Episode 12

Speeches from The Seneca Falls Women's Convention, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Published on: 9th February, 2021

Intro - Amy:  Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy, I’m Amy McPhie Allebest.

Today we are going to discuss some iconic texts in Women’s History. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention was the first Women’s Rights convention in American history, and the speeches delivered there have been touchstones for Women’s Rights movements all over the world, ever since. The convention is considered the kick-off of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, even though it would be 72 years before the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote, and it would be 117 more years before the Voting Rights Act was passed, in 1965, which protected Black men and women’s right to vote. This was a slow and painful process, and amidst some of the inspiring language of the Seneca Falls convention speeches you can already see some big problems that would keep thwarting the effort toward voting justice for all Americans. But we’ll get to that later.


Frst, I’m going to introduce my reading partner, Courtney McPhie. Hi, Courtney!


Courtney: Hi, Amy!


Amy:


If you follow Courtney McPhie’s lineage, you will find yourself in Scotland, where a fierce and stubborn streak planted early roots for a family tree. Growing up in Colorado, Courtney experienced a typical awakening to social justice in high school, but took until college to call herself a feminist. A voracious reader and podcast-listener, Courtney lives in Northern Virginia, in the DC Metro area. She completed her graduate studies at George Mason University and holds a masters degree in education, which she uses as a high school English teacher in Fairfax County, one of the largest districts in the country. She works largely with English Language Learners, mostly asylum-seekers who have come from Central America in the last three years. Courtney lives with her husband and three cute kids in a Colonial house on a hill. 


What interests Courtney in the project

The chance to briefly own a microphone (haha)


Amy:

Ok, let’s dive in! First, let’s talk about the organizers and speakers at the convention - Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Courtney, can you start by telling us about Lucretia Mott?


Courtney:


Born January 3, 1793, Lucretia Coffin was raised in a Quaker family in Boston. She was sent to a Quaker school, where she became even more adamant in her belief that all are born equal. When she finished school she stayed on as a teacher, then became a Quaker preacher where she became a staunch abolitionist and women’s rights activist. By 1811, Mott was living in Philadelphia where she married her father’s business partner, James Mott. 

Mott was passionate about her work as an abolitionist, something that was supported by her husband. She started the Philadelphia Femail Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 after working with William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist who encouraged women to be involved in the movements. He encouraged Mott and all women to write and speak out about these issues, which caused Mott to be ridiculed for her acting in ways that were unbecoming of women. However, she did not let this stop her. 

Mott soon became frustrated that, as a woman, she was not allowed to participate in many of the abolitionist groups and conventions. It was at this time she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with their respective husbands, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England. 

 

The two women became allies when the male delegates attending the convention voted that women should be denied participation in the proceedings, even if they, like Mott, had been nominated to serve as official delegates of their respective abolitionist societies. After considerable debate, the women were required to sit in a roped-off section hidden from the view of the men in attendance. They were soon joined by the prominent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, who arrived after the vote had been taken and, in protest of the outcome, refused his seat, electing instead to sit with the women. The humiliation of this event, forced to be seated separately, not even seen by the men, sparked fury in the women. This event became a catalyst for their own movement and convention.


In 1848, while at a tea with some close friends, Mott and Stanton came up with the idea of the Seneca Falls Convention. Planned for only ten days later, the women published an invitation to the Convention in several papers, including Frederick Douglass’s publication The North Star. Douglass was eager to attend and show his support for Mott, Stanton, and women’s rights. 

Though Mott considered women’s rights “the most important question of [her] life,” she remained committed to abolition, protesting the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. 

After living a life full of activism and advocacy, Mott died on November 11, 1880 of pneumonia, and was buried near her home, north of Philadelphia. 


[Sources: Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement, Sally G. McMillen, Oxford University Press, 2008 

https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/lucretia-mott

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucretia_Mott]



Amy - Great. So I researched a bit about Elizabeth Cady Stanton.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady, the eighth of eleven children, was born in Johnstown, New York, on November 12, 1815. That makes her 22 years younger than Lucretia Mott.

Elizabeth’s father was a lawyer and a judge, and he introduced his daughter to the law. Even as a young girl, she enjoyed reading her father's law books and debating legal issues with his law clerks. It was this early exposure to law that, in part, caused Stanton to realize how disproportionately the law favored men over women, particularly married women. Her realization that married women had virtually no property, income, employment, or even custody rights over their own children, helped set her course toward changing these inequities.

 

Two anecdotes from the New York Times last month:

 

Stanton’s father was a judge in Johnstown, N.Y., with an office in the family home on Main Street. Asking about the anguished faces of women who sought his counsel, Stanton learned that marriage erased a woman’s identity, rendering her “civilly dead.” In a fury, Stanton, 10 at the time, tried to slice the relevant statutes from her father’s law books.

One of her father’s clerks, noticing a coral necklace Stanton had gotten as a Christmas gift, once baited her, saying, “‘When you get married, your husband will own it. He can swap your necklace for cigars, and it will go up in smoke,’” Ms. Jenkins said. As an adult, Stanton lobbied the New York legislature, and the state became one of the first to overhaul marital property rights.

 

Unlike many women of her era, Stanton was formally educated. She attended Johnstown Academy in her home town until the age of 16. 

Her mother, having lost six children, struggled with depression and was emotionally absent. When yet another of Stanton’s siblings, her 20-year-old brother Eleazar died, Stanton remembers trying to comfort her father, saying that she would try to be all her brother had been. At the time, her father's response devastated Stanton: "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!" This devastated Elizabeth, but motivated her to work harder.

Elizabeth was a model student, and she wanted to attend college where her brother Eleazar had studied, but females were not admitted. She was furious, but went to a female seminary instead.

