'All men and women are created equal' Convention: A four-day celebration beginning today honors those who gathered in Seneca Falls, N.Y., 150 years ago to begin the battle for women's rights in the United States.

July 16, 1998|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

What happened for women in Seneca Falls in July 1848 has been compared in importance to what happened for men in Philadelphia in July 1776 -- in creating citizenship in the world's first modern democracy.

True, there was no bloodshed in the revolution born in the Methodist chapel of a small town in upstate New York. And the journey launched took a lot longer than that of the Founding Fathers.

But there were echoes of what Thomas Jefferson and John Adams called the "spirit of '76": The first women's rights convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848, involved both a tea party and a declaration.

It was a Declaration of Sentiments, drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It pointedly added to the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal."

Written in language of Jefferson as he listed grievances against the English king, the American women's rights manifesto asserted: "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman. He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise [vote]. He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice."

The declaration was signed by 100 people: 67 women, 32 men and a girl of 13. Today, thousands of women are congregating in Seneca Falls to celebrate that convention and honor the document it produced 150 years ago.

Lucretia Mott, the Philadelphia Quaker activist and minister, was among the convention's main speakers. So were her husband James Mott, who chaired one session, and her friend Frederick Douglass, the African-American whose fiery anti-slavery oratory had begun to make his name.

Douglass was one of the declaration's 100 signers and explained in his autobiography that he was known as a "woman's rights man." He added, "I am glad to say that I have never been ashamed to be thus designated."

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will be there today, delivering the keynote address at opening ceremonies after a trip that included a stop to see Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad house in Auburn, N.Y.

So will longtime feminist Betty Friedan, author of the 1963 classic "The Feminine Mystique." And so will Baltimore native Ellen Carol DuBois, now a history professor at UCLA and author of several books on the women's suffrage movement.

"We're taking a three-generational pilgrimage," said DuBois yesterday, before driving to Seneca Falls with her mother, Mildred DuBois, and two 14-year-old nieces, Sara DuBois and Anna Fitzgerald.

There they will find a four-day celebration, featuring dramatizations of the original event and characters; a "Legacy -- Tent" under which girls and women will be invited to write down their dreams and hopes for the future; the unveiling of a statue of Sojourner Truth, a former slave and women's rights advocate; and a free evening concert by folk singer Judy Collins, who is likely to sing "Bread and Roses," an old suffrage song.

"Although the focus is on the here and now, people are coming here for many reasons," says Vivien Rose, historian at the National Park Service, which administers the site year-round. "They are inspired and interested in reassessing what happened here and what will happen."

Rose estimates that nearly 100,000 people will visit Seneca Falls for the event, which continues through Sunday.

How many know the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, not to mention Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M'Clintock and Martha Coffin Wright?

"On July 13, 1848, five women sat around a mahogany tea table and planned a revolution. Six days later, the revolution began," begins the book, "Mothers of Feminism," an authoritative account of Quaker women in America by Margaret Hope Bacon.

Four of the five who organized the first women's rights convention were Quakers, all except Stanton. Mott and Wright were sisters from the well-known Quaker family of Coffins in Nantucket, Mass.

The five women were connected to a strong web of social reformers and so were able to round up a good crowd for their two-day meeting in the Methodist chapel. "The reason it was so successful is that they belonged to networks of anti-slavery and temperance activists," says Rose.

Stanton put forth the declaration, which protested women's lack of status "in Church as well as State," and in higher eduction, with "all colleges closed against her." Another stated grievance was that married women could not own or control property.

She concluded with a rhetorical flourish -- "relying on the final triumph of the Right and the True" -- and expressed hope that other conventions on women's rights would soon follow, "embracing every part of the country."

"Any question about the historical significance of this event," Bacon wrote, "was soon dispelled by the vehemence of the reaction, as both the press and the clergy denounced these desexed females for stepping out of their sphere."

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