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Five Things to Know About the Declaration of Sentiments

From seating to suffrage, here’s why the document is relevant today

A statue of the people present at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention can be seen at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. (Keith Ewing (Flickr/Creative Commons))
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Women’s historians all over the United States had reason to pay attention during Hillary Clinton’s speech in Brooklyn last night. Personal politics aside, the night was a history-making one—as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Clinton has now become the first woman from a major party to win enough delegates to secure her party’s nomination. But there was another reason for the excitement: During her speech, Clinton made mention of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. “A small but determined group of women, and men, came together with the idea that women deserved equal rights,” she said. “It was the first time in human history that that kind of declaration occurred."

Why would a potential President name-drop a 168-year-old document? Here’s what you should know about the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions that was passed at the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights:

It has its roots in a dispute over seating

Strangely enough, the struggle for women’s rights and, eventually, women’s suffrage in America began with a blowup over seating. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met when they were whisked off to a roped-off, women’s-only seating section at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention. The convention had been thrown into chaos at the news that American women intended to vote, serve on committees and even speak at the convention, and in response they were shunted off to a section that was out of the view of men. Irate at their treatment, Stanton and Mott began to plot a convention of their own—this time, to address the state of women.

It turns out that seating is still a hotly contested issue in politics. Each year, the State of the Union address leads to disputes and strange customs over who sits where—and all eyes are on who the current First Lady chooses to sit in her special viewing box. Both political conventions also generate plenty of press on their seating chart each year; in 2008, for example, the Democratic Party drew attention for giving swing state delegates the best seats at the Denver convention.

It was based on the Declaration of Independence...

The convention that followed was groundbreaking. More than 300 women and men from abolitionist, Quaker and reform circles attended the two-day Seneca Falls Convention, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton read a document that set out the group’s agenda. It was directly based on the Declaration of Independence—a convenient format and a bold statement on the equality of women.

The Declaration wasn’t the first document on women’s rights to model itself on the Declaration; as Judith Wellman writes for The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, arguments based on the Declaration had been used to argue for property rights for married women in New York for several years before the convention. Swayed by the familiar language of America’s founding document—and with the help of many of the women present at the convention—New York passed its first law granting married women the right to own property in 1848.

…and wasn’t only signed by women. 

Women drafted the Declaration, but they weren’t the only one to argue on its merits and eventually sign it. The final copy was signed by 68 women and 32 men, many of whom were the husbands or family members of women present. Frederick Douglass, however, was not; the former slave and noted abolitionist was involved in the women’s rights movement until the movement nearly fell apart over questions about whether African-American men should have the right to vote.

In 1867, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth and some other women opposed the 15th Amendment, claiming that women should take precedence over former slaves. They went in one direction; Douglass and women like Lucy Stone went another. Ironically, even when women did gain the right to vote in 1920, women of color were largely precluded from voting by racist local laws until enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Not everyone present thought the Declaration should include a call for suffrage

The Declaration of Sentiments and the resolutions adopted by the Seneca Falls Convention is hailed for its groundbreaking demands—like insisting that men be held to the same moral standards as women and holding that anti-woman laws have no authority. But it’s just as noteworthy for what it almost didn’t demand: voting rights for women. Though a resolution for suffrage was eventually adopted, it was not unanimously supported. Only after an impassioned speech by Frederick Douglass did attendees decide to go for it, giving the document its most incendiary demand. That insistence on suffrage was not popular: Convention attendees were mocked and harassed and the Declaration was called ludicrous. Though only one of its signers was alive when the 19th Amendment was signed, it set the wheels of women’s suffrage in motion.

Bad news: Nobody can find the original

Given everything the document sparked—and its importance to women’s history in the United States, you’d think that the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions would be safe in the National Archives. You’d be wrong: The document has somehow gone missing.

As Megan Smith writes for the White House's official blog, the closest thing to an original in the National Archives is a printed copy made by Frederick Douglass in his print shop after the convention. The notes that he used to make his copy—minutes from the meeting that would constitute the original—are gone. Do you know where the document could be? You can use the hashtag #FindTheSentiments to help with the hunt for one of America’s most important documents.

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