Women’s historians all over the United States had reason to pay attention during Hillary Clinton’s speech in Brooklyn last night. Personal politics aside, the night was a history-making one—as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton has now become the first woman from a major party to win enough delegates to secure her party’s nomination. But there was another reason for the excitement: During her speech, Clinton made mention of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. “A small but determined group of women, and men, came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights,” she said. “It was the first time in human history that that kind of declaration occurred."
Why would a potential President name-drop a 168-year-old document? Here’s what you should know about the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions that was passed at the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights:
It has its roots in a dispute over seating
Strangely enough, the struggle for women’s rights and, eventually, women’s suffrage in America began with a blowup over seating. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met when they were whisked off to a roped-off, women’s-only seating section at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention. The convention had been thrown into chaos at the news that American women intended to vote, serve on committees and even speak at the convention, and in response they were shunted off to a section that was out of the view of men. Irate at their treatment, Stanton and Mott began to plot a convention of their own—this time, to address the state of women.
It turns out that seating is still a hotly contested issue in politics. Each year, the State of the Union address leads to disputes and strange customs over who sits where—and all eyes are on who the current First Lady chooses to sit in her special viewing box. Both political conventions also generate plenty of press on their seating chart each year; in 2008, for example, the Democratic Party drew attention for giving swing state delegates the best seats at the Denver convention.
It was based on the Declaration of Independence...
The convention that followed was groundbreaking. More than 300 women and men from abolitionist, Quaker and reform circles attended the two-day Seneca Falls Convention, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton read a document that set out the group’s agenda. It was directly based on the Declaration of Independence—a convenient format and a bold statement on the equality of women.
The Declaration wasn’t the first document on women’s rights to model itself on the Declaration; as Judith Wellman writes for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, arguments based on the Declaration had been used to argue for property rights for married women in New York for several years before the convention. Swayed by the familiar language of America’s founding document—and with the help of many of the women present at the convention—New York passed its first law granting married women the right to own property in 1848.
…and wasn’t only signed by women.
Women drafted the Declaration, but they weren’t the only one to argue on its merits and eventually sign it. The final copy was signed by 68 women and 32 men, many of whom were the husbands or family members of women present. Frederick Douglass, however, was not; the former slave and noted abolitionist was involved in the women’s rights movement until the movement nearly fell apart over questions about whether African-American men should have the right to vote.
In 1867, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and some other women opposed the 15th Amendment, claiming that women should take precedence over former slaves. They went in one direction; Douglass and women like Lucy Stone went another. Ironically, even when women did gain the right to vote in 1920, women of color were largely precluded from voting by racist local laws until enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Not everyone present thought the Declaration should include a call for suffrage
The Declaration of Sentiments and the resolutions adopted by the Seneca Falls Convention is hailed for its groundbreaking demands—like insisting that men be held to the same moral standards as women and holding that anti-woman laws have no authority. But it’s just as noteworthy for what it almost didn’t demand: voting rights for women. Though a resolution for suffrage was eventually adopted, it was not unanimously supported. Only after an impassioned speech by Frederick Douglass did attendees decide to go for it, giving the document its most incendiary demand. That insistence on suffrage was not popular: Convention attendees were mocked and harassed and the Declaration was called ludicrous. Though only one of its signers was alive when the 19th Amendment was signed, it set the wheels of women’s suffrage in motion.
Bad news: Nobody can find the original
Given everything the document sparked—and its importance to women’s history in the United States, you’d think that the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions would be safe in the National Archives. You’d be wrong: The document has somehow gone missing.
As Megan Smith writes for the White House's official blog, the closest thing to an original in the National Archives is a printed copy made by Frederick Douglass in his print shop after the convention. The notes that he used to make his copy—minutes from the meeting that would constitute the original—are gone. Do you know where the document could be? You can use the hashtag #FindTheSentiments to help with the hunt for one of America’s most important documents.
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About Erin Blakemore
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
So we see that the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions compared the position of women relative to men with the position of the colonies to Great Britain. This was quite a bold move. It did keep the male-centric language of the Declaration of Independence (“mankind” instead of “humanity for example) but that was how everyone wrote in those days. There now follows a list of ways men oppressed women, each described as something“he has”done, just as the Declaration of Independence listed the ways King George III oppressed the colonies, listing most oppressions as something“ he has”done (other times writing they were angry with him for doing such-and-such a thing). There are sixteen oppressions listed in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, whereas there are twenty-seven listed in the Declaration of Independence, with eighteen of them described as something“he has”done. Here is a link to a blog post (not by me) showing how many of the oppressions in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions have been fixed; the post shows that ten of them have been fixed in America and none have been fixed worldwide.
