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Tea and Sisterhood

In 1848 when it came time to declare the rights of women, this tilt-top table provided solid support

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For a modest piece of parlor furniture, the object at hand certainly got around.

As anyone can see, it is a table, three feet in diameter, suitable for afternoon tea. For more than a half century, however, it did a good bit of traveling. And on March 14, 1906, more or less at the end of the road, it stood proudly in place at the head of the casket of suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Fifty-eight years before, Frederick Douglass had described the declaration written at the table as the basis of a "grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women."

The writing took place on a steamy July Sunday in 1848. The writer was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The pretty tilt-top table was pressed into service as a writing desk in Mary Ann M'Clintock's parlor near the village of Seneca Falls, New York. Three days before, Cady Stanton — mother, housewife and closet revolutionary — along with M'Clintock and Lucretia Mott and two other women, had called a convention. Their unsigned announcement in the Seneca County Courier declared the topic of discussion would be "rights of woman."

Now, with only a few days to go, the five women were overwhelmed. Nobody knew how many people were going to turn up for the meeting, and none of the sponsors had ever attempted anything like this before. But one thing was clear: they needed a bold statement of purpose.

Feeling pressed, Elizabeth Cady Stanton hauled out the Declaration of Independence. As the other women joined her at the parlor table, she began deftly substituting "all men" for "King George," casting men as oppressors and deniers of rights to women just as the Declaration had blamed King George for oppression of his New World colonials. The result was a declaration of rights for women, now known as the Declaration of Sentiments. With it, a movement was born. Today, if you visit the Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, you can see not only the declaration but what has come to be known as the Declaration of Sentiments table. On loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, it is on display for this year's 150th anniversary of the first women's rights convention — the opening salvo in the "grand movement" that 72 years later led to the Nineteenth Amendment.

Celebrated as it is, the Declaration of Sentiments table might never have figured in history were it not for a honeymoon gone awry some years before. In May 1840, Elizabeth Cady, boldly disobeying her stern judge father, agreed to marry abolitionist Henry Stanton. Henry was about to travel to London as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention, and Elizabeth resolved to go, too — as his wife. There followed a brief wedding ceremony, with a wife's duty to "obey" her husband omitted from the vows, and an ocean voyage filled with Henry's lessons on abolitionist politics. Day by day Cady Stanton felt closer and closer to her husband's cause, and more and more at odds with her traditional upper-class home and a life that she felt was stifling to women.

But on June 12, in Freemasons' Hall in London, female abolitionist delegates found themselves relegated to a curtained gallery, denied seats on the floor and any say in the proceedings. Despite ardent voices declaring it a "matter of conscience" to include women, too many delegates insisted that the women's presence might draw public ridicule and risk damage to the abolitionist cause.

Cut off from Henry and forced into silence, Cady Stanton spent a good deal of her time in London with Lucretia Mott, America's best-known female abolitionist, in discussions of women's rights that would culminate in the Seneca Falls meetings. The year 1848 was a grand and turbulent point in history. The United States had gained nearly a third of its landmass as a result of the Mexican War ( Smithsonian, April 1996). Gold had just been found in California. Assorted revolutions swept Europe. Slavery was abolished in France's overseas empire; the Communist Manifesto was published. By then, the Stantons were living in Seneca Falls. The town had become a center of temperance and abolitionist activity. It was only natural that the convention devised by Cady Stanton, Mott and the others should take place there, and be held in its center of moral activism, the redbrick Wesleyan Methodist Chapel at the corner of Fall and Mynderse streets.

Elizabeth had drawn up a list of eleven resolutions calling for dramatic reform in all areas of society. The ninth resolution proved too much for both supportive Henry and sister reformist Lucretia Mott: "It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." Henry threatened to leave town if Elizabeth presented such a crazy idea. Less theatrically (in keeping with her quiet Quaker demeanor), Mott warned Elizabeth, "If thee demands that, thee will make us ridiculous! We must go slowly." On July 19, three hundred people gathered at the chapel — only to find its doors locked. Quick as a wink, Cady Stanton's young nephew was boosted in through a window to unbolt them from the inside.

Despite the request that only women attend that first day, at least 40 men showed up. A hurried council was held around the chapel's altar. Organizers voted in the men's favor because, as Cady Stanton's History of Women Suffrage politely noted, "this was an occasion when men might make themselves pre-eminently useful." One male visitor proved very useful indeed. Long an advocate of women's rights, abolitionist Frederick Douglass had assured Elizabeth Cady Stanton that he would support the controversial ninth resolution.

After brief speeches by others, it came Elizabeth Cady Stanton's turn. For the first time she read in public the declaration written less than a week before: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal. . . . The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. . . . We anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object."

The declaration was widely applauded. One by one the resolutions were approved — until the ninth. Opponents both male and female loudly denounced the demand for women's suffrage, once again arguing that such an outrageous and impracticable demand would cheapen the whole cause. Then Frederick Douglass took the floor. Unrecorded and now lost, his speech made clear that freedom was not divisible according to sex or color. The resolution passed, but barely. Exactly one hundred of those present — 68 women and 32 men — finally signed the declaration.

Because the subject was so explosive, the meeting got extensive play in the press. Most newspapers lambasted the women for their "unwomanly behavior" indulged in "at the expense of their more appropriate duties." Cady Stanton wryly noted, "There is no danger of the Woman Question dying for want of notice."

Sadly, women's political progress was anything but speedy. By the time women won the vote, only one woman who signed the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848 — 19-year-old Charlotte Woodward — was alive to enjoy that hard-won right. But through it all, the table was there. As icon of the movement, it occupied center stage at the 50th anniversary of the women's movement. When not on display, it was kept by Cady Stanton and, later, Anthony. In 1916, the table took up residence in Washington at the headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which was busy lobbying Congress for the vote. Fittingly, in 1919, less than a month after passage of the Nineteenth Amendment — that radical "elective franchise" first publicly demanded at Seneca Falls — the association confirmed the table's place in history by donating the piece to the Smithsonian.

By Valerie Jablow

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