Declarations of Independence: Women's Rights and the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions
by Amy Trenkle
Under the leadership of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a convention for the rights of women was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. It was attended by between 200 and 300 people, both women and men. Its primary goal was to discuss the rights of women—how to gain these rights for all, particularly in the political arena. The conclusion of this convention was that the effort to secure equal rights across the board would start by focusing on suffrage for women. The participants wrote the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, patterned after the Declaration of Independence. It specifically asked for voting rights and for reforms in laws governing marital status.
Reactions to the convention and the new Declaration were mixed. Many people felt that the women and their sympathizers were ridiculous, and newspapers denounced the women as unfeminine and immoral. Little substantive change resulted from the Declaration in 1848, but from that time through 1920, when the goal of women’s suffrage was attained with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the Declaration served as a written reminder of the goals of the movement.
How did women of the nineteenth century use a national document of independence dating from the eighteenth century to make their argument for equal rights?
- Declaration of Independence, National Archives
- Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, Fordham University
- Comparison Worksheet (PDF)
Distribute copies of the Declaration of Independence and have students read the document to themselves. Divide students into three groups and assign each group one of the following questions:
- What were some of the grievances that the colonists listed in the Declaration of Independence?
- Who was supposed to be covered by this Declaration of Independence? Who was excluded from it? Why?
- What are the three big ideas (parts) that the Declaration is divided into? What does each part say?
- After students have completed the warm-up activity, each group should share its responses to the questions with the class, citing text from the Declaration of Independence.
- Distribute copies of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, and have students read it silently.
- Working in groups, students should complete the worksheet on similarities and differences between the Declaration of Independence and the Seneca Falls Declaration. They should refer to the language, ideas, format, and conclusions of the two documents.
- Ask students to share their findings with the class.
Students should choose two quotes, phrases, or sentences from the Seneca Falls Declaration that are particularly meaningful to them.
- Divide the class into groups no larger than four or five students.
- Within the groups, each student takes a turn sharing his or her quote, sentence, or phrase. After a student shares, every other group member gives his or her opinion of the selection. No one may interrupt the speaker, and the speaking must go in order around the circle. After all the other students have expressed their views, the student who started with the quote shares his or her opinion of the selection and offers thoughts about why he or she selected it.
To prepare for sharing with the entire class, each group again meets separately and is given five minutes to summarize key points, questions, understandings, and conflicting viewpoints that arose in the group discussion. Next the small groups come together as a class, and one person from each group reports the group’s findings to the entire class.
- As a class, students brainstorm a list of topics that answer the question: What forms of independence are we still fighting for today? Examples of answers are: “independence from racism,” “freedom from stereotypes,” “independence from foreign oil,” and “independence from political oppression.”
- Ask each of the three groups that the students have been working in to write its own declaration of independence in the format and manner of—and with the same sense of conviction as—the Declaration of the Independence and Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.
- Have students share their Declarations with the rest of the class.