Introduction: In this article, Jane Hampton Cook writes about the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, a key event in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Jane, the former White House webmaster for President George W. Bush, is a presidential historian and the author of nine historical books. She is a consultant for the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. Her works can be found at janecook.com.
While the new year kicks off months of campaigning culminating in the 2020 presidential election, it also launches a year of celebrating the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote 100 years ago in 1920.
When did the women’s suffrage movement begin? Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the first women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York, from July 19-20, 1848. Of the 300 attendees, 100 women and men signed the Declaration of Sentiments.
Expanding the Declaration of Independence to include ladies, the sentiments declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”
The most controversial plank identified the injustice that denied women the right to vote: “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” The ladies planned to educate the public and petition the government to give them the right to vote.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton reflected in her autobiography, Eighty Years and More, that:
“These were the hasty initiative steps of the most momentous reform that had yet been launched on the world – the first organized protest against the injustice which had brooded for ages over the character and destiny of one-half the race.”
How did the newspapers respond? A search in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives reveals news articles that presented facts mixed with ridicule and opinion pieces. To see for yourself, try an advanced search with a date range from 07-19-1848 to 08-19-1848, using keywords such as “Declaration Sentiments Seneca Falls.” Here are some of the examples I found.
The Vermont Mercury printed excerpts of the sentiments and commented:
“Hear, O man, with what thou art charged by these female Hancocks and Jeffersons in their declaration of independence and chapter of grievances… The signers to this document, about a hundred, are not to be sneezed at.”
The Westchester Herald reprinted an article by the Public Ledger that declared of the rebellion by the fair sex:
“It is evident from this outburst that the age of chivalry is no more. Women have now to redress their own grievances; but there was an age when a list of wrongs half as long as this would have created a universal upspring, and set all christendom to work to right them.”
The Semi-Weekly Eagle reprinted an article by the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser that published the Declaration of Sentiments and added defensively:
“It seems that this is not a free country after all. But no one will deny that it is a ‘great country.’”
There certainly was, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton asserted, “sarcasm and ridicule,” such as this piece from the Jeffersonian Republican.
In her autobiography, Stanton wrote:
“No words could express our astonishment on finding, a few days afterward, that what seemed to us so timely, so rational, and so sacred, should be a subject for sarcasm and ridicule to the entire press of the nation.
“All the journals from Maine to Texas seemed to strive with each other to see which could make our movement appear the most ridiculous. The antislavery papers stood by us manfully and so did Frederick Douglass, both in the convention and in his paper, the North Star, but so pronounced was the popular voice against us, in the parlor, press, and pulpit, that most of the ladies who had attended the convention and signed the declaration, one by one, withdrew their names and influence and joined our persecutors.”
The year 2020 celebrates the achievements of many foremothers who slogged for 72 years through a Civil War, the politics of reconstruction and the politics of President Woodrow Wilson before winning the right to vote via the 19th Amendment.
Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Did any of your ancestors participate in the Women’s Suffrage Movement? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.