SIDEBAR: SENECA FALLS
The early feminist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, found an ally in Lucretia Mott, an ardent abolitionist, when the two met in 1840 at an anti-slavery conference in London. Once the conference began, it was apparent to the two women that female delegates were not welcome. Barred from speaking and appearing on the convention floor, Cady Stanton and Mott protested by leaving the convention hall, taking other female delegates with them. It was then that Cady Stanton proposed to Mott a women's rights convention that would address the social, civil and religious rights of women. The convention would be put on hold until eight years later, when the two organized the first women's rights convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.
At that meeting, Cady Stanton presented a "Declaration of Sentiments," based on the Declaration of Independence, and listing 18 grievances against male suppression of women. Among them: married women had no right to their children if they left an abusive husband or sought a divorce. If a woman was granted a divorce, there was no way for her to make a professional living unless she chose to write or teach. A woman could not testify against her husband in court. Married women who worked in factories were not entitled to keep their earnings, but had to turn them over to their husbands. When a woman married, any property that she had held as a single woman automatically became part of her husband's estate. Single women who owned property were taxed without the right to vote for the lawmakers imposing the taxes -- one of the very reasons why the American colonies had broken away from Great Britain.
Convention attendees passed the resolutions unanimously with the exception of the one for women's suffrage. Only after an impassioned speech in favor of women's right to vote by Frederick Douglass, the black abolitionist, did the resolution pass. Still, the majority of those in attendance could not accept the thought of women voting.
At Seneca Falls, Cady Stanton gained national prominence as an eloquent writer and speaker for women's rights. Years later, she declared that she had realized early on that without the right to vote, women would never achieve their goal of becoming equal with men. Taking the abolitionist reformer William Lloyd Garrison as her model, she saw that the key to success in any endeavor lay in changing public opinion, and not in party action. By awakening women to the injustices under which they labored, Seneca Falls became the catalyst for future change. Soon other women's rights conventions were held, and other women would come to the forefront of the movement for political and social equality.