19 July 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood behind a wooden podium outside Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York. In a trembling voice that eventually steadied, she demanded that women have “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States”.
Stanton read from the Declaration of Sentiments, now remembered as the foundational women’s rights document. Echoing the Declaration of Independence, the document stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
More than a century and a half after the first women’s rights convention was held, Hillary Clinton walked on to the stage at a Brooklyn warehouse, and, hands clasped at her heart, shattered a 240-year-old glass ceiling. Draping herself in the mantle of the women’s rights movement, Clinton credited the work of Stanton and the suffragists for starting the fight that made possible her historic ascent to presumptive nominee of the Democratic party.
“Tonight’s victory is not about one person,” Clinton told the crowd assembled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, many of them women and girls wiping tears from their eyes. “It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible. In our country, it started right here in New York, a place called Seneca Falls.”
Clinton’s victory would have made her forebears proud, said Judith Wellman, a historian and author of The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement.
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton is really smiling right now,” Wellman said. “Oh my goodness, she’s so happy.”
Stanton conceived the idea for the 1848 convention while on her honeymoon at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. The male attendees spent the first day of the two-day event debating whether or not to allow women to participate. The moment crystallized what Stanton already believed: the struggle for equality must include everyone.
The goal for the convention, Stanton would later recall, was to instigate the “greatest rebellion the world has ever seen”.
With help, she authored the Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined a series of grievances relating to the disenfranchisement of women, including the observation that in the eyes of the law, married women were “civilly dead”. They argued that without the vote, their rights were nothing more than privileges in the eyes of the law.
“Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation,” they wrote in the document, “he has oppressed her on all sides.”
On the second day of the convention, 100 of the nearly 300 attendees signed the document, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He wrote days later in his Rochester newspaper, The North Star, that the Declaration of Sentiments was “the basis of a grand movement for attaining all the civil, social, political, and religious rights of woman”.
Inside Wesleyan chapel, Kimberly Szewczyk, the chief of interpretation and education at the Women’s Rights national historical park in Seneca Falls, pointed to the podium where Stanton read the Declaration of Sentiments.
“People want to come because this is the touchstone of the women’s movement. To be in this room – it still gives me goosebumps – but that’s where she stood, that’s where Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood and said, this is wrong and we need to fix this and all these years later we’re still working on many of those issues.”
Some years later, Stanton would meet Susan B Anthony, a well-known abolitionist and women’s suffragist. The women forged a lifelong friendship: Stanton writing the speeches from her home in New York and Anthony delivering them at meeting halls and conventions across the country.
Though it would take 72 years before women won the right to vote, the Seneca Falls Convention endures as a symbol of the long, unfinished struggle for social, political and economic equality of the sexes. And in his second inaugural address, President Obama celebrated “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall” as high water marks of the righteous struggle.
Indeed, a revolutionary spirit still rumbles in this quiet corner of upstate New York. Voters in Seneca County favored, albeit narrowly, Bernie Sanders over Clinton in the Democratic primary election here. Donald Trump swept the county with more than 50% of the vote.
Roberta Austin, owner of Austin’s Collectables & Antiques, a shop along Seneca Falls’ main drag, said she would like to see more women in politics, and certainly in the Oval Office, but added that she questions Clinton’s integrity.
“If the woman was right for that position, yes, I would vote for her,” said Austin, who supports Donald Trump.
No matter who residents here will vote for in November, Clinton has already secured a spot in Seneca Falls’ history. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2005, after becoming the first woman senator from New York.
The hall of fame has outgrown the small historic bank building it currently occupies – a sign of progress, the docent Dorothy Lind notes with a hint of pride.
Every inch of the walls are covered with plaques dedicated to women’s glass-ceiling-breaking achievements in politics, sports, science and a number of other fields. Propped near Clinton’s plaque is a cardboard cutout of her, smiling in a marbled gray pantsuit. On the bookshelf, Clinton’s most recent memoir, Hard Choices, is displayed.
Down the road, visitors joined a park ranger for a guided tour of Stanton’s Seneca Falls home. Standing in the front yard, Janel Travis, of Uhrichsville, Ohio, and her sister Joy Craine, of Flint, Michigan, said that it was moving to hear Clinton, a daughter of second-wave feminism like themselves, invoke the legacy of the suffragists in her victory speech last week.
“I think it’s time for a woman,” said Travis, who plans to vote for Clinton in November. “We’re ready. Our country is ready.”
“Especially now,” Craine added. “This election is so consequential.”
“She will hold her own against Donald Trump,” Travis said, as her sister nodded in agreement. “She will not let him belittle us as women or her as a woman.”