170 years ago, the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments (originally published as simply the Declaration of Sentiments) was given at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York. The authors of the declaration, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had been on the front lines of the growing feminist movement for nearly a decade by the time the convention was held, but Rights and Sentiments was their most controversial and popular publication. It shook the American nation. Critics called their statements ‘ridiculous’ and immediately dismissed the ideas presented. But despite the cold reception, Rights and Sentiments lit a fire in the hearts of women. As Stanton said, ‘the first step had been taken to right [the wrongs]’ of society. Women were inspired by this radical first step– countless conventions took place in the decade following Seneca Falls. Rights and Sentiments encouraged and emboldened women to speak out and take action against the inequality that they faced.
The actual text of Rights and Sentiments was primarily a parody of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, copying the language and format almost exactly. Many historians are eager to note the importance of this choice as a strategic move to incite passion and anger in the audience. But copying America’s founding document was also a way of commenting on its exclusionary and hypocritical nature. America was built on inequality, and the early feminists were devoted to bringing that inequality to light. Rights and Sentiments is not just a radical rewrite, however. The declaration stands on its own, and has one essential difference that sets it apart from both from the Declaration of Independence and from other early feminist philosophy. Ideas about equality were anything but new-women’s rights had been discussed in great detail as early as the late 1700s. Similar declarations had been made (think de Gouge’s Rights of Women and the Female Citizen), but Rights and Sentiments did something no other widely consumed feminist writing did. It acknowledged the necessity legal equality and rights, but also considered something less tangible– sentiments. It marked a shift in the movement into something that involved every part of the female experience, not just the political.
There is a phrase that comes to mind when thinking about the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments: feelings are facts. What one experiences, and what one feels as a result of those experiences, is real and factual– despite our inability to quantify them. In 1848, sentiments–emotions, opinions, observations– were discussed for the first time on a national stage. The treatment of women outside of what was legal was brought to the table as something that was not only unequal, but something that needed to be changed. The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments complexified the feminist movement, and made clear the idea that oppression was and is a many-headed beast that could only be tackled by attacking multiple targets.
1848 was the very beginning of the first wave feminist movement. In 2018, we are well into what modern feminists are calling the ‘fourth wave.’ Women’s suffrage is established in every nation in the world (except for the Vatican city). In most nations, we have the right to own property and to live and work outside the home. Feminist manifestos have continually evolved to keep up with a rapidly changing world. BUT nearly two centuries later, Declaration of Rights and Sentiments is anything but obsolete. The feminist fight can still be observed in two categories: the legal and the social. Rights are still central to the feminist cause; we still don’t have key liberties (i.e. access to safe contraception, equal pay, equal justice, etc). And perhaps now more than ever before, sentiments are crucial. So much of the aggression (both passive and active) towards women is not something that can be solved with amendments to constitutions- it must be solved through slow but constant questioning of the status quo. Discrimination is engrained not just in our legal systems, but in our social structures, and the two must be looked at in tandem to understand the full extent of the problems women face. The specific issues may change, but the feminist movement continues to be a war fought on two fronts. We will not have won until we reach equality in both spheres.
Rights and Sentiments is a new column introduced by writer and activist Isabelle Hathaway. Weekly articles will be published examining different parts ofthe feminist movement, including interviews, historical spotlights, and more.