The Declaration of Sentiments by the Seneca Falls Conference (1848)
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
—Opening words, The Declaration of Sentiments
It must have been quite a tea party.
Jane and Richard Hunt, well-to-do Quakers living in New York just three miles from the small town of Seneca Falls, New York, had invited their neighbor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton to tea on July 15, 1848. The Hunts also invited several other women: Mary Ann McClintock, wife of a Quaker minister, and Lucretia Mott and her sister Martha Coffin Wright. This was no social event, but a gathering of female leaders who had been involved in the Quaker movement for the abolition of slavery. The discussion that afternoon centered on the discontent women felt over their legal and civil status in America. While sitting at the Hunts' tea table, the group decided to act upon their frustrations over women’s inequality by calling for a convention to be held the following week. A notice was delivered to the offices of the Seneca County Courier announcing, “A Convention to discuss the social, civic and religious condition and rights of Woman will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel at Seneca Falls, New York, on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July. …” The advertisement first appeared on Tuesday, July 11, and named Lucretia Mott as the keynote speaker.
Seneca Falls’ Declaration
Despite the short notice and the organizers’ cautiously optimistic expectations, 300 women and men turned out for the convention. At its conclusion, 68 women and 32 men had signed a document calling for American women to be extended the same civil and political rights that American men enjoyed, including suffrage.
The Declaration of Sentiments mirrored the spirit of reform that was in the air in this period—the concept of natural rights was continuously being invoked first to create and then to enlarge the meaning of democracy. The text of the document was modeled on the language and argumentative framework of the Declaration of Independence. It asserted that women possessed the same natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as men. Working from the premise that to be just government must derive from the consent of the governed, it went on to demand for women “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”
It can be argued that this “Women’s Declaration of Independence,” as it is sometimes referred to, was the single most important factor in spreading the word about the burgeoning women’s rights movement around the country. It provided a point of departure in the struggle for equality of rights that continues to the present day.
Learn more about the evolution of women's rights, from this seminal document to the suffragist arguments that finally prevailed to win the right to vote for women by visiting the EDSITEment lesson plan, Chronicling and Mapping the Women's Suffrage Movement.
Teachers may adapt the following activities aligned to the Common Core for use in the classroom.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.2—Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
- After identifying the parts of the Declaration of Sentiments and their function, students should be able to ascertain the central idea. Ask them to quote that idea, and put it in their own words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.5—Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
- The Declaration of Sentiments is modeled on the Declaration of Independence. Ask students to identify the parts of the argument work together to make the case for women’s independence. To assist them in thinking about the parts, have them consult Activity 3. The Parts of the Declaration.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9—Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
- Have student compare arguments put forward in the Declaration of Sentiments document to the Declaration of Independence. (See EDSITEment lesson The Argument of the Declaration.)
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6—Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.
- Ask students to consider how the authors of the Declaration of Sentiments framed the language of the speech to appeal to their intended audience. How do you think the rhetoric in the speech caused the men of the time to react? Women? Opponents of women's suffrage?
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.4—Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.
- Review the vocabulary of the document including the key terms that surface around the concept “rights” such as “born equal,” “inalienable rights,” “equal station,” “great precept of nature,” “sacred right,” “human rights,” and “laws of nature.” Have students put these ideas in their own words.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1—Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
- Have students write two newspaper editorials responding to the argument of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, one rejecting it and the other applauding it.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.1—Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
- Have students cite passages in the Seneca Falls Declaration to illustrate how it characterizes the condition of women. Based on this document, how might a thoughtful observer describe the relationship between men and women in mid-nineteenth century American society? To what extent are the tone and rhetorical posture of the document itself consistent with the picture it paints? To what extent is this picture consistent with the representation of women in mid-nineteenth century American literature?
The historic impact of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments resides in its revolutionary attack on the institutions that restricted 19th-century women and in its radical recognition of natural-rights for women. The delegates’ claim for the right to vote was the most controversial resolution passed at the convention. But it was the enduring significance of the entire manifesto with its litany of social, economic, educational, and religious rights that would inspire and fuel later movements for women’s rights across the country and the world.
- American Memory Project
- History Matters
- National Museum of Women’s History
- Motherhood, Social Service, and Political Reform: Political Culture and Imagery of American Woman Suffrage
- Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000
- What So Proudly We Hail