Viewpoint: A Historic Opportunity

Susan B. Anthony
Sojourner Truth
Lucretia Mott Harriet Tubman Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Photos Courtesy of the National Women's Hall of Fame.

NOW's 1998 Women's Rights Convention and Vision Summit, July 10-12 in Rochester, N.Y. is an opportunity for every member to help shape the future of our organization and our movement. The 150th anniversary of the first Women's Rights Convention in this country will serve as the backdrop for this historic event.

NOW activists gathering in upstate New York will not only celebrate the anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention, but also set our eyes toward the future. Don't look back on this summer and say "I wish I had been part of it." Plan now to be in Rochester to help craft our vision for NOW and for women in the new millennium. The nation's first Women's Rights Convention sparked a movement of grassroots activism across the country. With the support of NOW members, this convention and summit will have as significant and galvanizing an impact as the one in 1848.

The Seneca Falls convention was called on just 10 days notice by five women who had never done such a thing in their lives. In early July 1848, 32-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton had poured out her dissatisfaction to Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M'Clintock and Jane Hunt. Having left an active life in Boston, Stanton chafed at being confined to the "women's sphere," raising children in the small town while her husband continued to travel widely. As the women talked, they knew they had to take action. They wrote up a newspaper announcement calling for a meeting of women July 19 and 20 in Seneca Falls. Three hundred women and men responded.

The Declaration of Sentiments drafted by the five convenors and adopted at the convention, demanded for women the same rights accorded to men in the Declaration of Independence, the document the women used as a blueprint to stir their audience and provide the justifications for their resolutions. Following their Declaration, the resolutions demanded that women be allowed to speak in public, accorded equal treatment under law and, at Stanton's insistence, granted the right to vote.

The Declaration and resolutions also demanded equal education; equal access to trades and professions; equality in marriage; and the rights to make contracts, own property, sue, be sued, testify in court and have guardianship over children. While the other resolutions passed unanimously, the demand for the right to vote passed narrowly only after passionate debate and persuasive arguments by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass. At the end, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration.

The first Women's Rights Convention was ridiculed by most newspapers. One editorial called the meeting "the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity." The Rochester Democrat opined, "The great effort seemed to be to bring out some new, impracticable, absurd, and ridiculous proposition, and the greater its absurdity the better." As Stanton dryly noted, "There is no danger of the Woman Question dying for want of notice."

Whether despite or because of the news coverage, two weeks after the Seneca Falls convention, on Aug. 2, a similar convention was held in Rochester, N.Y., and preparations for conventions in other states began. These conventions shaped the ideology of the movement and made women's rights part of the public discourse as they boosted the numbers of supporters. They raised morale and increased commitment to the cause. The 1998 Women's Rights Convention can ignite the same energy and momentum.

In October 1850, the first National Women's Rights Convention, in Worcester, Mass., brought together the most famous feminist leaders in the country; it also attracted new faces, like Sojourner Truth and Lucy Stone, and expanded the network of anti-slavery organizers in the feminist movement, including Harriet Tubman who escaped from slavery in 1849 and became active in the Underground Railroad and the women's suffrage movement.

The following spring in 1851, women s rights activists gathered in Akron, Ohio. When none of the women could quiet the clergy who had come to heckle, Sojourner Truth came forward. Despite hissing opposition, the chair, Frances Gage, rose to present Truth as the next speaker. Truth turned her attention to a clergyman who had just mocked women as too helpless to be entrusted with the vote. "The man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place -- and ain't I a woman?" By the time she was finished, the disrespect had turned to a roar of approval, with many in the audience in tears. Truth would go on to become one of the well-known and best-loved champions of the rights of women.

The third national convention in Syracuse in 1852 was the largest to date with 2000 delegates and was Susan B. Anthony's formal introduction to the movement. She had met Elizabeth Cady Stanton the year before, and the two women had begun to build their fifty year friendship and collaboration. The national conventions continued on an annual basis from 1850 to 1860 (except 1857) and resumed after the Civil War in 1866. One hundred years later, 28 women formed the National Organization for Women. NOW's organizers, including Betty Friedan, Kay Clarenbach and Pauli Murray among the leaders, agreed that NOW would be an action organization for the advancement of women into equal participation in the whole spectrum of the country's life. Since its founding in 1966, NOW has helped define feminist activism in the 20th Century.

We can be proud of the progress women have won and of the role NOW continues to play as the nation's largest group of feminist activists. As we prepare to enter the new century and millenium, it s appropriate that we take stock of where we ve been and where we're going.

One of the early feminists wrote in 1860, "We have often been asked, What is the use of Conventions? Why talk? Why not go to work? Just as if thought did not precede the act! . . . Thought is first required, then the expression of it, and that leads to action." That is the process we set ourselves on as we end this century.

Except for the handful of people who helped form NOW in 1966, most of us have never had the opportunity to be involved in as significant an event as the 1998 Women's Rights Convention and Vision Summit. We need the ideas and insights of committed feminists in Rochester this summer, as we create a new declaration of our hopes and dreams. It is a chance to be part of history as we work to express a shared vision that will continue to bind us together, inspire us and keep our movement strong.

Don't pass up the opportunity to say for generations to come, "I was there."

Register for the Women's Rights Convention and Vision Summit on the Internet at or call 202-331-0066, ext. 771.

Return to Summer 1998 newspaper / Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW