In 1848, long simmering debates about the political, economic, and social role of women in a new democracy coalesced in a new social movement. From the very beginning of the Republic, Abigail Adams and others had recognized the importance of women as participants in democracy. By the 1840s, women in the anti-slavery and temperance movements had argued for their right to participate as speakers and leaders. In Seneca Falls and Waterloo, New York, these ideas found expression in the lives of female anti-slavery activists in the M’Clintock and Hunt families. When Quaker and anti-slavery speaker Lucretia Mott came to visit her sister, Martha Wright, in nearby Auburn, these women and their mutual friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton gathered at the Hunt home in Waterloo, New York. By the end of the day, they had agreed to hold the nation’s first women’s rights convention.
The convention, held on July 19 and 20, 1848 followed the plan of female anti-slavery meetings, with the first day reserved to women only and the second public day of meetings open to men. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a well-educated, reform minded young mother, met with the M’Clintocks at their home in Waterloo shortly before the convention to draft the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled on the language of the Declaration of Independence.
Over two days, approximately 300 men and women debated the Declaration of Sentiments and eleven separate resolutions. There were speeches and readings by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth W. M’Clintock, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. Woman suffrage, the right of women to vote, was the most controversial demand. After Frederick Douglass, the nationally known freedman and orator, rose to speak in favor of woman suffrage, the measure was adopted. On July 20, 68 women signed the Declaration of Sentiments and 32 men signed a statement “in favor of the movement,” making one hundred in all. The signers included wealthy farmers and business owners, political and social reformers, milliners and shopkeepers, teenagers and octogenarians. Among the signers were several local newspaper editors, who published accounts of the meetings. State and local women’s rights conventions followed in New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, with national conventions in Massachusetts and New York in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The Declaration of Sentiments, a pivotal document in the history of women’s rights and citizenship rights in the United States, presented an action agenda that was followed for many years. It was debated in later state and national conventions. By current standards, language comparing the rights of disenfranchised, educated women to enfranchised “natives and foreigners” is decidedly undemocratic. At the time, as many states abolished property rights as a requirement for male suffrage (except for free African American men) and allowed foreign-born non-citizens to vote, women asked why they too were not enfranchised.
The Declaration of Sentiments, the first comprehensive list of demands for basic rights for U.S. women, was one source of inspiration for petition campaigns and referenda for woman suffrage in the new states in the American West forming in the 1850s and 1860s, and for territories considering the rights of their citizens as they formed new governments. One signer of the Declaration of Sentiments, Catharine Paine, moved to the new territories of Washington and Oregon in 1853 as the new wife of Seattle’s first Methodist minister, Reverend David E. Blaine. In a life of service to her family and to the Methodist Church in New York and the Pacific Northwest, Catharine Paine Blaine worked out deeply held religious and reform beliefs. Her activities show a continued concern for and interest in the uplift of humanity and of women, even while personal letters demonstrated her adherence to commonly-held ideas that discounted the values and practices of other cultures and races.