It was in the sleepy town of Seneca Falls, New York that two women convened a meeting of all woman seeking to abolish all restrictions in the law, and there were many, as to the legal status of women. For a sense of the then-prevailing views among North American men on this issue, consider the words spoken in the Parliament of Canada some 40 years later at Women Suffrage - Act I.

Why Seneca Falls? Because Ms Stanton lived there.

In the history of human rights generally and feminism specifically, this Declaration is of considerable significance. It is believed to have been drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) assisted by Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). Ms Mott was not just a Quaker, but an ordained minister.

Once called to order, the Declaration was put to the Seneca Falls Convention held on July 19-20, 1848, formally known as the First Women's Rights Convention. The declaration carried the timid formal title of "Declaration of Sentiments".

Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia MottLike many changes in the way a society regulates itself, the granting to women of full legal rights was not a result of any particular seminal event but, rather, the culmination of a series of increasingly popular events.1 But by any measure, the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments will always be one of the most important legal documents not just in the history of women's rights and feminism, but in the history of human rights and civil rights at large, as well as to the betterment of our world even as we now know it.

To many, the Declaration is nothing less than the beginning of the formal Women's Rights Movement in the United States of America.

Ms Stanton and Mott met each other when they were both delegates at an antislavery convention held in London, England  in 1840. It was no large leap of intellectual prowess to see the similarities between the legal status of African-American slaves in the United States of America and the legal status of women. But of that, one could not do better than the phenomenal and poignant description set out in the Declaration which now follows, verbatim.

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men - both natives and foreigners.

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.

He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.

He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband.

In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master- the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.

He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women - the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.

After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.

He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.

He allows her in Church, as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.

He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.

He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.

He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation - in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf.

We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country.

The similarities between the Seneca Falls Declaration and the 1776 - Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies, the United States of America was no accident. Ms Stanton was more than just inspired by the 1776 document. While the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration was no mere act of plagiarism, the content and tone of the two documents is strikingly similar. Both resort to religion and make broad moral propositions.

And like the Declaration of Independence, adherents to the Seneca Falls Declaration indicated their approval by signing at the end of the original document, after those words of hope: "We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country."

Certainly, by all accounts, once the actual text of the Declaration was slowly distributed throughout the United States of America, circa 1848, it quickly brought new adherence to the movement and the energy of new arrivals such as Susan Anthony and Lucy Stone.

The fight for the emancipation of women was forced into the background during the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 although it is to their immoral credit that many of the leaders of the women's rights movement were anti-slavery activists.

REFERENCES:

  • Duhaime.org, The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies (1776)
  • NOTE 1: in France, 1791, a French woman Olympe de Gouges had published a similar document in the French language, and demanding a similar change in the law. But in the brouhaha of the French Revolution, the French women's rights movement not only lost its momentum but Ms Gouges her head as she was guillotined because of her activism.