The Great Rebellion: The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848

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Although this photo is from a later period in history, it nonetheless depicts one of the objections to women’s rights — that the “natural order of things” in terms of gender roles would be reversed and men would have to do the housework while women went out into the political arena.

Photo Credit: A woman wearing knickers (“pants”) and smoking a cigarette while her husband does the washing, 1901, Underwood & Underwood: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons/PD Underwood

Today marks the anniversary of the start of what Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the greatest rebellion of the 19th century: The Seneca Falls Convention. 

The convention derived from, interestingly, a moment of oppression. The World Anti-Slavery Convention took place in London in 1840 and two leaders of the American suffragist movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, met there for the first time. Both were denied entry to the convention because the organizers decided to bar all women from attending. From this was born the idea in Cady Stanton and Mott’s minds to organize a convention at home to discuss women’s rights.

This event took place in Seneca Falls, New York on the weekend of July 19th and 20th in 1848 and became the first organized political gathering for women to discuss issues plaguing them at the time. You may recall that I talked here about the idea of suffragism (the right to vote). But was the convention really focused on women’s suffragism? Yes and no. Certainly, the right to vote was on the agenda, but as I mentioned in my blog post above, it wasn’t yet considered of the utmost importance as it would be later in the movement. What was high on the agenda was the idea that women were equal to men. You might recall from my discussion of the separate spheres that it was generally thought women were weaker than men emotionally and mentally, and therefore, their confinement to the private sphere was justified. So the idea that women were equal in every way was, as Cady Stanton declared, revolutionary indeed. 

To this end, the attendees of the convention (there were 300 of them) came up with a Declaration of Sentiments. The name, of course, suggests the Declaration of Independence, and this is no surprise, as the wording also stems directly from that document. You can read the entire Declaration fo Sentiments and see the names of some of the movers and shakers of the suffragist and abolitionist movements (including Frederick Douglass) who signed the declaration here.

Reactions to the convention were mixed. Some reporters and editors considered the idea of women meeting to talk about their rights as nothing short of lunacy. Others were afraid that it would lead to a gender role reversal (as the cartoon above shows). Still others, like the famous Horace Greenly of the New York Tribune, begrudgingly admitted that, revolutionary as it was, the suffragists might be on to something when they insist women were created to be equal to men in the eyes of God and humanity.

Although the convention wasn’t perfect (it was haphazardly organized and attended mainly by locals,) it gave rise to the idea that women’s rights were worth putting on the political agenda of the 19th century. Also, like the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique nearly 120 years later (which I talk about here), the convention triggered a movement that followed into the 20th century, creating not just one wave but several waves and generations of fighters for women’s rights. 

In honor of the 172nd birthday of the Seneca Falls Convention, I am putting my historical women’s fiction short story collection, Lessons From My Mother’s Life, which reached #1 on Amazon’s Historical Fiction Short Stories category when it debuted, for sale! You can grab your copy of it here.        

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The Struggle for The Vote: Women’s Suffragism in America

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Photo Credit: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the godmothers of the women’s suffragist movement, in the Gilded Age, 1891, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: Taterian/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Last week, on August 18, to be exact, was the 99th anniversary of the day that the 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) was ratified in America. I have written many times in my blog posts about the fact that women’s social and psychological position in history is of paramount interest to me and plays a role often in my fiction. This is true of The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. I talk more about that in my blog post about why I write women’s fiction.

So in honor of the day, I thought I’d look into women’s suffragism in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the amendment was ratified, which was in 1920. First, we must distinguish between women’s suffragism and women’s rights, because they are actually not the same thing. The former refers only to the political right for women to vote. The latter, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses more specific political, social, economical, and psychological aspects of women’s freedom to act and be. Once women got the right to vote, women’s suffragism was no longer necessary, but the fight for other rights for women was and still is.

Why were women so concerned about getting the right to vote in the 19th century? Actually, they weren’t — no at the beginning, that is. By the “beginning”, I mean the 1840’s when the idea of women’s suffrage was first formed. The Seneca Falls Convention is generally considered the birth of the women’s suffragist movement and for good reason. It was the first time women organized to discuss their rights and make decisions as to what they wanted to accomplish in their efforts to ensure women were seen and treated as free and equal beings. The convention participants made eleven resolutions to this effect, all of which you can read fully here. What is interesting to me is that these resolutions keep within the framework of the separate spheres. Women were expected to remain in the private sphere, that is in the home and church, perceived as “angels in the house” — virtuous, morally superior to men, and too fragile to handle the dog-eat-dog world of the public sphere. The majority of resolutions don’t challenge this perception and in fact ask for equal and respectful treatment of women in their own sphere. There is one exception — Resolution #9, which declares the right of women to vote. Not surprisingly, this was the only resolution to stirred up controversy and was not voted unanimously by the participants. It may have been that the idea of women having a voice in the public sphere was too revolutionary to consider at that time.

However, in the Gilded Age, the idea of women having the vote started to become feasible in the minds of many women suffragists. Women’s political organizations began to form in the 1870’s specifically geared toward pushing government to pass an amendment allowing women to vote. Several women, including Susan B. Anthony, one of the godmothers of the Seneca Falls Convention, boldly went to the polls to vote and were turned away. Anthony succeeded in voting and was arrested for doing so. Women filed lawsuits but the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 to reject women’s suffragism as a right, claiming that the constitution does not grant suffragism to any group, including women. 

Women suffragism had many detractors, both male and female, and caricatures abounded in the papers. Here’s one where the supposed horrific consequences of giving women the vote is depicted, with women lining up to vote for the “Celebrated Man Tamer” while the harassed-looking man at the end of the line has a baby thrust in his arms to allow his wife to vote.

Photo Credit: The age of brass. Or the triumphs of women’s rights, Currier & Ives, 1869, lithograph, New York: Churchh/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

After this failure, women suffragist groups took a different tactic, one that is distinctly American. They figured that if they could lobby individual state legislators so that laws were passed granting women the vote in individual states, the federal government would soon follow. They were right, though it took about forty years. But by 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified, according to the U.S map here, about three-quarters of the states had either granted full voting rights to women or partial voting rights. 

Many of us have heard of the guerrilla tactics used by women suffragists in Great Britain which were dramatized in the 2015 film Suffragette. Interestingly, American suffragists used less militant tactics to reach their goal. They mainly lobbied, petitioned, and picketed. This is not to say some didn’t experience their fair share of violence, though. One infamous example is the 1917 Night of Terror, where women’s picketing the White House led to torture and violence when they were jailed. However, a year later, the courts ruled that jailing suffragists was unconstitutional, and, two years later, women in all states in the nation gained full voting rights.

Women suffragism doesn’t play a big role in terms of the political stage in the Waxwood Series, though there are certainly stirrings of it. A minor character in the series, a wealthy widow named Marvina Moore, befriends Vivian and becomes a supporter of suffragism, educating Vivian as the series progresses. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, women’s suffragism plays a more active role in Adele’s character, especially her views on the more militant aspects of the movement. 

To learn more about The Specter and order a copy, go here. To learn more about the Waxwood Series, you can take a look at this page on my website. If you like mysteries and are interested in finding out more about The Paper Chase Mysteries, you can do so here.   

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