The unknown history of Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton

A portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton seated next to Susan B. Anthony
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

I n 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked with friends to organize a women’s rights convention in her town of Seneca Falls, New York, now known as the Seneca Falls Convention, where she was the main author of the Declaration of Sentiments, which called for women’s rights ranging from good jobs to the vote.

Stanton was a 32-year-old mother with a far greater education than most women had. She had learned about the law from her father and became an anti-slavery activist. In 1840, Stanton had traveled to London for the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention with fellow reformer Lucretia Mott. The convention prohibited women from taking their seats.

Stanton, along with many women’s rights reformers, learned how to organize social movements from their anti-slavery work. They needed shared goals, newspapers, regular meetings, and national organizations. Local groups had petitioned states for women’s rights for years, but women needed a movement.

Stanton modeled the Declaration of Sentiments after Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Stanton wrote that “all men and women are created equal.” She advocated for the vote by stating: “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.” At that time, most married women could not own property, control their own money, or divorce their husbands. Opponents argued that fathers, husbands, and sons politically represented their female counterparts. Stanton declared: “Women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights.”

After significant debate, 100 men and women endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments, and reformers distributed the text widely. They agreed on specific goals to launch their movement. Two years later, reformers organized the first of what would become the National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Stanton remained a women’s rights leader for the rest of her life. She made great contributions, but her racism prevented her from embracing equality for all. Stanton lobbied against votes for Black men, focused on winning the vote for wealthy white women, and often excluded women of color. The goals she listed in the Declaration of Sentiments are still part of today’s debates about women’s rights.