicler of the movement. In reality, numerous similar meetings and conventions, with similar outcomes, were taking place across the north—declaring the sentiments that would become the basis for women’s rights.
It is worth examining briefly why women lacked the right to vote in the antebellum political order. Unlike African American slaves, who were regarded as inferior beings, women were seen as intelligent adults, but with capacities different from those of men. These capacities were better suited to private life—often called the “domestic sphere”—where women could serve as mothers raising virtuous children and as supportive wives.
It was primarily under this rationale that women were kept from the polls—their first duty was to family, and accordingly they lacked the independence necessary to vote. This logic was along much the same lines as the thinking that kept the poor and propertyless from the polls. Economically and legally subservient to men, women could not be independent political actors.
Additionally, in a twisted expression of the old colonial idea of “virtual representation,” it was argued in some circles that women did not need the right to vote because their interests could be expressed and defended by the votes of the male members of the families.
But there was growing support for the idea of women’s suffrage, and even more feeling that women had political interests. Abigail Adams’ now famous exhortation to her husband John to “remember the ladies” was symbolic of the push to incorporate women to a greater degree in the political process—that their interests and needs mattered and could not be adequately protected by men alone.
There were some small but significant strides made early on for the rights of women. Women could vote in New Jersey from 1797 to 1807, proving that enfranchising women was neither unthinkable nor disastrous for society. Furthermore, many of the opponents of women’s right to vote in that state argued not along gendered lines, but along political ones: William Griffith, calling for the vote to be taken away from women, felt that the “mischief” caused by women voting was that it gave “the towns and populous villages…an unfair advantage over the country.”
In the 1840s and 1850s, the push for women’s right gained momentum. The Seneca Falls convention and others like it accessed the democratic trends and inclinations of Jacksonian America. A growing urban population supported women’s rights, embracing a universal expansion of expansion of civil, economic, and political rights. The number of women employed in industrial jobs like textiles meant that the profile of women outside of a family context was growing; more women were financially independent and directly affected by labor, monetary, and legal policies. Women were also becoming more politically active in what ways they could—many supported abolitionist societies, which proved to be a training ground for future organizing around the issue of women’s rights. These shifts in the social structure gave rise to many efforts to rethink and promote the rights of women.