The Declaration of Sentiments at 165

This coming Saturday, July 20, will mark the 165th 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. Fifteen 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 165 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 165 years ago on Saturday 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 Saturday, raise a glass to the women (and their many male allies) who came together 165 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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