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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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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