Declaration of Sentiments as a Symbol and Microcosm of the Woman’s Rights Movement
The Declaration of Sentiments was the first, best summary of the complaints and agenda of what has become known as the woman’s rights movement. The document is both socially and historically significant both because of how effectively embodies the women’s rights struggle of the nineteenth and later centuries and because of what the document and societies reaction to it tells historians about this period in American history.
On the twentieth and twenty first of July 1848 in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York approximately three hundred people, mostly women, met and held the first women’s rights convention in the United States. At this convention, which became known as the Seneca Falls Convention, 68 women and 32 men signed The Declaration of Sentiments, also known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. This document was written by primarily by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and outlined a number of grievances concerning discrimination against women in the United States; it also outlined eleven propositions aimed at ameliorating such injustices. Based on the language, format, and reasoning of the Declaration of Independence the Declaration of Sentiments commonly symbolizes the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States.
The Declaration of Sentiments is more than just the first major work of the women’s rights movement; it has become a symbol for the entire movement. The Declaration rose to such symbolic status for a number of reasons; the first and most basic of which is the human tendency to place great importance of first impressions. As Seneca Falls is recognized as the formal Beginning of the organized woman’s right’s movement (Livingston 67); this document is the first thorough statement of women’s complaints about the political and social repression of women. The Declaration of Sentiments was not only the first in outlining these sentiments it was also quite thorough in its discussion of the major complaints and demands of the movement. Furthermore, though more detailed and expansive lists of these issues were made none were as famous. Finally and perhaps most importantly the Declaration of Sentiments is a well written emotionally evocative document. The documents formatting and wording, in many places word for word, are the same as that used in the Declaration of Independence, one of the nations most respected and beloved documents. By drawing parallels between the struggle of America’s founders and the women’s rights movement the document uses the most deeply held beliefs of the American populace as its philosophical base. This makes the document dramatic, memorable, and forceful; the basis of any good standard bearer. Christine Bolt summarizes the effectiveness of the Declaration quite succinctly in her book TheWoman’s Movements, “It is hard to see how a better beginning could have been made.”
This symbolic status makes the study of the Declaration of Sentiments far more important than it otherwise would be. An understanding of this document is a great first step towards understanding the entire movement.
While the Declaration of Independence immediately precipitated the American Revolution the immediate effects of the Declaration of Sentiments were not so direct or immediate; the women of the country did not rise up in arms against the men of the country and it would be a long 72 years before women were given the right to vote. The importance of the Declaration of Sentiments lies its effectiveness as a rhetorical device, what it and the responses to it reveal about society at the time, and its status as a symbol for the movement, a symbol that embodies many aspects of the movement.
The Declaration of Sentiments records the major grievances of women in 1848 and these grievances reveal a great deal about the reality of the gender roles in American society. Review of the laws in place at the time can tell a student of history what the legal status of women was in theory but only primary documents like the Declaration reveal the actual conditions women lived under. The public response to the Declaration also does a great deal to illustrate society’s attitudes towards gender roles. After the Seneca Falls Convention many papers contained responses to the Declaration; most of which were extremely hostile. The articles illustrate that the men of the time were not angry about the specific complaints and measures proposed in the document but the fact that women had organized in such a manner at all. Most of these sentiments can best be summarized by a quote from an article in the Oneida Whig calling the Seneca Falls Convention, “the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity.” Knowledge of such total intellectual dismissal of women rather than popular disagreement with any particular abstract belief is essential for a true understanding of history.
Study of the Declaration of Sentiments also reveals much about the nature of the entire women’s rights movement such as the role of the abolition movement as a catalyst and often interrelated cause. The two women responsible for calling the Seneca Falls Convention together were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The two women had met eight years before the Convention when they had traveled to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London as representatives of some American abolitionist groups. The two women were denied seats because they were women and later met when they were both relegated to the balcony. Such occurrences were common. Many women who had mobilized for the sake of abolition became accustomed to the skills and techniques of political and social struggle, encountered discrimination, and used the fervor and techniques that had drawn them to abolition to agitate for their own rights. Thus women’s rights emerged as a kind of parallel cause to abolition and those working towards one of these ends often aided one another. The famous abolitionist Frederick Douglas for example was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Sentiments and used resources the women had not yet developed to publicize their cause. The earliest such occurrence being an article in the North Star in which Douglas called the Declaration, "grand basis for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.”
The Declaration of Sentiments is an extremely effective piece of rhetoric and a symbol for and microcosm of a major movement in American History. Careful study of the Declaration is extremely beneficial, even necessary, for an understanding of numerous aspects of the woman’s rights movement and the era during which it began. In understanding the beginnings of the woman’s rights movement one also learns why many similar movements began during that period. The tension caused by slavery, the increases in education, the energy from the second great awakening and many other factors combined to make the early to mid nineteenth century a breeding ground for political and social movements and defined how the individuals and groups involved in them fought for their cause of choice.
If you want to know more about these women:
Interesting, easy to read, revealing, and surprisingly entertaining this book gives an account of the Seneca Falls Convention and the beginning of the woman’s rights movement that really gives the reader an understanding of the issues, challenges, and feelings facing these women and how they dealt with them.