This blog post, written by educator Sarah Morgan Smith, was first published on July 16, 2020. Today we are republishing it in honor of 175 years the first convention on women’s rights, held in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19, 1848.
172 years ago this Sunday Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and over a hundred other reform-minded men and women gathered in the sleepy village of Seneca Falls, New York, for what was to be the first national women’s rights convention. During the meeting, those present took Declaration of feelings, a summary of the grievances of American womanhood. Created explicitly on the model Declaration of Independencethe text asserts not only that men treat women unfairly, but also that they are entitled, by “the laws of nature and the God of nature,” to “occupy among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto held.” position, i.e. equality with men.
Its publication brought much public attention, mostly negative, to the convention attendees, and Stanton embarked on her first public speaking tour as an apologist for what was to become an organized women’s rights movement.
In her speech, which she apparently gave several times in different places, Stanton alludes to the still unusual character of a woman speaking to a mixed assembly of men and women. However, despite her own sense of uneasiness as a speaker, she has stated that she is driven by a “sense of right and duty” to address a pressing issue, which she describes as “the issue of women’s faults”. She also couldn’t delegate this task to a male colleague, she told the audience, since “the woman has to do the work herself; for only a woman can understand the height, depth, length and breadth of her own degradation. A man cannot speak for her because he has been brought up to believe that she is so materially different from him that he cannot judge her thoughts, feelings and opinions by his own.”
Note that Stanton’s statement is not a call for politics based on identity or personal characteristics. Rather, she subtly challenges the popular notion that men and women are so different that they demand “separate spheres” of influence and dominance, reminding her audience of the shared humanity of the sexes. In other words, if the men around her correctly understood in 1848 that women they are equal in human nature and dignity, then Stanton could potentially delegate the role of speaker on behalf of women’s rights. (On the other hand, if America’s men understood that women were equal in nature and dignity, she wouldn’t need to make a speech at all.) Essentially, Stanton says it’s all just male prejudice. what prevents women from being heard and understood.
Stanton’s assertion that equal and free people can always understand each other’s thoughts is precisely the reason why we study the past in the Teaching of American History using historical documents:
If we can understand the documents of the past, then our minds are free from the present. If they are free from the present, then they are also free from the constraints of gender, race, and socioeconomic status that characterize us here and now. That our minds are free from these things means that we share a common humanity. This means, in the most important sense, that all men are created equal.
– Teaching American History, Statement of Principles
In other words, when we engage in historical research in this way, we reaffirm our commitment to the core principles of American founding creed as set out in the Declaration of Independence, in a way that also enables us to understand the many different voices of our national past as relevant and relevant in our time… and learn from them.
Thus, Stanton could not have been more prescient when she wrote:
Among the many important questions that were put before the public, there is nothing more fundamental, affecting the entire human family, than what are technically called women’s rights. Every hint of the humiliated and inferior position occupied by women throughout the world is contemptible and insulting. From the man of the highest mental development to the most humiliated scoundrel roaming the streets, we are faced with ridicule and, of course, jokes bestowed on those who dare to claim that a woman stands next to a man, his equal, placed here by his God. to enjoy with him the beautiful earth that is her home as well as his, having the same sense of good and evil and turning to the same Being for guidance and support. So long has man exercised tyranny over her, hurting himself and dulling her powers, that few can muster the courage to face the storm; and the chain has been on her for so long that she does not know that there is a remedy …
We hope that by continuing to deal with the past in this way, American citizens in the present will recognize their own freedom and equality and respect the freedom and equality of others.
For more information on the Seneca Falls Convention and the ideology of the struggle for full gender equality throughout American history, see the Core Document volume, Gender and equalityedited by Sarah Morgan Smith.