The Women’s Rights National Historical Park, operated by the National Park Service, celebrates the achievements made in the battle for woman’s rights. Its three principal components are the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House, the restored Wesleyan Chapel in downtown Seneca Falls, and (adjacent to the Chapel) the Woman’s Rights Museum.
The Wesleyan Chapel served as the site for the first Woman’s Rights Convention in 1848, organized by (among others) Elizabeth Cady Stanton and attended by abolition activist Frederick Douglass. This convention sparked the development of first-wave feminism and the nineteenth-century woman’s rights movement, which achieved the vote for women in 1920.
Some three hundred women and forty men attended the 1848 Woman's Rights Convention (nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman's; later practice was to use the plural, women's). The 1848 Convention is best known for adopting the Declaration of Sentiments, a statement of woman’s equality consciously patterned on the Declaration of Independence. The Convention also adopted twelve resolutions, of which the most controversial was a then-unprecedented call for "the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise"—that is, the vote.
It is no coincidence that the Convention took place at the then-new Wesleyan Chapel. In 1843, the Wesleyan Methodist Church split from the Methodist Episcopal Church. Issues included whether to oppose slavery abstractly (a sort of bare bones abolitionism) or to engage in more radical forms of activism such as defying the Fugitive Slave Act, sheltering escaped slaves, and participating in the Underground Railroad. The Wesleyans took the more radical position.
Their number included many reformers, including some who believed in equality between men and women. At that time, Seneca Falls was a particular hotbed of radical reform agitation. Seneca Falls’s Wesleyan congregation was the first to build a chapel, and for many years the Seneca Falls chapel was the largest Wesleyan chapel in New York. It was routinely made available for reform speakers and events. No facility then in Seneca Falls would have been more likely to welcome the Woman’s Rights Convention.
As the centennial of nationwide woman suffrage (in 2020) approaches, historians have mounted a vigorous search for the original copy of the Declaration of Sentiments, bearing the signatures of all who affirmed it. This document is never known to have been seen following the Convention. Searches of the archived papers and memorabilia of organizers and participants have yielded nothing. It is known that Frederick Douglass's antislavery paper The North Star was the first periodical to publish the Declaration in full, so there is informed speculation that Douglass took the original Declaration with him to his Rochester newspaper office to be set into type. In that case it might have been discarded -- newspapers tended to be cavalier about original documents in those days -- or kept among Douglass's personal papers. If the latter is true, then the original Declaration of Sentiments was probably lost in the suspicious 1872 fire that destroyed Douglass's rural Rochester home.
For more information, see the Women’s Rights National Historical Park’s official site.
This site has been included among two hundred sites on the New York State Path Through History. For announcement, click here. For full list of Path Through History sites, click here.