Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement (Pivotal Moments in American History)
Oxford University Press, 2008
320 pp., 28.00
Chatting casually with historian James McPherson, Davidson professor Sally McMillen learned that he was co-editing a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. "Surprised by what I did not hear, I responded, 'But you have nothing on women!' He looked at me and asked, 'Do you have any ideas?' 'Well, as a start,' I answered, 'Seneca Falls.'"
McMillen tells that anecdote explaining how she came to write the story of the American women's rights movement in the 19th century. For her "pivotal moment" she chose the 1848 two-day convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first substantial meeting dedicated exclusively to women's rights. She weaves her account of the movement around four prominent leaders: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone. (Unnervingly, McMillen refers to them throughout by their first names—"because I have come to know them well and because using their first names make [sic] them seem more human.") The result is a very readable, brief history—just what someone needs to begin to learn about the early trajectory of women's rights in America. McMillen is thorough and even-handed, with no ideological axe to grind. She writes well. Bravo.
Nevertheless, an unspoken question from her conversation with McPherson reverberates: how could you overlook women's rights? We are speaking of half of America, deprived of the rights of citizenship for well over a century by the greatest democracy in the world. Not even anti-slavery had such scope. Susan B. Anthony had reasons for saying, two years afterward, that Seneca Falls was "the grandest and greatest reform of all time—and destined to be thus regarded by the future historian."
And yet a great historian apparently overlooked it. And so might many others. As one woman put it to me, the story lacks testosterone. The movement's work was an almost endless series of unproductive conventions, speeches, petitions, and publications, with content and leadership that rarely changed from year to year.
Opposition had the firmness of mashed potatoes. The movement's greatest enemies were in the church, where pastors regularly and indignantly trashed it. But this was never an organized resistance; that came mainly from brewers and distillers, who put up money to fight woman suffrage because they feared the moral impact of women voters. Most opposition was passive, a sluggish unwillingness to change.
The awkward fact is that women themselves never wholly supported the movement. When they got the vote, they immediately began to use it. But before the Nineteenth Amendment became law on August 26, 1920, women were maddeningly lethargic about its cause. Ordinary women never found much in common with the well-off and well-educated women who led the movement; they couldn't see what they got out of it, practically. Nowadays feminists rue the fact that younger women, while appreciating equal rights, don't like to call themselves feminists or draw attention to their desire for equality. That problem has an old pedigree.
Seneca Falls built on an era of reform. The Second Great Awakening created a thirst for social righteousness in many Americans, and a great outpouring of reform movements. Sunday schools, seamen's friends societies, Bible societies, schools for the poor, foreign missionary organizations, missions to Native Americans, tract publishers and distributors, missions to sex-trade workers—these and many other movements were launched in the 1820s.
Nearly all the women and men who began to struggle for women's rights first worked in temperance or abolition. From their involvement they caught the optimistic spirit of American reform; they learned basic skills of speaking, publishing, and organizing. Remember that women had almost no public voice in America, and therefore no experience in public advocacy and organization. Reform movements put women to work.
Just as important, abolition's basic premise took hold on women's imaginations. Did slaves have an inalienable right as human beings to shape their own destinies? Surely women did too. So it happened that, in the summer of 1848, a small group of women drinking tea in a minor industrial town in New York's "burned-over district" decided to hold a women's rights convention. They put it together in a matter of days, managing to attract a few hundred people, including Frederick Douglass, who came on the train from nearby Rochester. Lucretia Mott, a Quaker visiting from Philadelphia, lent her abolitionist celebrity to the proceedings. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a bright and irrepressible young mother married to Henry Stanton, a budding anti-slavery politician, wrote most of the convention's platform, a variation on the Declaration of Independence beginning with, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal."
The convention was a great success. It established women's rights as a subject of its own and drew a corps of women into collaboration. Stanton began to forge her identity as a formidable intellect and inspirational leader of the movement. It was not long before she met Susan Anthony, the hard-working, single schoolteacher who brought discipline and focus. With their very different gifts and approaches, the two made an outstanding team. They were joined by Lucy Stone, such an attractive and gifted speaker that she soon could make a living on the speaking circuit. When she eventually married Henry Blackwell (Stone kept her unmarried name), she supported him financially more than the reverse.
Conventions, petitions, and publications were organized on an ad hoc basis, with no attempt at a standing organization. Only after the Civil War did this fluid fellowship begin to harden into institutions. Not incidentally, enmities and grudges also formed and hardened—differences that were to hold back the movement for the next fifty years.
The end of the Civil War presented a grand opportunity. Questions of human and civil rights were up for grabs for the first time since the Constitution was written. Why shouldn't the claims of women be recognized as readily as those of African Americans? The time also presented a dilemma: whether to back African Americans in their bid for voting rights, or to demand that nobody should get those rights sooner than women. Wendell Phillips, a strong supporter of women's rights, insisted on "one question at a time. This hour belongs to the negro." But most women's rights reformers disagreed. Stanton went further, appalled at the idea that she should "stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk into the kingdom first." She disparaged the fitness of African Americans to vote, in comparison, as she saw it, to educated, refined women. And when she and Anthony campaigned in Kansas for women's voting rights, they joined forces with George Francis Train, a wealthy Democrat dandy who made no secret of his racism. After the Kansas vote ended in failure, he financed the two in publishing a magazine, The Revolution, which was soon bankrupt. Many women's rights comrades felt tainted by the association, but Stanton and Anthony would not back down.
It was typical of Stanton that she made bad judgments and then stood by them. Years later she would join forces with the notorious Victoria Woodhull, known for advocating free love and for her questionable financial dealings with millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt. Still later Stanton would publish A Woman's Bible, a screed against Christian orthodoxy that was censured by her own organization. Stanton was bright, mercurial, argumentative, and charismatic. She would surely dominate daytime talk shows today. Building an organization around such a character is another matter. It is a credit to Anthony's steady determination that she managed to hold on to Stanton and yet keep the institutional machinery turning.
Anthony, though, could be jealous and domineering. In the acrimony over African American voting rights, she and Stanton formed the first national women's organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell promptly formed the rival American Woman Suffrage Association (awsa). Though the two were all but identical, they were to carry on sniping at each other until 1890, when the next generation healed the rift and merged the organizations. Even then, it was another twenty years before the movement could shed the grip of past resentments and adopt new, vigorous strategies that led to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Some of the fruitlessness of those years was surely due to leaders' bad judgments, their unwillingness to pass on leadership or to give up on old quarrels. But surely a new generation of leaders would have forced their way to the top, had the movement gripped the lives of women as it had gripped these original leaders. Woman suffrage often failed to generate such passion. Back in 1868 the abolitionist Thomas Higginson was troubled by this indifference, noting, "Men can never secure women's rights vicariously for them." Masses of women were more readily mobilized for temperance or abolition—reforms that made more obvious practical differences.
And yet looking back, one cannot help admiring the persistence, the sometimes cranky persistence, that kept a movement going despite smothering indifference. In the end, reason triumphed. If women were human beings and American citizens, if they were to be taxed and ruled by a government that derived its legitimacy from the will of "the people," it made no sense that they be denied the vote. Their exclusion not only defied logic, it insulted women. In 1920, long after the pioneers had all gone to their graves, that insult ended. We should not forget.
Tim Stafford is the author most recently of Shaking the System: What I Learned from the Great American Reform Movements (InterVarsity Press).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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