Declaration of Sentiments

by Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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Overview

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One of the most vital documents in the women’s rights movement, “The Declaration of Sentiments” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton is rich with history and literary merit. An impassioned orator and skillful author, Stanton used rhetoric to appeal to her audience. Drawing on the three rhetorical appeals—ethos, pathos, and logos—as well as invoking the language of the Declaration of Independence, Stanton speaks directly to her audience. Her declaration powerfully compares the immediacy and necessity for American revolution with that of the women’s rights movement nearly seventy five years later.

Structure and Style

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Throughout the “Declaration of Sentiments,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton mirrors the structure and style of the United States Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Arguably on the most important documents in American history, the declaration demonstrated the American colonies’ desire for autonomy from British rule and announced the start of the American Revolution. By drawing on the form of this historically powerful document, Stanton clarifies her intentions: the American desire for freedom from British monarchy is the same as women’s desire to become free from society’s patriarchal oppression. Stanton’s comparison indicates the magnitude of women’s rights issues, which she views on par with the nation’s independence 75 years prior. 

The first four paragraphs of Stanton’s declaration closely follow the structure and diction of the Declaration of Independence. However, Stanton makes a few noteworthy deviations from the original text, which have been bolded. The opening paragraph, for example, in the Declaration of Independence states:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation

In her text, Stanton alters some of her diction and phrases to speak to the women’s rights movement. The meaning of her declaration diverges from that of the Declaration of Independence when Stanton lays out her thesis, claiming that one “portion” of society has been oppressed by another:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course

In the opening paragraph, she switches “people” to “portion of the family of man,” and “the separate and equal station” to “a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied.” Straightaway, the language of Stanton’s declaration shifts the original meaning of political separation to that of the suffering of women in society. 

The mirrored structure proceeds throughout the second paragraph. Whereas the original declaration claims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal,” Stanton revises it to include women by stating, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” Through this change, Stanton demonstrates the failure of the Declaration of Independence to include women by integrating them into her own declaration. 

Stanton continues to alter phrases throughout her declaration, such as in paragraphs three and four. The original states: 

Such has been the patient sufferance

(This entire section contains 846 words.)

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Such has been the patient sufferanceof these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government
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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Stanton’s declaration states:

Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
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.

With the insertion of the word “women” for “colonies,” “mankind” for “present King of Great Britain,” and “her” for “these states,” Stanton demonstrates how—like the American colonies suffered at the hands of an oppressive force—women suffer at the hands of American society.

The Declaration of Independence lists 27 grievances against the British crown, specifically King George III. The Declaration of Sentiments provides 16 grievances against a nondescript “him.” Like the Declaration of Independence, each of these sentiments is prefaced with the pronoun “he.” While in America’s founding document, “he” explicitly referred to King George III, in Stanton’s declaration, the pronoun serves as a form of collective synecdoche, a figure of speech in which the the part represents the whole. In this case, the pronoun “he” is used to describe “American men” in general. Stanton’s list condemns the myriad ways in which patriarchy, marriage laws, and disenfranchisement have severely undermined women’s rights and highlights the failures of the nation to include women at its founding. By issuing a nearly word-for-word reiteration of the Declaration of Independence, Stanton asserts her document as a revolutionary cry for women’s rights. 

Historical Context

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When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were forbidden to speak during the World Anti-Slavery Convention because of their gender, the two women resolved to create an event to address women’s equality. On July 19 and 20, 1848, they established the first women’s rights movement in the United States at the Seneca Falls Convention. The highlight of the convention was Stanton’s reading of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” in which she spoke at length about women’s treatment under patriarchal laws in the United States. She contested a variety of injustices perpetrated against women, namely the marriage, employment, and religious laws and doctrines that treated women like second-class citizens. She explained that women had been relegated to positions of subservience and inaction. Through the declaration, and the resolutions approved on the second day of the convention, Stanton and the other leading suffragists instilled hope in the attendees and encouraged women and men to fight back against gender inequality. 

A Brief Biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was a passionate leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Born in Johnston, New York, Stanton was raised in a wealthy, well-educated family. Her father, a Congressional lawyer, provided her with early lessons in the world of law. Stanton attended Johnston Academy as well as Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary. In 1840, she married fellow abolitionist Henry Stanton. Together, they honeymooned to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where she met Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), a Quaker, pacifist, and renowned abolitionist and suffragist from Nantucket, Massachusetts. The women bonded when they were unable to speak during the event because of their gender, and resolved to create a women’s rights convention when they returned to the United States. 