As a young woman, Elizabeth Cady met the abolitionist Henry Brewster Stanton. The couple was married in 1840, with Elizabeth Cady requesting of the minister that the phrase "promise to obey" be removed from the wedding vows. She later wrote, "I obstinately refused to obey one with whom I supposed I was entering into an equal relation." The couple had seven children. At the beginning of their marriage the couple worked tirelessly in the cause of abolition, meeting with and being influenced by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Louisa May Alcott, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

As Courtney mentioned, Stanton met the much-older Lucretia Mott at the Anti-Slavery Convention in London, and the two women developed a close friendship and a common mission to fight for women’s rights. She said:

The general discontent I felt with woman's portion as wife, housekeeper, physician, and spiritual guide, the chaotic conditions into which everything fell without her constant supervision, and the wearied, anxious look of the majority of women, impressed me with a strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular. My experience at the World Anti-slavery Convention, all I had read of the legal status of women, and the oppression I saw everywhere, together swept across my soul, intensified now by many personal experiences. It seemed as if all the elements had conspired to impel me to some onward step. I could not see what to do or where to begin—my only thought was a public meeting for protest and discussion.

In 1848, acting on these feelings and perceptions, Stanton joined Mott, Mott's sister Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt and a handful of other women in Seneca Falls. Together they organized the Seneca Falls Convention, and as Courtney said, planned it within 10 days. The conference took place over the course of two days, on July 19 and 20, 1848, and over 300 people attended. 

 

Sources: 

Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement, Sally G. McMillen, Oxford University Press, 2008

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Cady_Stanton

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/08/07/us/suffragists-descendants.html]

 

So now let’s look at the texts. We chose to read the transcripts of some of the most important speeches given at the convention. Courtney, can you give us an outline of the three speeches we’ll be discussing today? 

 

Outline of the documents - Courtney:

There were two days to the convention, and these documents are from the first day, when only women were present. 

FIrst we have the declaration of sentiments, a powerful document which was modeled after the Constitution stating the rights of women. 

The next document we are going to cover is the Resolutions. These were a set of actions the women wanted to fight for. The most well known is Resolution nine, which boldly stated that women should have the right to vote. These resolutions were put to a vote among the women, and all but the ninth passed. The women were a bit scandalized by this resolution for suffrage that Stanton and Mott had snuck in. 

Now, after the ninth resolution failed to pass, the organizers of the convention had Frederick Douglass speak, followed by the Keynote speech by Stanton. Both appealed to their audience to pass the ninth resolution. These speeches held sway, and when the resolutions came up to a vote after, all eleven resolutions, including the ninth passed. 


Declaration- Amy: 

 Like Olympe de Gouges responding to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in France, Stanton takes the American Declaration of Independence as a starting point, and applies it to women. 


She begins “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary” to make a big change… and follows it with “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…” etc. etc.


After the introductory paragraph which uses the US Declaration as a template, she takes on the project of “breaking down patriarchy” as clearly and succinctly as any text we’re going to read during this series. 


She points out that men have always placed themselves in the position to make rules for women, and have from that position of power, they have restricted their rights.


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.


He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. 


He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. 


Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.


He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.


Story of EC Stanton in her father’s law office. Couverture erased women. 


He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.


Story of EC Stanton and the coral necklace.


In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master - the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement. (physical beatings)


He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce; in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given; as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women - the law, in all cases, going upon the false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.


Thank goodness this has changed. Children, like everything else, were 100% the property of the man during this time. 

It’s interesting how this has swung, with children more likely to stay with their mothers because of the role of women being the nurturer of the family, when truly parenthood should be a joint partnership, even after divorce. 


He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.


He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction, which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.


He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education - all colleges being closed against her.


He allows her in Church as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.


He has created a false public sentiment, by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.


He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.


He has endeavored in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.


Discussion on the usefulness of attributing purposeful motive to men


I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, it’s true that there is a collective “he” that has oppressed woman and crushed her soul and destroyed her confidence and self-respect. And there are individual men who do this to women. There are men who do it almost purposefully because they truly do not respect their wives and their daughters or their female students or female employees. I have encountered men like this, and it is deplorable.


But more commonly, there are men who don’t know they are doing that to their wives and daughters and female students and employees, but nevertheless they ARE destroying their confidence in their own powers, lessening their self-respect, and making them lead a dependent life. And men who think “I would never do that!” (even though sometimes they do) would read that sentence and feel defensive, because it says “he has endeavored in every way” to do those things. This makes him sound like a monster, and no one wants to feel like a monster.


I think this is like the #notallmen movement, which isn’t helpful. No, most men don’t mean to do this, but a lot of them do it anyway without knowing because they don’t take the time to investigate themselves. And the misogyny is systemic, created by men in power, and everyday men benefit from this power without even realizing, and that’s their privilege. So it’s true many men don’t act that way, but I don’t find it to be a valid excuse to excuse the “good” men from responsibility. Even if no one wants to feel like a monster, he is still participating in and profiting from a monstrous power structure. 


I think it’s a better move strategically - and it’s more aligned with my values of assuming the best in others - to acknowledge the following:

  • No person currently living designed this system. 
  • There is no committee that meets to discuss the ways they can destroy women on purpose
  • There are some men who are terrible to women on purpose, but most are doing the best they know how, doing what they were taught by their parents and their cultures. We are all doing the best we know how with the information we have. But it’s our responsibility to learn more. No excuse to just make do with the information we have.
  • People respond best to feedback if they hear “I” statements and not broad, sweeping statements that ascribe malicious motives to their behaviors.


These women needed - and we still need - to recruit men’s involvement and make them want to help.


Resolutions - Amy:


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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.