Declaration of Sentiments weekend: a note on the centrality of self-confidence, self-respect, and independence in the great feminist struggle

This Sunday, July 20, will mark the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Most historians choose to mark the beginning of the organized American feminist movement from this moment, which had its antecedents in the abolitionist and temperance struggles that had begun earlier in the nineteenth century. (Parenthetically, I’m feeling old: it seems like five minutes ago that I was talking to my summer school students about the 150th anniversary. Ten years have flown by.)

The Declaration is elegant, powerful, and beautiful. Modeled in part on the Declaration of Independence, the document sets forth a list of the various ways in which a male dominated society has deprived women of what is naturally theirs, just as Jefferson’s declaration contained a long list of grievances against the British Crown. And though many issues were on the table at the Seneca Falls convention, the document makes clear that three causes, above all others, were of paramount concern:

1. The Right to Vote
2. The Right to Own Property
3. The Right to Education.

None who signed the document in 1848 would live long enough to see all of these rights won, though we can say with some satisfaction that for the vast majority of American women today, what were once distant goals are now common-place reality. But I always point out to my students that the Declaration of Sentiments wasn’t just concerned with winning political rights for women. It was also a call to transform how women thought about themselves. The last of the grievances listed:

He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

In other words, three hallmarks of patriarchal and misogynistic culture are a lack of self-confidence, an absence of self-respect, and an unwillingness on the part of women and girls to embrace independence from men. Read positively, our foremothers at Seneca Falls, eight score years ago, saw that real liberation was not merely about providing political, economic, and educational rights for women — though of course, those rights were indispensable. Real liberation had to be internal as well as external. And what the framers of the Declaration knew was that real freedom for women would and could only come when a culture had been created that was as psychologically empowering as it was politically egalitarian.

Winning rights has proven easier than changing cultural values. The popular culture, with its tyrannical insistence on female physical perfection, has undermined the confidence of (by now) several generations of young American women. The pressure to live up to impossibly high familial and societal expectations has robbed just as many of their self-respect. (An old post on “respect” is here). And 160 years after Seneca Falls, after three successive waves of feminism, we still find ourselves combatting cultural forces that promote the most noxious lie of all: that for women, more so than for men, the most profound happiness is always contingent upon a heterosexual relationship that has been blessed with children. We teach women, in countless ways, the lie that dependency is liberation, that true freedom lies in sublimating your own wants to that of another. We still teach far too many women that the pursuit of self-sufficiency is a recipe for loneliness and isolation, and that in order to have meaning and purpose for one’s life, one must be willing to surrender completely to love and its dictates.

Self-confidence, self-respect, and independence (emotional and economic) are vital feminist concerns. It was 160 years ago on Sunday that the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments first centered these three goals in the struggle for women’s freedom. And though the political goals of 21st century feminism have changed quite a bit from those of 1848, the essential struggle for women’s self-confidence, self-respect, and independence continues. The personal is indeed political, and even more importantly, politics needs to be concerned with the intensely personal. Public freedom is a good, but so too is private happiness. And feminism, at its glorious and transformative best, is concerned with winning both — for women, yes, but, ultimately for all of us.

On Sunday, raise a glass to the women (and their many male allies) who came together 160 years ago this weekend to launch a movement whose achievements have transformed our world for the better, and though the struggle may yet be long, whose final victory is assured.

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5 thoughts on “Declaration of Sentiments weekend: a note on the centrality of self-confidence, self-respect, and independence in the great feminist struggle

  1. I agree we ought to pay more attention to the work of our feminist foremothers, and this is a great summary of what was in and what was important about the DOS.

    But I feel like your last couple of paragraphs are a bit of an ode to the kind of celebrated navel-gazing that white upper-middle class women are so famous for. I mean, given what is happening globally to women, especially poor women of color, is self-confidence the highest and noblest goal? And I know you get called out on this a lot, but your paeans to “independence” reflect a very WASPy (as you say, OKOP) vision of what the good life looks like. Some of us want a better world for all of us, where our husbands and our brothers and our fathers aren’t automatically made out to be our enemies.

    When the DOS was signed, the greatest oppressor for white women may well have been their husbands. For slave women, the oppressor was slavery, just as it was the greatest oppresor for slave men. Setting up men as the enemoy is a historic tactic of white-centered feminism.

  2. What AMS said.

    Just to add to it: if a politician tells me they can make the environment better, clean up the political environment, make commerce and taxation fairer, I’ll listen to their program. Politics exists to manage the public square, the shared spaces where we meet. But if the same politician promises to make me happy or make me good, we have a problem. Politics stops at my skin. Politicians have tried to make people happy and make them good before, and it has always ended in tears, an auto da fe, or cyclone b.

  3. Assuming that you mean Zyklon B and aren’t referring to some sort of storm off Bangladesh, John, I think Godwin’s Law just got invoked.

    Yours is a wild leap. The feminist movement doesn’t hold the state responsible for ensuring women’s self-confidence. It does believe, however, that “rights alone are not enough”. And as even Jefferson pointed out, the “pursuit of happiness” was something that the state ought to ensure that each indvidiual had the right to participate in. That wasn’t the same thing as saying “the state shall make each citizen happy.” Similarly, the Declaration of Sentiments declared that a feminist agenda is one in which women’s independence is seen as a presumed good, and the movement ought to struggle to win that independence. But that’s about changing hearts and minds as much as it is about changing laws.

  4. Thanks for this Hugo. Lest there be any doubt that the Declaration of Sentiments still rocks, there are a few third wavers who go ’round touting it.

    Anyone who’s read the “Third-Wave Manifesta: A Thirteen Point Agenda” by Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner can see they’ve modeled it after the “Declaration of Sentiments.” There’s a snippet of this in their book, MANIFESTA too.

    (In February ’04, Richards and Baumgardner talked with college students here at a rally in Fort Worth, Texas. Baumgardner began by quoting Steve Earle, saying, “If you don’t vote, don’t bitch.” She went on to remember Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 as a good beginning of the waves of feminisms.)

  5. Hugo,

    Please quote the exact passage from the declaration of sentiments that you read as saying:

    …politics needs to be concerned with the intensely personal.

    Even the feminist slogan “the personal is political” doesn’t go nearly that far. By my reading, the Declaration of Sentiments, like the Declaration of Independence before it, puts things in their proper perspective: reform the conditions of life and the political environment, and free people will find their way to happiness in the way they choose. While I normally try to steer clear of Godwin’s Law, I make no apology for my opinion that attempts to reverse the natural order by having the government try to make people “good” has led, in the past, to monstrous results.

    Please note, again, that if you read what I wrote as any kind of indictment of feminism, you read it wrong. In my opinion, the vast majority of feminists have no desire for the kind of intrusive ethos that would make the “intensely personal” the business of government. I disagree with Hugo Schywzer here, not the feminist movement.

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