The Myth of Seneca Falls

Nearly every history book, encyclopedia entry, and news items pins the exact origin of the women’s rights movement in the United States to the meeting at Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848. But can a movement as big as the women’s rights one have one specific geographic origin at only one meeting?

It turns out that the answer is no. There had been several women’s political meetings in the 1840s, some of them before Seneca Falls. Women were very active in the anti-slavery movement and they attended emancipation meetings in great numbers. The most famous of these were the series of meetings held by the American Anti-Slavery Society’s “Hundred Conventions” tour of northern states during 1843. The issue of women’s rights was often discussed, and resolutions were passed, at these “Conventions” as part of a general plea for emancipation of all people whose rights were repressed.

From 1839, Margaret Fuller, a prominent women’s rights activist in Boston, held small, but influentials meetings in her home with other notable reformers. Fuller also wooed Massachusetts politicians to support legislation in favor of women’s rights.

Lucretia Mott and Paulina Wright Davis held meetings in Philadelphia in 1846 and support for women’s rights seemed to be gathering momentum.

By early 1848, then, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and prominent upstate New York Quaker Elizabeth M’Clintock had decided to plan a larger meeting for that summer. Seneca Falls was the chosen spot. The meeting was held, speeches were given, the famous Declaration of Sentiments was issued, and the meeting was reported in the regional press.

It seems to make sense, therefore, that the Seneca Falls has been designated as the start of women’s rights movement in the United States. Various meetings and events had been held before, but Seneca Falls might be considered the first actual gathering of people from various parts of the north for a meeting specifically devoted to women’s rights.

But it was not really the first national meeting. It certainly wasn’t the biggest. And it probably wasn’t the most important.

The first national, and arguably most important, meeting took place later, in 1850 at Worcester, Massachusetts. This was a genuine national convention, drawing women’s rights activists from many parts of the country, and establishing itself as an annual convention. Everybody who was anybody in reform circles spoke at Worcester over the years. Frederick Douglass (who has also spoken at Seneca Falls), Lucy Stone, Wendall Phillips, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony all spoke at these conventions over the years. These conventions were similar to modern day political party conventions during presidential elections. In other words, they were very big deals.

Why don’t we hear about Worcester, then? Why does Seneca Falls get all the attention?

Fortunately, Buzzkillers, Professor Lisa Tetrault, author of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) came to our rescue to sort of myth from fact, and to show us how the history of the women’s rights movement was consciously constructed. Her book, and her interview on the podcast, have been wonderful contributions to the understanding of how history is written.

The Seneca Falls history takes Professor Buzzkill from relatively simple myth-busting operation to one that shows how historical myths are often created, and especially how “origin myths” are constructed. It’s a much more sophisticated myth bust because the Seneca Falls meeting really did take place in 1848, the basics of the meeting have been more or less described accurately by historians, and Tetrault is not out to tear these facts down. What’s she’s really doing is showing why (in this specific case) political campaigners decided that how the history of the women’s rights movement was later written was an essential aspect of the movement itself. The 1848 Seneca Falls meeting was chosen from several possible early meetings when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote their history of the movement after the Civil War.

Crucially, though, Tetrault shows that Seneca-Falls-as-Origin was contested by other women’s rights campaigners at the time. But the diversity of origins was steamrolled under the history that Stanton and Anthony published. For our purposes, therefore, Tetrault’s book shows us how history is consciously constructed and written and how certain events are privileged over other events. Once that history is constructed, it becomes part of the culture and repeated as fact from then on. And those are the types of myths that are so fascinating because they are more complicated and sophisticated than simple myths.

By the way, the book shows a lot of other things that are very valuable to non-experts. It details the ways in which the women’s rights movement worked (and sometimes didn’t work) along with other reform movements before the Civil War, particularly the slavery abolition movement. It also shows how the right to vote became privileged over other women’s rights (such as property rights, education rights, and economic rights) and become the banner issue. Campaigning for the vote may seem to us now as the most important thing, but many activists at the time argued that property rights or other rights were more fundamental, that they should be worked on first, and that, if they were attained, they would lead eventually to the granting of other rights, including voting.

From Chapter 4 onwards, Tetrault carefully lays out how the privileging of voting rights as the primary issue and Seneca-Falls-as-origin myth worked together because Stanton and Anthony wanted them to, and that’s why they wrote their history the way they did. Then she shows how the Seneca Falls story became solidified through repetition in the succeeding decades.

It’s very important that we say early on in the episode that showing how women’s history was constructed in this conscious way does not detract from the fundamental justice of equal rights. Just because we’re showing that the campaign and its history were complicated doesn’t mean we’re critiquing the women’s rights movement’s goals. (We’ll bring up similar complications and constructions regarding the Civil Rights movement for African Americans in the 20th century. And we’ll need to emphasize the same things – that showing how things are more complicated than CNN and the History Channel tell us, and that there’s often mythology involved, doesn’t mean that a campaign or movement was a sham.)

Buzzkill Bookshelf

Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898.

The story of how the women’s rights movement began at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 is a cherished American myth. The standard account credits founders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott with defining and then leading the campaign for women’s suffrage. In her provocative new history, Lisa Tetrault demonstrates that Stanton, Anthony, and their peers gradually created and popularized this origins story during the second half of the nineteenth century in response to internal movement dynamics as well as the racial politics of memory after the Civil War. The founding mythology that coalesced in their speeches and writings–most notably Stanton and Anthony’s History of Woman Suffrage–provided younger activists with the vital resource of a usable past for the ongoing struggle, and it helped consolidate Stanton and Anthony’s leadership against challenges from the grassroots and rival suffragists.

As Tetrault shows, while this mythology has narrowed our understanding of the early efforts to champion women’s rights, the myth of Seneca Falls itself became an influential factor in the suffrage movement. And along the way, its authors amassed the first archive of feminism and literally invented the modern discipline of women’s history.

Winner of the 2015 Mary Jurich Nickliss Prize, Organization of American Historians

Posted in