“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…”
At different times in US history, different groups have emphasized shortcomings of the Constitution as it relates to human equality. In a New York town in 1848, men and women met to discuss the legal limitations that American women faced. This was the Seneca Falls Convention, the first formal women’s rights convention held in the United States. The event was advertised as a “convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women”.
The convention was designed to be small (so as to not disturb nearby farmers), but about three hundred people gathered from the immediate area. The conference featured prominent personalities of the time, including abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass.
People attending the convention were inspired in part by women’s participation in the anti-slavery movement. Women had worked tirelessly for slaves’ rights, but had not advocated for themselves as women. This became especially clear at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention — female delegates were banned from participating in the debates. How, wondered delegate Lucretia Mott, could this honestly be called a “World” convention?
Although the Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London, the limiting gender culture was not much different in the United States. For example, women virtually lost their legal identities once they married, and they were not permitted to vote for lawmakers. Education was also restricted, with boys having much wider educational opportunities.
Following the 1840 convention, Mott and Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments. This document intentionally mirrored the historic Declaration of Independence; it basically rephrased the document to guarantee rights to American women as well as men. The Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed that “all men and women were created equal”. It went on to list eighteen “injuries and usurpations” that men had leveled against female citizens. This was the same number of charges that male colonists had leveled against the King of England. These addressed many spheres of a woman’s life. For example:
* “He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.”
* “He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education – all colleges being closed against her.”
* “He allows her in church, as well as State, but a subordinate position…”
Individual women, including Abigail Adams, had earlier urged statesmen to address questions about women, equality, and the Constitution. However, people had not yet formally organized around the cause. Those who signed the Declaration of Sentiments pledged their efforts toward righting legal imbalances with a constitutional amendment.
The US public was caught off guard by these bold statements. An Oneida Whig journalist described the document as “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity”. In contrast, Frederick Douglass, editor of the North Star, described the document as “the grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women”.
Seneca Falls became a catalyst for cultural change. Other women’s rights conventions followed shortly thereafter and women as a group started to make political gains. For example, that same year, a woman named Ernestine Rose was instrumental in the passing the Married Women’s Property Act, which allowed married women to maintain property in their own name. Other states then enacted similar laws. The next year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association to focus on voting rights. When Wyoming was settled, women there won the vote in 1869, decades before women’s suffrage would be achieved nationwide.