This Week in History: The first U.S. women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

In early July 1848, social reformers Lucretia Mott  and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt, and Mary Ann McClintock, had bold plans to transform the established order in American society. The group drew up a newspaper ad, calling for “a Convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of Woman” at Seneca Falls, New York, later in the month.

New York state had become a national center for abolitionism, temperance (avoidance of alcohol), and other social movements. The bright and opinionated Elizabeth Cady had attended the Troy Female Seminary, one of the nation’s first schools to offer girls a high school education. When Cady married Henry Stanton in 1840, she convinced him to omit the promise “to obey” from their wedding vows.

The Stantons were deeply involved in the abolition movement. Elizabeth had met Lucretia Mott at an antislavery convention in London. The two bonded after the men who conducted the convention refused to seat the women as delegates. They agreed to work together for women’s rights. Most women in the United States lacked the right to vote, control their own property, or pursue educational opportunities open to men.

Stanton, Mott, and their friends had long discussed their wish to hold a meeting on women’s rights. But now, in the summer of 1848, they sensed the time was right for action. Earlier in the year, the 32-year-old Stanton had gathered petitions for a new state law that gave married women the right to retain control of their own real estate and personal property. Now, she and Mott had just a few days to prepare public statements for the historic meeting. In writing her “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” Stanton used Thomas Jefferson’s “Declaration of Independence” as a rhetorical model.

 In 1776, Jefferson had famously written that “all men are created equal.” His declaration stated that the people have the right to change or abolish a government that denies them their “unalienable Rights.” Stanton recognized the power of Jefferson’s words, but also that they contained certain important omissions. In her speech at the Seneca Falls Wesleyan Church, Stanton said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…”

Jefferson had listed the American colonists’ grievances against British crown: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.” Seventy-two years later, Stanton countered with a new set of grievances: “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.”

Stanton’s speech contained one of the first formal assertions of a woman’s right to vote. Historians mark the Seneca Falls Convention as the start of the American women’s movement and the march toward woman suffrage. The convention organizers and their supporters held great hope that the time for women’s equality was at last at hand.

For the rest of their lives, Stanton and Mott would fight for greater rights for women in the United States. Sadly, neither of them would live to cast a ballot in a national election. Not until 1920, when the required number of states approved the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, did woman suffrage become the law of the land.

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