Every July, men and women of all ages and colors come together at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls to celebrate the courage and passion of the leaders who started the women’s rights movement; the festival is called Convention Days.
July 4, 1776, was the birthdate of the United States of America, yet women were not given the right to vote until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified nearly 150 years later. The park in Seneca Falls is where the first women’s rights convention took place July 19-20, 1848.
“It was the start of the largest social movement in American history; the struggle for human rights for more than half the population,” said National Park Service Ranger Patrick Stenshorn. “The stone thrown into the lake from this convention had rippling effects for so many other reform movements that are still felt today.”
Many of the tenets and advocacy efforts that led to the women’s suffrage movement all the way to contemporary issues of women’s equality can trace their roots to this first convention and the 19th century reformers who organized it.
As expansion into the American West picked up steam, Central and Western New York along the Erie Canal – the only path through the Appalachian Mountains at the time – became a hub of progressive sentiments.
Some of the most influential leaders of the anti-slavery movement, such as self-freed slave Frederick Douglass, founder of the Rochester-based abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, attended the convention and endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments, a parallel to the Declaration of Independence, written by the leaders of the convention.
The declaration introduced the demand for a woman’s right to vote into the national conversation, and the resolution was swayed into passing at the convention at the behest of Douglass. Regarding opposition to the women’s rights movement, he noted in a North Star article, “A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and the good of our land, than would be a discussion of the rights of women.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the organizers of the event, would go on to become one of history’s most influential figures in the struggle for women’s rights.
“We are assembled to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed – to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty,” said Stanton, who was born in 1815 in Johnstown, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.
“It is to protest against such unjust laws as these that we are assembled today, and to have them, if possible, forever erased from our statute books, deeming them a shame and a disgrace to a Christian republic in the 19th century. We have met to uplift woman’s fallen divinity upon an even pedestal with man’s,” Stanton said. “And, strange as it may seem to many, we now demand our right to vote according to the declaration of the government under which we live.”
The women who founded this convention dedicated their lives to fighting for human rights for women, despite any of them living long enough to see many of the rights be granted through legislation. The 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.
“Many people go to historic sites such as this to feel good about what has been accomplished since then, without focusing on the struggles they represent and the strong opposition those reformers that pushed for radical demands at the time we now take for granted, such as women’s suffrage and the right for a woman to own property,” said Lori D. Ginzberg, professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State and author of the biography “Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life.”
The early founder of the women’s rights movement was a household name during her lifetime, but Stanton is often overshadowed and overlooked in place of her successors.
“Stanton was brilliantly influential and so successful at the time that it makes it difficult to recognize her ideas, so radical in her own time, as radical at all,” Ginzberg added.
“Stanton was a real inspiration to the women’s movement. Susan B. Anthony said of her, ‘Stanton passed the bullets, and I fired them,’ ” said Lois W. Banner, professor emerita of history at the University of Southern California and author of the biography, “Elizabeth Cady Stanton: A Radical for Women’s Rights.”
Stanton was a significant leader in eradicating the iniquities toward women in the United States, and the Seneca Falls site is a place to put those accomplishments and ongoing struggles toward gender equality into perspective.
“The women’s rights movement has a founding place and that is the Women’s Rights National Historical Site in Seneca Falls. Just as people go to Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall to see where our Founding Fathers started the movement for independence, people should visit Seneca Falls to learn about the Founding Mothers of the women’s rights movement and their efforts to enfranchise the unenfranchised of the time,” Banner said.
“The site reminds us all that the struggles for civil rights, human rights and equality are global struggles that continue today,” said Noemi Ghazala, park superintendent.
“President Obama,” Ghazala said, “reaffirmed this fact in his 2013 inaugural address: ‘We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall.’ ”
Michael Sainato, a freelance writer, is a graduate of Binghamton University. His publication credits include the Miami Herald, the Hill, Huffington Post, LiveScience and EcoWatch.