The Seneca Falls Convention: Teaching about the
Rights of Women and the Heritage of the Declaration of Independence. ERIC
by Osborn, Elizabeth R.
Different groups at different times have turned to founding documents
of the United States to meet their needs and to declare their entitlement
to the promises of the Revolution of 1776. At Seneca Falls, New York in
the summer of 1848, a group of American men and women met to discuss the
legal limitations imposed on women during this period. Their consciousness
of those limitations had been raised by their participation in the anti-slavery
movement; eventually they used the language and structure of the Declaration
of Independence to stake their claim to the rights they felt women were
entitled to as American citizens. This Digest places the events of the
Seneca Falls Convention within the larger context of American reform movements
of the 1840s, discusses the influence of the Declaration of Independence
on the Convention, and provides teachers and students with a sampling of
social studies curriculum resources such as primary source documents, books,
articles, and lesson plans available through local libraries or the World
BACKGROUND OF THE SENECA FALLS CONVENTION.
America in the 1840s was in the throes of cultural and economic change.
In the years since the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, the
nation's geographic boundaries and population had more than doubled, the
population had shifted significantly westward, and many Americans' daily
lives had drifted away from Jefferson's vision of a nation composed of
independent farmers. Instead, farmers, artisans, and manufacturers existed
in a world built around cash crops, manufactured goods, banks, and distant
markets. Historians generally refer to this shift from production for a
local economy based on a series of shared relationships to production for
a distant, unknown market as the Market Revolution. Not all Americans welcomed
these changes, which often left them feeling isolated and cut off from
traditional sources of community and comfort.
In an effort to regain a sense of community and control over their nation's
future, Americans, especially women, formed and joined reform societies.
Inspired by the message of the Second Great Awakening (a religious movement
that emphasized man's potential and forgiveness of sin) and the Transcendentalist
message of man's innate goodness, reformers joined together in organizations
aimed at improving life in America. These groups attacked what they perceived
as the various wrongs in their society, including the lack of free public
school education for both boys and girls, the inhumane treatment of mentally
ill patients and criminals, the evil of slavery, the widespread use of
alcohol, and the "rights and wrongs" of American women's legal position.
The Seneca Falls Convention is a part of this larger period of social reform
movements, a time when concern about the rights of various groups percolated
to the surface.
What brought three hundred men and women to this small upstate New York
town in July 1848? Women of the Revolutionary era such as Abigail Adams
and Judith Sargent Murray raised questions about what the Declaration of
Independence would mean to them, but there had never been a large scale
public meeting to discuss this topic until Seneca Falls. Many women participated
in reform organizations whose goals were to improve the lives of others
and to fight for the rights of those who could not speak for themselves,
such as schoolchildren and the mentally ill, so the air was ripe for a
close examination of women's rights as well. A consciousness-raising experience,
however, was necessary to turn these women's thoughts to their own condition.
The triggering incident was a direct result of participation in anti-slavery
organizations by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Anti-slavery
societies proliferated in the Northeast region of the United States and
in some parts of what today we call the Midwest. Many of these organizations
had female members. In 1840 the World Anti-Slavery Convention met in London;
some of the American groups elected women as their representatives to this
meeting. Once in London, after a lengthy debate, the female representatives
were denied their rightful seats and consigned to the balcony. It was at
this meeting, while sitting in the balcony and walking through the streets
of London, that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met. Eight years
later Stanton and Mott called a convention to discuss women's rights.
THE CONVENTION'S CALL FOR WOMEN'S RIGHTS, 1848.
On July 14, 1848, the SENECA COUNTY COURIER announced that on the following
Wednesday and Thursday a "convention to discuss the social, civil, and
religious condition and rights of women" would be held. The Convention
issued a document titled the Declaration of Sentiments, a statement written
by Stanton and modeled on the Declaration of Independence.
In adapting the Declaration of Independence, Stanton replaced "King
George" with "all men" as the agent of women's oppressed condition and
compiled a suitable list of grievances, just as the colonists did in the
Declaration of Independence. These grievances reflected the severe limitations
on women's legal rights in America at this time: women could not vote;
they could not participate in the creation of laws that they had to obey;
their property was taxed; and a married woman's property and wages legally
belonged to her husband. Further, in the relatively unusual case of a divorce,
custody of children was virtually automatically awarded to the father;
access to the professions and higher education generally was closed to
women; and most churches barred women from participating publicly in the
ministry or other positions of authority.
Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed that "all men and women
were created equal" and that the undersigned would employ all methods at
their disposal to right these wrongs. David Walker, in his efforts to gain
recognition of the legal rights of Black Americans, similarly used the
Declaration of Independence in his call to the American people on behalf
of the oppressed Black population, both freed and enslaved. In the 1840s
and even today, the language of Thomas Jefferson resonates through American
life. Americans from every background believe that the ideals of the Revolution
are alive and well, and applicable to life in the present, just as the
women of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention felt those ideals spoke to them.
TEACHING WITH THE DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS.
The Declaration of Sentiments provides an opportunity for teachers to
bring historic documents into their classrooms in a variety of social studies
The Declaration of Sentiments is brief, and the language used is familiar
to most who encounter it. This accessibility gives the document great potential
for classroom use. The Declaration of Sentiments can be incorporated into
lessons on the Declaration of Independence or on the ideas of the Revolution,
a lesson on life in America in the 1840s, or specialized units focusing
on reform movements or women's history. The full text of the Declaration
of Sentiments is available through several of the Web resources listed
WORLD WIDE WEB RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT THE SENECA FALLS CONVENTION
AND THE DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS.
The following World Wide Web sites are a sampling of the many resources
on this topic available to teachers and students of United States history.
* Women's Rights National Historic Park, Seneca Falls, New York. This
site is maintained by the National Park Service and commemorates the Seneca
Falls Convention and early leaders of the women's rights movement. It provides
information about the convention itself, historic sites within the park
such as the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the text of Elizabeth Cady
Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments, a list and selected pictures of conference
participants, and links to numerous other Web resources on women's history
and the activities of women leaders before the Civil War. Especially useful
for teachers and students is a time line placing the Seneca Falls Convention
within the context of other political and cultural events of the 1840s
and 1850s. http://www.nps.gov/wori/
* Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1830-1930. Maintained
by the University of New York at Binghamton, this site features historical
documents related to women and social movements in the U.S. between 1830-1930,
arranged topically. http://womhist.binghamton.edu/index.html
* National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921.
This site, part of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the
Library of Congress' American Memory Project, is one of several in a collection
on suffrage. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/naw/nawshome.html
The second site of this collection, "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures,
1850-1920, contains portraits, cartoons, photographs, and a time line.
* One Hundred Years Toward Suffrage: An Overview, the third site, looks
at efforts toward suffrage divided into three historical time periods:
1776-1850, 1851-1899, and 1900-1920. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/vfwhtml/vfwtl.html
* Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan
B. Anthony. This site is maintained by PBS Online and provides material
to supplement PBS programming on this topic. It contains historical information,
documents, lesson plans, and links to other resources. http://www.pbs.org/stantonanthony/
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
The following list of resources includes references used to prepare
this Digest. The items followed by an ED number are available in microfiche
and/or paper copies from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS).
For information about prices, contact EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite
110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852; telephone numbers are (703) 440-1400
and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an EJ number, annotated monthly
in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNALS IN EDUCATION (CIJE), are not available through
EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal section of most large
libraries by using the bibliographic information provided, requested through
Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from commercial reprint services.
Franklin, Robin, and Tasha Lebow Wolf. REMEMBER THE LADIES! A HANDBOOK
OF WOMEN IN AMERICAN HISTORY. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Public Schools,
1980. ED 253 456.
Jacobsen, Margaret. "Giving Women the Vote: Using Primary Source Documents
to Teach about the Fight for Women's Suffrage." OAH MAGAZINE OF HISTORY
3 (Summer-Fall 1988): 50-52. EJ 391 316.
Leighow, Susan, and Rita Stener-Hine. THE ANTEBELLUM WOMEN'S MOVEMENT:
A UNIT OF STUDY FOR GRADES 8-11. Los Angeles, CA: National Center for History
in the Schools, 1998. ED 436 443.
Prosaski, Lisa, Judith Krause, and Judith E. Harper. LESSON PLANS FOR
"NOT FOR OURSELVES ALONE: THE STORY OF ELIZABETH CADY STANTON AND SUSAN
B. ANTHONY." Alexandria, VA: Public Broadcasting Service, 1999. ED 448
Ryan, Joseph E. "Prelude to Seneca Falls: An Analysis of Elizabeth Cady
Stanton." NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF HISTORY 52 (Spring 1995): 21-27. EJ 520
Teaching with Historic Places. M'CLINTOCK HOUSE: A HOME TO THE WOMEN'S
RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1999. ED 434 051.
Wellman, Judy. BE YOUR OWN HISTORIAN: SENECA FALLS AND THE 1848 WOMEN'S
RIGHTS CONVENTION. Seneca Falls, NY: Women's Rights National Historic Park's
Visitor Center, 2001. For ordering information, call (315) NAT-PARK (628-7275).