Eight years later, Stanton and Mott held the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s right convention in American history. Although the event drew much criticism at first, the convention was later recognized as the impetus for the women’s rights movement. The “Declaration of Sentiments,” co-written by Stanton and Mott and delivered by Stanton, was a major undertaking that spurred national change for women’s rights. For the first time, Stanton had given voice to the plight of women; she had exhibited the treatment of women in American society by providing a list of grievances and issued a set of resolutions to enact soon thereafter. 

Although busy raising her seven children, Stanton became increasingly involved with women’s rights following the Seneca Falls Convention. In 1851, she met and began collaborating with Susan B. Anthony. In 1863, they established the National Women’s Loyal League. In 1869, they established the National Woman Suffrage Association which fought against the 15th amendment. While Stanton had fervently defended the 13th amendment, she disapproved of the 15th amendment, which gave African American men the right to vote while continuing to disenfranchise women. 

Stanton wrote prodigiously for the remainder of her life, including three volumes in the History of Woman Suffrage, The Woman’s Bible, and her autobiography Eighty Years and More. Until her death, she continued to fight for women’s suffrage, passing only about twenty years before the ratification of the 19th amendment. 

The Seneca Falls Convention 

Created and organized by prominent suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock, the Seneca Falls Convention held on July 19 and 20, 1848, was the first women’s rights convention in American history. 

The first all-women day of the event convened at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel with the reading of Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” which listed 16 grievances. Modeled off the Declaration of Independence, Stanton appealed to the emotions and logic of the two hundred women in the audience. On the second day of the convention, Stanton reread her declaration before an audience of men and women. During the afternoon, Stanton and other suffragists formed resolutions, which were signed into effect by 68 women and 32 men. 

The convention and Stanton’s declaration was initially met with mixed reception. One of the attendees, African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, believed that Stanton’s message was “the grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.” He played a major role during the passing of the resolutions, encouraging the hesitant crowd to sign off on the resolution calling for women’s suffrage. Others, however, considered the event and the declaration an abomination. As a reporter in the Oneida Whig stated, the convention was “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.”

Despite the mixed reactions to the convention, Stanton’s words roused future women’s rights movements. Two weeks later, the First Unitarian Church of Rochester held a second women’s rights convention. Since then, women’s rights conventions have been held annually around the world. Many historians credit Stanton for providing the groundwork for the eventual ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, which legalized women’s right to vote.

Rhetorical Devices

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In the “Declaration of Sentiments,” Stanton employs all three modes of persuasion as distinguished by the Greek philosopher Aristotle: ethos, pathos, and logos. First, she appeals to her audience’s sense of ethos by demonstrating her credibility as a women’s rights leader, alluding to one of the nation’s most critical documents. Second, she appeals to her audience’s sense of pathos, or emotion, issuing a list of 16 sentiments composed with stirring diction. Finally, Stanton appeals to logos, or her audience’s sense of logic and reason, crafting a cogent argument and supporting her condemnatory grievances with evidence. 

Ethos 

An appeal to ethos was a form of argument based on the author’s credibility and character. Stanton achieves this mode of persuasion early on by alluding to one of the nation’s most important documents: the Declaration of Independence. During her readings of her declaration, audience members at the Seneca Falls Convention would have immediately recognized Thomas Jefferson’s stirring words in hers. For example, in the second paragraph, Stanton augments one of the most important lines in the original document to draw attention to women’s inequality in society: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” By drawing on one of the nation’s most important documents, Stanton establishes her credibility and legitimacy as an authoritative figure in the women’s rights movement. She speaks to her audience’s knowledge and demonstrates her capabilities as a powerful speaker, author, historian, and suffragist. 

Pathos 

Stanton appeals to her audience’s sense of pathos, or emotion, by crafting impassioned diction. Each sentiment is peppered with evocative language. For example, Stanton states that without the basic right to suffrage, women are “aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived.” Without the ability to become financially independent, women are essentially nonexistent, or “not known.” Without the ability to make decisions about the marriage or divorce when they choose, they are, in the eyes of the law, “civilly dead.” Each sentiment is intended to rouse sympathy and provoke outcry. Stanton further appeals to pathos by drawing on shared values and experiences. The audience of women would have personally identified with each of the sixteen sentiments mentioned. 

Logos 

In her introduction, Stanton employs the founding fathers’ rhetoric to appeal to her audience’s sense of logos, or reason. She lays the groundwork for her argument, stating “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman…” Then, she provides evidence in a logical manner: “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” 

Stanton’s “facts” are based on evidence. When Stanton decries marriage laws, she refers to the archaic English “coverture” laws that allowed husbands to “cover” their wives’ legal statuses. When Stanton criticizes educational laws, she refers to universities that prohibited women from enrolling. When Stanton condemns the inability to divorce, she refers to laws which made it nearly impossible for women to leave their husbands. Each of Stanton’s sentiments appeals to logos in their factual and argumentative rigor. 

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