The convention was scheduled to begin on Wednesday, July 19, at 11 a.m. That morning the planners assembled early. Lucretia Mott came the fourteen miles from Auburn with her sister and husband. Elizabeth Cady Stanton walked less than a mile from her house on the outskirts of town to the Wesleyan Chapel, accompanied by her five-year-old son Henry Jr., her sister Harriet, and Harriet's son Daniel. In all the difficult work that the women had done to draft their declaration, they had forgotten a small detail, to make sure that the door of the church was opened, which it wasn't. Daniel was small enough to crawl through an open window and unlock it. Then they waited to see whether they would have an audience for their ambitious undertaking.
They did. Two-thirds of them were women, some publicly associating themselves with the convention by signing their names to its Declaration of Sentiments. Probably two or three times as many as signed actually attended. Of the hundred signers, one quarter were associated (as were the Motts) with the radical "Hicksite" wing of Quakers, and the rest were varieties of Methodists. Economically, they ranged from wealthy town-based families to farmers and their wives and daughters, who came in horse-drawn carts from villages as far as fifteen miles away. Immigration and slavery were two of the big political issues of the day, but there were no immigrants and only one second-generation young Irishwoman there. And there was one ex-slave. Ten years earlier Frederick Douglass had escaped his Maryland master. Eventually he would become one of the most famous African American men in history. In 1848, he was living and editing a weekly newspaper in nearby Rochester. He had met Elizabeth Cady Stanton seven years earlier in Boston, and each had been impressed with the other. Douglass had advertised the upcoming convention in Seneca Falls in his paper, and on the first morning he was present. Everyone else was native born, white, and Protestant.
Most of those who listened that day and the next are lost to history. But one, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, who was just eighteen at the time, lived to the age of ninety, when she was able to witness the final victory of the woman suffrage movement and to share her memories. She was one of the few working girls in the audience, though working for her meant sitting alone in her home, hand-sewing precut gloves and then returning the finished goods to the manufacturer in the aptly named village of Gloversville. "I do not believe that there was any community anywhere in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion," she recalled. "For my own obscure self, every fiber of my being rebelled, although silently, all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, after it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages." She brought five friends with her, and as their wagon neared Seneca Falls they joined a large flow of traffic headed for the chapel. Charlotte Woodward Pierce was an advocate of woman suffrage through the entirety of her long life.
Although the first day of the meeting had been called for women only, Charlotte and her friends found a group of men, leaders of the village, waiting to get into the church. How to involve men had put the organizers in a bind. Women meeting in public in the company of men was still considered morally questionable, in the disturbing phrase of the period, a "promiscuous assembly." Also the organizers expected that as difficult as it would be to get women to speak, the presence of men would make it that much more so. On the other hand, excluding men seemed to violate their most fundamental principles, that of sexual equality and individual rights. They decided on a compromise, to admit men but to allow only women to speak on the first day. Men would be able to speak—and they did so at considerable length—on the second day.
This last-minute small-town gathering on behalf of women's rights was not, at the time it was held, a historic event, and there are only scant records of what actually went on during those two days. Of all the women there, only a handful dared to speak. Mott, a seasoned speaker, gave a version of remarks on "the Law of Progress," which she had delivered at an antislavery meeting two months before. She spoke of the thrilling cascade of developments—chief of all the progress of the antislavery movement—"of 'peace on earth, and good will to man.'" Now she added her hope that women's rights would soon find a place in the pantheon of reform. For all her fierce convictions, Cady Stanton dared to make only some impromptu humorous remarks meant to soften any lasting impression that the convention was set against "the Lords of Creation."
As Cady Stanton recalled, woman suffrage was the only point on which there was any disagreement. Quakers, a large minority of the audience, found the realm of politics too corrupt, the government too sullied by its collusion with slavery, political parties too self-serving, for women to seek involvement. Others may have found it a step too far outside of woman's traditional sphere. Even Lucretia Mott, usually unwilling to give way to conservative popular opinion, thought the notion of women's equal political rights would "make us seem ridiculous. We must go slowly." If they were not careful, they would undermine the entire women's rights effort they were daring to initiate.
But Cady Stanton was determined "then and there" to insist on the right to vote. To her lasting gratitude, support came from Frederick Douglass, the only man there who knew what it was to be disfranchised. Forty years later, he paid tribute to Cady Stanton for seeing "more clearly than most of us that the vital point to be made prominent, and the one that included all the others, was the ballot, and she bravely said the word.... There are few facts in my humble history to which I look back with more satisfaction," he recalled, "than... that I was sufficiently enlightened at that early day, and then only a few years from slavery, to support [her] resolution for woman suffrage." Between them they carried the day. At the last session, one hundred people, two-thirds of them women, publicly pledged to fulfill the final resolution and give "zealous and untiring efforts" to support all of the resolutions, including suffrage.
This excerpt ends on page 13 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World by Emily Balcetis.