Declaration of Sentiments (American History Through Literature)
Arguably the most significant document to call for the advancement of women in nineteenth-century America, the Declaration of Sentiments was made famous at the first Woman's Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, on 19 and 20 July 1848. Drafted by the then thirty-two-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815902), the declaration outlined a series of grievances resulting from the disenfranchisement of women and proposed eleven resolutions arguing that women had the right to equality in all aspects of their lives, including the right to vote. Despite the declaration's symbolic significance, however, it would be seventy-two years later that women finally won the right to vote.
The events leading up to the 1848 convention date back to 1840, when Stanton, a new bride, attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. There she met Lucretia Mott (1793880), a Quaker reformer and abolitionist who, along with Stanton and other women delegates, had been denied a seat at the convention. Incensed and humiliated by the ban, which remained in effect even after appeals by convention delegates William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, Stanton and Mott discussed plans to hold a public assembly to advance the rights of women. After her return to the United States, however, Stanton started a family, and the meeting plans were put on hold. Eight years after the London convention and following the passage of New York's much-debated Married Woman's Property Rights Act, Stanton attended a small social gathering near her home in Seneca Falls, where she laid out her list of grievances about the treatment of women in society. The group of five women agreed that the time was ripe for the convention that Stanton and Mott had envisioned in London. The women convened the convention just six days later at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls. Hoping to attract a large crowd, they placed an ad in the local newspaper announcing a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition of women and promoting Mott as the keynote speaker.
The convention organizers had a long history of feminist thought on which to draw: Mary
Much to the surprise of Stanton and Mott, the convention drew some three hundred people from miles around. Among those in attendance were forty men, including the abolitionist and former slave
Frederick Douglass (1818895). It was there that the Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by Stanton, was introduced. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments proposed reforms in all areas of women's lives.
On the first day of the convention, attendees debated the contents of the declaration, discussed the wisdom of allowing men to sign it, and deliberated the merits of its eleven resolutions. Stanton began the declaration with the proposition that "all men and women are created equal." This assertion underscored the point that, rather than being all-inclusive, the language in the Declaration of Independence had explicitly excluded women. The Declaration of Sentiments sought to illustrate this discrepancy in the earlier document and its application to the female half of the population, for many of the liberties outlined there simply had no standing when applied to women's lives. Included in the Declaration of Sentiments was a list of eighteen injustices endured by women, ranging from the lack of equal educational opportunities and the denial of the right to vote to the exclusion of public participation in the affairs of the church. It also protested unequal wages and employment opportunities. After Stanton read the declaration paragraph by paragraph, it was amended and adopted unanimously.
The second day of the convention focused on a discussion of the declaration's eleven resolutions. With the exception of the ninth proclamation, demanding the vote for women, the resolutions passed unanimously. After an impassioned appeal by Douglass, however, the suffrage resolution passed by a slim margin. One hundred peopleixty-eight women and thirty-two menigned the final draft of the declaration.
The Seneca Falls Convention generated widespread ridicule and even hostility, primarily from religious leaders and the press. An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger and Daily Transcript (26 September 1848) opined that, unlike the Seneca Falls women, the women of Philadelphia were "celebrated for discretion, modesty, and unfeigned diffidence" rather than "standing out for woman's rights." After all, the writer reasoned, "A woman is nobody. A wife is everything. A pretty girl is equal to ten thousand men, and a mother is, next to God, all powerful. . . . The ladies of Philadelphia, therefore . . . are resolved to maintain their rights as Wives, Belles, Virgins and Mothers, and not as Women" (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, p. 804). Another article, appearing in the 1 August 1848 issue of the Rochester Democrat, derided the "absurdity" of the convention: "This great effort seemed to bring out some new, impracticable, absurd and ridiculous proposition and the greater its absurdity the better" (Viewpoint). Another newspaper reported that the convention constituted "the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity" (Gurko, p. 103).
Recognizing the potential to further publicize her cause, Stanton responded to the "printed challenges" to the Declaration of Sentiments in the 14 September 1848 National Reformer:
There is no danger of this question dying for want of notice. . . . But one might suppose from the articles that you find in some papers, that there were editors so ignorant as to believe that the Chief object of these recent Conventions was to seat every lord at the head of a cradle, and to clothe every woman in her lord's attire. . . . For those who do not yet understand the real objects of our recent Conventions at Rochester and Seneca Falls, I would state that we did not meet to discuss fashions, customs, or dress, the rights or duties of man, nor the property of the sexes changing positions, but simply our own inalienable rights, our duties, our true sphere. If God has assigned a sphere to man and one to woman, we claim the right to judge ourselves of His design in reference to us, and we accord to man the same privilege. (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, p. 806)
Not all of the press coverage was negative, however. Douglass, who was editor of the Rochester North Star, wrote that the Declaration of Sentiments should be regarded as the basis of a grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.
We should not do justice to our own convictions, or to the excellent persons connected with this infant movement, if we did not in this connection offer a few remarks on the general subject which the Convention met to consider and the objects they seek to attain. In doing so, we are not insensible that the bare mention of this truly important subject in any other than terms of contemptuous ridicule and scornful dis-favor, is likely to excite against us the fury of bigotry and the folly of prejudice. A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the "wise" and the "good" of our land, than would a discussion of the rights of women. . . . While it is impossible for us to go into this subject at length, and dispose of the various objections which are often urged against such a doctrine as that of female equality, we are free to say that in respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. . . . Our doctrine is that "right is of no sex." We therefore bid the women engaged in this movement our humble God-speed. (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, pp. 745)
Although it would be seventy-two years before women finally won the vote, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention had set the wheels in motion. Regrettably, only one of the original signers of the Declaration of Sentiments, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, survived long enough to cast her ballot in the 1920 national election. She was ninety-one years old.
In 1851 Stanton joined forces with Susan B. Anthony, and the two devoted much of the remainder of their lives to fighting discrimination against women. Without question, however, it was Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments that first politicized the issues that would take center stage in the struggle to attain equality for women.
See also Democracy; Female Authorship; Feminism; Letters on the Equality of the Sexes; Reform; Seneca Falls Convention; Suffrage; Woman in the Nineteenth Century; Young America
DuBois, Ellen Carol, ed. The Elizabeth Cady Stantonusan B. Anthony Reader: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. Address of Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Delivered at Seneca Falls & Rochester, N.Y. July 19th & August 2d, 1848. New York: Robert J. Johnston, 1870.
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage. 3 vols. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1881886.
Gurko, Miriam. The Ladies of Seneca Falls: The Birth of the Women's Rights Movement. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
"Viewpoint: A Historic Opportunity." http://www.now.org.
Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: An Illustrated History. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Denise D. Knight