At Seneca Falls, time to honor foremothers

July 17, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. -- This is where it all began. Exactly 150 years ago, on July 19, 1848, when nearly 300 people gathered at the center of this blue-collar mill town to give birth to the women's rights movement.

Women and men, Quakers and other abolitionists, sat within these two brick walls that are all that remain now of the Wesleyan Chapel. Here they listened to the Declaration of Sentiments:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . ."

To understand just how radical this notion was, how audacious the first women's rights convention was, consider the state of women in mid-19th-century America. They were, in the words of this declaration, "civilly dead."

Women couldn't vote, hold office, testify in court, attend college, enter into a contract. Married women couldn't hold property -- neither their inheritance nor the clothes on their back -- and divorced women lost custody of their children.

Yet not far from the chapel that is now part of the Women's Rights National Historical Park lived Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an isolated 32-year-old mother of three who was suffering from what she later called a "mental hunger."

Quite a tea

On July 13, Stanton drove her horse and buggy to spend a day with three other women and the visiting abolitionist Lucretia Mott. This social "tea" rapidly turned serious. Stanton released "the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself as well as the rest of the party to do and dare anything."

By the end of a day in which the links between personal and political troubles were forged, the five women had placed an ad announcing -- perhaps before they lost their nerve -- a convention to be held in less than a week.

The next morning, they began sifting through papers, looking for some guideline for their protest. And finally, at the table now on view at the visitor's center, Stanton chose the Declaration of Independence as their model.

As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Saturday during her induction to the Women's Hall of Fame here, "Who but the crafters of the Seneca Falls declaration could have found a way, in just their second sentence, to get the better of Thomas Jefferson?"

The declaration, listing grievances directed not at the tyranny of King George but of man, was signed by 68 women and 32 men. Only one man however -- Frederick Douglass -- agreed to the most outrageous proposal: a demand for the right to vote. Even Lucretia Mott worried that suffrage was going too far. "Oh, Lizzie," she wrote her friend, "thou will make us ridiculous. We must go slowly."

Now it seems remarkable both how far and how "slowly" the ideas sown by these women spread. And how deep the opposition.

"In entering the great work before us," the declaration had concluded, "we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation and ridicule . . ." In ways that sound all-too familiar to our ears, the women were cast as "Fe-he Males." The "hen convention" was condemned as "the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity."

Today, the site of this anniversary party is still one part sleepy upstate town and one part National Park. Not long ago the Wesleyan Chapel was a laundromat, and Stanton's house where she raised seven children and a revolution is still being restored.

In 1998, women are "civilly alive." We have the right to vote but only 12 percent of the Congress is female. This week we celebrate an equal rights anniversary, but the most visible celebrity is still a first "lady." And not all rights are equal.

We may smile at the costumes that restrained 19th-century women and the culture that defined voting as "manly." Yet just this spring, the Southern Baptists told wives to "submit graciously" to their husbands. Weeks ago, Time magazine, which cannot even define feminism, declared it dead again. And young women who breeze into professions once closed to their sex are often afraid to call themselves feminists.

If there is one sentiment that emanates out of this history, it is the raw courage of the handful of women who in Stanton's modest phrase, "set the ball in motion."

Not one of the women ever lived to cast a vote. But as Secretary Albright said on a sunny afternoon, "The sentiments contained in the Seneca Falls declaration have endured not simply because of their logic and eloquence, but because of the underlying power of their central premise which is that every individual counts. . . . [This] has united the women's movement across the boundaries of nation, status and culture, through the window of time . . ."

One hundred and fifty years. It's a good start.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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