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Women were involved in all the reform movements that were so significant a part of American life in the decades before the Civil War (See The Nature, Importance, and Means of Eminent Holiness throughout the Church). Partly as a result of their treatment by the men in these movements (women were typically not allowed to speak or vote at meetings), which reflected their treatment in the larger society, a group of reformers (men and women) decided to make the rights of women and their role in American life a more important part of their reform work. One result of this decision was the Seneca Falls Convention, called “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition of woman.” The convention resulted in a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, and a set of resolutions, reproduced here. The meeting is often described as the first women’s rights convention and is customarily taken as the beginning of the decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage. Some western states gave women the vote in the late nineteenth century. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution giving women the vote was ratified in 1920. Slowly and haphazardly during the nineteenth century, women began to gain a legal status independent of men and marriage.
One of the men who participated in the Convention was Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), who was born a slave, escaped to the North, and became a leading abolitionist. Douglass spoke in favor of women having the vote, and his speech helped win passage of a resolution to that effect. Two decades later, Douglass and some members of the women’s rights movement disagreed about “the question of precedence.” Douglass argued that it was most important to get black men the vote, while some advocates for women’s rights argued all adults—male and female—should get the vote and opposed the Fifteenth Amendment because it gave only men the vote.
Source: History of Woman Suffrage, 2nd ed., ed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (Rochester, N.Y.: Charles Mann, 1889), 71–73, available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28020/28020-h/28020-h.htm.
Whereas, The great precept of nature is conceded to be that “man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness.”1 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 an 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Resolved, That the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state, should also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.
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.
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.
Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
Resolved, That the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.
Resolved, therefore, That, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities, and the 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.
At the last session Lucretia Mott offered and spoke to the following resolution:
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.
The only resolution that was not unanimously adopted was the ninth, urging the women of the country to secure to themselves the elective franchise. Those who took part in the debate feared a demand for the right to vote would defeat others they deemed more rational, and make the whole movement ridiculous.
But Mrs. Stanton2 and Frederick Douglass seeing that the power to choose rulers and make laws, was the right by which all others could be secured, persistently advocated the resolution, and at last carried it by a small majority. . . .
- 1. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, a Facsimile of the First Edition of 1765–1769 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 1:40–41. Blackstone (1723–1780) was a British judge and politician. His Commentaries was influential in both Great Britain and the United States.
- 2. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was a leading advocate for women’s rights and a principal organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention.
An Address to the Colored People of the United StatesSeptember 29, 1848
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