Illustration by Marco Guadalupi

The Fight for Women’s Rights

The national movement to gain equality for women started 175 years ago at a meeting in New York.

Imagine your class were choosing a president and girls weren’t allowed to vote. It may be hard to believe, but that’s how national elections worked for much of America’s history. Voting was one of the many rights that only White men had.

Over the years, small groups of women had spoken out about the unfair treatment. But the issue didn’t get nationwide attention until 1848, after a historic meeting in Seneca Falls, New York.

“This convention was the first public meeting of its kind,” says Janine Waller, who works at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. “It was dedicated solely to the rights of women.”

Many historians point to the meeting as the start of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S.

Denied Their Rights

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

One of the organizers was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her father was a lawyer and a judge, and Stanton helped out in his office. But she was frustrated that she could never become a lawyer herself. 

“She couldn’t have the job she wanted or really be the person she wanted,” Waller says.

Back then, it was rare for women to work outside the home, and few colleges admitted women. By law, women couldn’t keep any money they earned or own any property.

“Anything a woman owned didn’t belong to her. Books, clothes, jewelry—all belonged to her nearest male relative,” Waller explains.

Making a Statement

Stanton was tired of being treated unfairly and knew other women were too. In 1848, she teamed up with activist Lucretia Mott and three others to plan a meeting. It would be held in Stanton’s hometown, Seneca Falls.

The two-day gathering began on July 19, 1848. About 300 people attended, including many men. They listened as Stanton read a document she had written called the Declaration of Sentiments. It was modeled after one of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. Stanton included a list of resolutions that spelled out many of the rights women were denied. 

The people at the meeting agreed with nearly everything in the declaration, but one resolution caused a stir. When Stanton said that women should be able to vote, some people were shocked and angry. But she refused to remove that wording. 

Stanton got support from the only Black person invited to the meeting. Frederick Douglass, a formerly enslaved man, was a well-known writer and activist. He said that without the right to vote, women would not be able to change unfair laws. In the end, that resolution stayed, and 100 people—including 32 men—signed the declaration. 

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Suffragists march in a parade in the early 1900s.

More Work to Do

Word spread about what took place at Seneca Falls. Though some people didn’t take the declaration seriously, women across the U.S. were inspired to join the fight for suffrage and other rights. 

The movement grew during the decades that followed. Suffragists of various races and backgrounds organized meetings, wrote to lawmakers, and held protests. At times, they were laughed at, threatened, attacked, and even arrested and jailed.

Still, they refused to give up the fight. Their efforts slowly began to pay off. In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was approved. It stated that women could no longer be denied the right to vote. Words Stanton spoke at Seneca Falls were finally coming true.

“The right is ours,” she said. “Have it we must. Use it we will.” 

1. What is the main idea of the section “Denied Their Rights”?

2. According to the article, which of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolutions caused a stir? How did she respond?

3. Based on the sidebar, “A Call for Equality,” describe two similarities between the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of Sentiments.

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