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Title: The road from SENECA FALLS. (cover story)

Source: New Republic, 08/10/98, Vol. 219 Issue 6, p26, 12p, 3bw

Author(s): Stansell, Christine

Abstract: Reviews several books related to women's suffrage and feminism. Ð''The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady STANTON and Susan B. Anthony, Volume One: In the School of Anti-Slavery, 1840-1866,' edited by Ann D. Gordon; Ð''Harriet STANTON Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage,' by Ellen Carol DuBois; Ð''Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820-1920,' by Suzanne M. Marilley; More.

AN: 888132

ISSN: 0028-6583

Full Text Word Count: 9663

Database: Academic Search Premier


The feminism of the mothers, the feminism of the daughters, the feminism of the girls.



One hundred and fifty years ago this summer, in the little country town of SENECA FALLS in upstate New York, several dozen excited women and a few interested men held the first meeting in the world devoted solely to women's rights. It was 1848, the "springtime of the peoples" in Europe; and, although these Americans were far removed from the emancipatory proclamations in Europe, they caught the fever and produced one of their own, the Declaration of Sentiments: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." Compared to the apocalypticism of The Communist Manifesto, another product of that year, the SENECA FALLS Declaration seems modest, a relic of right-thinking republicanism rather than a portent of wrenching revolutionary transformation. Yet its effects were destined to be no less profound, and far more benign.

The gathering in 1848 emerged from a long, fitfully articulated history of women's grievances, though the participants were not aware of it. The interruption of historical memory and, in its absence, the strains of improvising a politics of grievance on the spot, have always characterized this tradition. The written record of female protest extends back to the late middle ages, to the French woman of letters Christine de Pizan and her Book of the City of Ladies. It was in the late eighteenth century, however, that the language of the rights of man gained momentum around the northern Atlantic world, shifting the idea of justice for women out of the register of utopia to make it, for a few highly politicized women in the age of revolution, a plausible goal in the here and now.

Thus, in 1776, Abigail Adams admonished her patriot husband, away in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress, to "remember the ladies" in their declarations, a nudge tempered by coyness but at heart quite serious. Later, in Paris, groups of women in the early days of the Revolution protested, unsuccessfully, their exclusion from representation and the franchise. And the excitement of the revolutionary debate in France stirred the young English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who was trying to earn her own living outside a man's household. In 1792 she produced, in a few red-hot months, her sensational Vindication of the Rights of Women, the first full-scale argument for women's equality.

The Americans of the middle of the nineteenth century knew little or nothing about these earlier claims and events, which were erased by the revanche against the French Revolution. The intertwined devils of Jacobinism and sexual irregularity tainted the reputation of Wollstonecraft, who died in 1797 giving birth to a child out of wedlock. (The baby grew up to be Mary Shelley.) The Vindication passed out of print, and with it any knowledge that a woman had spent concentrated intellectual labor in reflection upon the oddity of her sex's inability to profit from the universal rights of man.

The absence of an accessible tradition makes the Americans' resourcefulness all the more remarkable. In the 1830s, a few firebrands of gender subversion wandered around the English-speaking world, representatives of the utopian socialist fringe where revolutionary women's rights still flickered: Fanny Wright, for example, a labor radical and an early advocate of contraception. Yet such sensations operated at a remove from the respectable ladies who called the meeting at SENECA FALLS. For them, there was no living memory of advocacy for women's rights.

In the 1830s, as the struggle to end slavery accelerated, women in the inner circles of abolitionism began to stretch the metaphor of enslavement to encompass their own situations. The energy of extrapolation, rather than the confidence of tradition, galvanized their thinking. The analogy of woman and slave was by turns histrionic, sentimental, and brilliantly revealing, given all the actual ways in which men had the ability to coerce and to constrain wives and daughters, and given the legal fact that wives and daughters were, to some degree, the property of their husbands and fathers. "Thine in the bonds of womanhood," the Southern ex-slaveholding renegade Sarah Grimke signed each of her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1838), a paraphrase of the "bonds of slavery" designed to detonate regular provocations throughout the text.

The controversy over women's proper role was one of several differences that split the abolitionist movement in the 1830s. The nub of the issue was a woman's right to follow the dictates of her conscience into public protest. The conversion of Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina, daughters of a leading South Carolina family, to the cause immediately made them prized speakers on the antislavery circuit. Yet the prohibitions against women exposing themselves to audiences including men were so strong that leading New England clergymen threatened to withdraw their support from the movement unless the Grimkes retired. In free black circles, too, women became dedicated antislavery activists: Maria Stewart's public lectures aroused concerted opposition from African American men, as Suzanne Marilley discovers in her interesting book.

The radicals led by William Lloyd GarrisonÐ'--the "immediatists" who pressed for an unconditional end to slaveryÐ'--backed the Grimkes. The moderates in antislavery politicsÐ'--"gradualists" who believed in courting mainstream opinionÐ'--lined up with the clergy to send the



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