The United States 19th Century Women’s Rights Movement

A cartoon representing the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York on July 19-20, 1848. 

19th Century United States Women’s Rights Movement: The Seneca Convention

In 1848, the Seneca Convention or also formally known as the First Women’s Rights Convention in the United States was held in Seneca Falls, New York. This meeting was inaugurated by five women figures, one specifically being Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the first woman who had the courage to present women’s social, civil, political, and religious issues during this time period. Overall, the Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” is said to be an adaptation of the Declaration of Independence had as its central idea protest against the inequality of women and “this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, . . . oppressed on all sides.” (Herald 223). The convention went on to highlight the whole range of women’s rights that were later obtained such as equality in wages and property, their treatment under marriage and divorce, voting rights in legislation and political parties, and sex discrimination in the work field. “Despite the significance of women’s inequality in those factors, which the declaration demonstrated, the convention’s participants hesitated before resolving that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” (Herald 223). It’s best to understand how these rights were obtained by analyzing the fierce independent women from the Seneca Falls Convention.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Her “Emotional” Rhetoric

Portrait of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“We have met here today to discuss our rights and wrongs, civil and political, and not, as some have supposed, to go into the detail of social life alone. We do not propose to petition the legislature to make our husbands just, generous, and courteous, to seat every man at the head of a cradle, and to clothe every woman in male attire. None of these points, however important they may be considered by leading men, will be touched in this convention. As to their costume, the gentlemen need feel no fear of our imitating that, for we think it in violation of every principle of taste, beauty, and dignity; notwithstanding all the contempt cast upon our loose, flowing garments, we still admire the graceful folds, and consider our costume far more artistic than theirs” (Stanton 1).

I highlight part of the the opening speech that Stanton presented at the Seneca Falls Convention. Notice the rhetoric choices; she chose to immediately address the purpose of the convention and women’s rights as a whole. However, she later brought metaphorical, pathetic appeals to strike the opposing team in the modern, rhetorical term, “trigger words.” Meaning, she knew the men would been negatively aroused by her specific analysis: the attire between the men and the women. In simpler terms, she brought an awareness that women did not have to dress as men to be seen as an equal counterpart especially when they dressed better than the common man, and by saying caused men to have an uproar in disagreement. She did not speak on their attires for satire, but she believed that’s how she could get the men, by channeling their anger, to hear their issues best. This is further seen through a quote she said, “Woman’s degradation is in mans idea of his sexual rights.” (Stanton 3). Again, because both statements were an opinionated idea crafted by the viewpoint of how the women (most, but not all) were treated by the men in their country, this does not strike as a logical, credible quote, but a pathetical choice to also degrade the men of their masculinity. They believed this choice of rhetorical appeals is how they could get their voices heard and better yet, start a conversation to guide a pathway towards equality. 

Sojourner Truth and Her ‘Emotional’ Rhetoric

The convention as a whole involves a broad number of women who individually influenced an aspect of the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth century. A woman in particular to highlight is Sojourner Truth; she was a former slave who became an outspoken advocate for not only the women’s rights, but other movements that intertwined with that movement including: civil, abolitionist, and temperance. She spoke her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” at another women’s conference, inspired from the Seneca Falls Convention, in 1851. Her rhetoric also uses pathetic appeals by using specific words choices on explaining, “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him” (Truth 1). 

Almost in a similar fashion to Stanton, she brought forth women and their equivalence to men through the lends of religion and labor. This is another incident to subtly anger the man into realizing that the labor work that they do, Truth also did in the fields as a slave as well. Therefore, how is she unequal in these factors to the man when recently that’s what they used her for? While using this rhetorical appeal of pathos, she still brought forth the value of women and demanded a change through her own narrative. (Click here for a continued analysis on Black Women’s Rhetoric in the United States by Aneka Bailey). However, one may argue that the tactics of English women from Great Britain dealt with their rhetorical appeals during their women’s rights movements more profoundly.