Women's rights and the Seneca Falls Convention

The first women's rights movement advocated equal rights for white women by leveraging abolitionist and Second Great Awakening sentiment.

Overview

  • The women’s rights movement of the mid-1800s gained traction through abolitionist sentiment and religious fervor surrounding the Second Great Awakening.
  • The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, published at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, used constitutional language to underline the inconsistencies between national commitments to human equality and the treatment of women.
  • Women leveraged their specialty in all things involving the private sphere—the home—to organize and empower white women.

Abolition to the beginning of women's rights

Women lead the charges in many antebellum reforms, from transcendentalism to temperance to abolition. While leading these reforms, women gained the political traction to begin the first wave of US feminism. Paradoxically, the cult of domesticity—the view that women should remain relegated to the household—played a role in encouraging women’s participation in public movements. Women who rallied for temperance, for example, highlighted their role as moral guardians of the home to advocate against intoxication. Some women argued for a much more expansive role—educating children and men in solid republican principles, like liberty and justice.
Feminist appeals of the early 19th century drew heavily on religion, spurred by the spiritual revivals of the Second Great Awakening. But it was work in antislavery efforts that served as a springboard for women to take action against gender inequality. Northern women particularly came to the conclusion that they, like enslaved people, were held in shackles in a society dominated by men.
Two leading abolitionist women, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, played major roles in combining the fight to end slavery with the struggle to achieve female equality. The Grimké sisters had been born into a prosperous slaveholding family in South Carolina. Both were caught up in the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, and they moved to the North.
In the mid-1830s, the sisters joined the abolitionist movement, and in 1837, they embarked on a public lecture tour, during which they promoted abolition to audiences of both women and men, known as promiscuous assemblies. This public action thoroughly scandalized respectable society, where it was unheard of for women to lecture to men. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the famous abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator endorsed the Grimké sisters’ public lectures, but other abolitionists did not. Their lecture tour served as a turning point—the reaction against them propelled the question of women’s proper sphere in society to the forefront of public debate.
Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Image credits: left, Wikimedia Commons; right, Wikimedia Commons

Seneca Falls and The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments

Participation in the abolitionist movement led many women to rally for the cause of their own subjugation, which was compared to—but unequal to—that of African Americans at the time. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony lead the movement. Anthony left such a legacy for the feminist cause that progressive women everywhere were called Suzy Bs. The public considered Elizabeth Cady Stanton quite radical for suggesting that women should have the right to vote in the 1840s.
In 1848, about 300 male and female feminists, many of them veterans of the abolition campaign, gathered at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York for a conference on women’s rights that was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was the first of what became annual meetings that have continued to the present day. Attendees agreed to a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments based on the Declaration of Independence. It declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “The history of mankind,” the document continued, “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.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the principal author of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, and Susan B. Anthony. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Republican Motherhood

Some northern female reformers saw new and vital roles for their sex in the realm of education. They believed in traditional gender roles, viewing women as inherently more moral and nurturing than men. Because of these attributes, the feminists argued, women were uniquely qualified to take up the roles of educators of children. This idea began in the late 1700s but was codified and gained support during the mid-1800s with the rise of the first women's rights movement.
Catherine Beecher, the daughter of Lyman Beecher and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, pushed for women’s roles as educators. In her 1845 book, The Duty of American Women to Their Country, she argued that the United States had lost its moral compass due to democratic excess. Both “intelligence and virtue” were imperiled in an age of riots and disorder. Women, she argued, could restore the moral center by instilling in children a sense of right and wrong. Beecher represented a northern, middle-class female sensibility. The home, especially the parlor, became the site of northern female authority. This can be seen in James Peale's The artist and his family. The mother is the subject in the foreground, while the man is physically blocked by her figure, signifying the dominant role she plays caring for the children.
James Peale, The artist and his family, 1795, depicting the Republican Motherhood. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
The spirit of religious awakening and reform in the antebellum era impacted women’s lives by allowing them to think about their lives and their society in new and empowering ways. Although this early phase of American feminism did not lead to political rights for women immediately—it was eclipsed by the fight for abolition in the mid 19th century—it began the long process of overcoming gender inequality in America.

What do you think?

Compare and contrast the mid-19th century women’s rights movement and the abolition movement.
How did the beginning of the women’s rights movement challenge gender norms? How did it reinforce them?
Which feminine racial identities were represented by the first women's rights movements? Which were not?
This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
This article was adapted from "Women's Rights." OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. 2016.
Notes
  1. David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013)