In 1840, when American abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott traveled to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, they were discouraged to find that women could not participate. Female delegates had to sit quietly and watch the proceedings in an area curtained off from the main hall. The irony that women lacked the freedom to speak at a meeting about freedom for slaves was not lost on Stanton and Mott. They told each other that someday they would hold a convention to discuss their own rights.
Eight years later, on July 19, 1848, Stanton stood on a platform inside the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, and opened the nation’s first conference on women’s rights. Unaccustomed to speaking in public, she was nervous about addressing the roomful of women and men. She later said that she felt like “abandoning all her principles and running away.” Instead, she slowly read
a draft Declaration of Rights and Sentiments modeled on the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” it ran.
That afternoon, the convention discussed resolutions calling for women to have rights and responsibilities equal to men’s. The most radical resolution demanded suffrage for women. Even Lucretia Mott, a devout Quaker, wondered if that step was too bold. “Why Lizzie, thee will make us look ridiculous,” she told Stanton. But abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in attendance, convinced the crowd that women’s suffrage was necessary and right.
Reactions to the two-day meeting were mixed. Some newspapers praised it, while others mocked the efforts of “women out of their latitude.” It would take decades for women to achieve many of the conference’s goals. But the Seneca Falls Convention helped launch a struggle that ultimately changed the place of women in much of the world.