By Ken Zurski
In July of 1848 a teenager named Charlotte Woodward read an announcement in a local newspaper about a group of women who would be meeting at a Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, a modest wagon ride from her family’s farm near Syracuse. “A convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman, “ the ad read. Woodward was intrigued.
Woodward had been a school teacher at age fifteen but mostly worked at home, sewing gloves for merchants to sell. The work was long and the pay nearly nonexistent. This was the role of a woman at the time, no identity and no apparent social status other than tending to her family or husband’s needs and eventually having babies, oftentimes lots of them. A woman’s wages, if she worked, belonged to her spouse. She had no rights, no advantages. “She was her father’s daughter,” one writer stressed about the role of women in the mid 19th century, “until she became her husband’s wife.”
She was, however, protected by law against physical abuse, but only with “a stick bigger than a man’s thumb.” A punishment would be imposed, but no damages were ever awarded for injuries since no woman had the right to sign any legal documents.
Woodward was unmarried and feared no man, but she fumed at the prospects of working the rest of her life for others and eventually to a man she might be forced to wed, but did not love. “Every fiber of my being reveled, although silently, for all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, after it was earned, could never be mine.” Her interest in the women’s rights convention was more a revelation than a curiosity. “I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages.”
So she went to Seneca Falls.
The convention was the brainchild of two women, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who attended the World’s Anti-Slavery Congress in London in 1840 as part of a women delegation, four in fact, and first of its kind. Their voices were mostly silenced. Some reports had the women turned away at the hall entrance. Returning home, Mott and Stanton gathered a lively group of women who discussed equality behind closed doors. In 1848, they felt it was time to take their case public. So they announced the convention’s date and invited anyone, even men, to come. Men could be part of the second day’s activities, the ad implied. “The first day would be exclusively for women.”.
Apparently, men didn’t care for rules not imposed by men. So on the first day, more than 50 lined up in front of the church. Some women were appalled, but Woodward recalls the men as “uncommonly liberal,” apparently meaning they had open, not closed minds. One man was proof of that. His name was Frederick Douglass.
But it wasn’t just men who were outside of the church that day. It was the women too. The church doors were locked and only the minister had a key. Apparently, the minister, who earlier approved the conference, had changed his mind after talking to the elders of the church, all men of course. As one story goes, the women stood on each other’s shoulders, managed to open a window shutter, climb inside, and open the doors. Nothing more was reported of the minister’s emphatic reversal after that.
Mott was a very good speaker, a rarity for a woman. Not that she was well-spoken, many were, but that she had the natural ability to express her views in front of a large audience. Public speaking was not something a woman could practice at the time. James Mott, her husband would hold order since by law, women could not. The ladies were there to change the laws, not break them.
By the end of the two days and nearly 18 hours of speeches, debates and readings, most of the women including Woodward signed a document titled “Declaration of Sentiments,” similar to the Declaration of Independence. The 1000 word document began with an opening statement that revised text from Thomas Jefferson’s original declaration and first sentence. It read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” The two added words were obvious.
The statement ended this way:
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpation 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.”
And then came the point of the conference, the sentiments, or “facts.” These were the rules that must change. Among them were disapproval’s of common law, mostly taken for granted by men. “He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns,” read one. “He has compelled her to commit to laws in the formation by which she had no voice,” went another. “He has made her, in marriage, in the eyes of the law, civilly dead.”
Only one sentiment was a sticking point for the women. It read: “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” This was a social decalration, some argued, not a political one. The right to vote would likely get the least support from men. And besides, it might be the one sentiment that men were so strongly against that they would ignore all the others. After much debate, most of the women wanted the voting rights stricken from the document. But Frederick Douglass, a self-educated former slave, spoke in favor of its inclusion. “In this denial of the right to participate in government,” he eloquently stated, “not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the meaning and repudiation of one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government – of the world.”
Later, Susan B Anthony, who was not at the conference, would make voting rights the cornerstone of the suffragette movement, a debate that became more contentious after the Civil War ended and freed slaves also demanded the right to vote. Once again, Douglass was at the forefront. But it was not an easy sell, especially for women whose efforts to that point had been one frustrating roadblock followed by another.
In 1866, Anthony’s mouthpiece, the outspoken Stanton, went too far. She called former slaves “ignorant(s) and foreigners,” and chastised Douglass and others for putting blacks rights before a woman’s. Douglass, who to that point supported suffrage, angrily countered: “When women, because they are women, are hunted down…when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts, when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed upon the pavement, when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn, when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads…then they will have the urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” In the end, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed which included race, but not gender. In principle, blacks could vote, but not black women.
But that fight would come much later. In 1848, Douglass’ words about women being “one-half of the moral and intellectual power of government” rang true. The call for men to integrate women in elections was included in the “sentiments” and the resolution passed.
When it was over, most men were apathetic. Some sarcastically called the two days of meetings a “Hen Convention” and mocked the proceedings. “If there is one characteristic of the sex which more than another elevates and ennobles it,” one newspaper editor, obviously a man, wrote, “it is the persistency and intensity of a woman’s love for man. The ladies always had the best place and choicest tidbits at the table.”
But despite the protests, the convention sparked more debates, more meetings and a movement which would last for years.
Woodward had no idea how that day would change her. She eventually joined Anthony’s suffrage camp and spent the rest of her life fighting for the right to vote.
Finally in 1920, after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment, she had the chance.
Sadly, though, she never got to cast that first – or any – ballot.
Charlotte Woodward Pierce, her married name, was the youngest to sign the “Declaration of Sentiments” and now some seven decades later, of the 68 women who participated in Seneca Falls, she was the sole survivor.
On election day 1920, she fell ill and stayed home. The next year, her eyesight went bad. “I’m too old,” she said. “I’m afraid I’ll never vote.”
That same year she died at the age of 92.
(Sources: Judith Wellman, Historian Historical New York; “The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age” by Myra MacPherson)