He hasnever permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
Women in America were allowed to vote until 1777 in New York, until 1780 in Massachusetts, and until 1784 in New Hampshire. In 1787 the U.S. Constitutional Convention placed voting qualifications in the hands of the states, and women in all states except New Jersey lost the right to vote. In 1807 women lost the right to vote in New Jersey, the last state to revoke the right. Thus, in 1848 women did not have the right to vote. Gradually they won back this right state by state until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment became law, giving all American women the right to vote. The following few statements also refer to the right to vote; you can see what an important right it is.
He hascompelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He haswithheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men-both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he hasoppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
“Civilly dead” refers to the fact that, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband. This was part of the laws of England and the United States throughout most of the 1800s. The idea was described in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England like so, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her; morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master-the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women-the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.
After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he hastaxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
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, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church opposes birth control and the Southern Baptist Convention declares that wives should submit to their husbands.
He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation-in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country.
Here I would like to look at the Resolutions part of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, and see how many of them have come true.
Whereas, the great precept of nature is conceded to be that “man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” Blackstone in his Commentaries remarks that this law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their validity, and all their authority, mediately and immediately, from this original; therefore, Resolved, That such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of nature and of no validity, for this is superior in obligation to any other.
This is a bit subjective, but I think it is fair to say that there are still laws existing in America which conflict “with the true and substantial happiness of woman,” (for example laws preventing women from accessing birth control if the provider decides it is against their conscience, though this is not legal for any other medicine) so I would say this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature and therefore of no force or authority.
It is clear that there are laws which prevent women from occupying certain positions in society – for example, religious groups are legally allowed to only ordain men. So I would say this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.
Is woman recognized as man’s equal? Certainly not everywhere in America; for example, I have just mentioned that the Southern Baptist Convention thinks the Creator intended wives to submit to their husbands. So this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that the women of this country ought to be enlightened in regard to the laws under which they live, that they may no longer publish their degradation by declaring themselves satisfied with their present position, nor their ignorance, by asserting that they have all the rights they want.
It is difficult to see whether all women of this country are enlightened in regard to the laws under which they live, but some women do say they are satisfied with their present position and have all the rights they want. In that way I say this resolution has not come true. But it has come true in that information about laws regarding women is widely available (at the National Women’sLaw Center for example:www.nwlc.org/), and that American women today would not be satisfied with the rights of American women in 1848. So all in all I say this resolution has partially come true.
Resolved, that inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is preeminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.
Women are not encouraged or even allowed to speak in all religious assemblies (for example, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: so this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.
I would say this resolution has not come true. It is still often considered shameful for a teenage girl to have sex and acceptable for a teenage boy to do so, for example.
Resolved, that the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in feats of the circus.
I think this resolution has partially come true. Certainly it is much more acceptable for women to speak in public than it was in 1848. But it is still not acceptable to all people (as I pointed out before, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church does not allow women to speak in its religious assemblies) and yet those same people do not refuse to see women speak in the theater, at concerts, or at the circus.
Resolved, that woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.
This resolution has partially come true, in that American women today would be very dissatisfied with the lives of American women in 1848, as I have already said, and since 1848 women in general have moved into a larger sphere of life, working at jobs and obtaining degrees women never before did. But there are still women who think all women belong at home, and are satisfied to be kept within circumscribed limits. There are also women who think all fights for women’s rights have been settled, and are happy to stay within the limits America placed on women today.
Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
As we all ought to know, women are allowed to vote in America (thanks to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920) so this resolution has come true, though it is notable that it took 72 years.
Resolved, that the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.
This statement is a bit difficult to understand, but it basically says that women and men are equal in capabilities and responsibilities and so deserve to be treated equally. I would say most but not all Americans agree with this, so this resolution has partially come true.
Resolved, that the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.
I do not think the cause of women’s rights has been a speedy success (just look at how many resolutions have not come true yet) but I would say there have been zealous and untiring efforts on the part of many men and women (though not all) for women to have equal rights to be preachers, and to have equal rights in all trades, professions, and commerce. So this resolution has partially come true.
Resolved, therefore, that, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities and same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held; and this being a self-evident truth growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature, any custom or authority adverse to it, whether modern or wearing the hoary sanction of antiquity, is to be regarded as a self-evident falsehood, and at war with mankind.
This resolution has not yet come true, as not everyone (or even every woman) believes that woman and men have the same capabilities, or that women should have the right to speak in all assemblies (as previously noted) so such things are not regarded as self-evident falsehoods.
Thus, I would say that six of these resolutions have not come true, five have partially come true, and one has absolutely come true (women’s right to vote.) In reflecting on this, I would just like to say that the fight for women’s rights in America has been going on since long before any of us were born, and will likely be going on long after we die. That can be disheartening, but I think it can also be inspiring. Happy Independence Day to you all.