“Remembering the Ladies” Series – Women’s Rights in the National Spotlight

Portrait photograph of Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her two sons, 1848. (Library of Congress)
Painted portrait of Lucretia Mott, c. 1842. (Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery)

The Seneca Falls Convention – held in the eponymous area of upstate New York – was the first major convention for women’s rights held in the United States. Hosted from July 19 to 20 in 1848, the convention prominently featured female Quakers from the local area, whose religious doctrines were widely considered to be one of the more socially progressive of the era. One of the two co-founders of the Seneca Falls Convention was Lucretia Mott, a Quaker woman who was involved in both the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. After being excluded from the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 for being a woman, Mott inserted herself into the women’s rights movement. Her prior years of experience as a Quaker preacher gave Mott a strong speaking voice, prompting fellow Quaker Jane Hunt to invite her to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The other co-founder of the convention – Elizabeth Stanton – was the foremost leader of the event, as she was considered by many at the time to be the most notable figure in both the women’s rights and abolitionist movements. As the most prominent figure at the convention, Stanton was the leading author of the Declaration of Sentiments, a document signed by one-hundred of the male and female attendees. Intentionally modeled after the United States Declaration of Independence, the new document specifically remarked that “all men and women are created equal,” and mirrored the grievances raised by the American colonists against King George III with a new list of rights and privileges that American women were still held back from in the republic. Among the items listed in the Declaration of Sentiments included the restriction of women from the “inalienable right to the elective franchise,” the compulsion to “submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice,” taking from them “all right in property, even to the wages she earns,” and the more egregious outcome of being made “if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.” Stanton and the co-signers effectively incorporated every topical grievance held by the women’s rights movement at the time in the Declaration of Sentiments. The document was credited by future generations of women’s rights activists as a foundational step in the advancement of the movement. In The North Star – an anti-slavery newspaper in New York – writer and former slave Frederick Douglass identified the Declaration of Sentiments as the “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.” Despite the praise and general support given to the document within the movement, Stanton’s goal of using the Declaration to resonate with the general American public did not work immediately. Furthermore, the specific call for women to receive the right to vote was met with considerable controversy both beyond and within the Seneca Falls Convention. Calls for extending the right to vote to women was not unheard of before the Seneca Falls Convention, but the women’s rights movement had and ideological divide between those who wanted to gradually advance the social rights of women before touching politics, and those who wanted every single right and privilege in American society extended to women without delay. The divide remained unaddressed for many years after the Seneca Falls Convention, as the more pertinent issue of the future of slavery remained topical in an increasingly-divided United States. While there was a proportional inversion of political dialogue between women’s rights and abolition, the two topics were not mutually exclusive, and it would be at a future convention where its most notable attendee would address both issues and call for its immediate reform.

Daguerreotype of a young Frederick Douglass, c. 1848. (Chester County Historical Society)
Cabinet card of Sojourner Truth, c. 1864. (National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Three years after the convention in Seneca Falls, the Women’s Rights Convention met in the city of Akron, Ohio in 1851. On May 29 at the steps of the Old Stone Church in downtown Akron, the most remarkable and far-reaching speech delivered at the convention was given by an African-American former slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist by the name of Sojourner Truth. Born into slavery in the state of New York in 1797, Truth – known then by her birth name Isabella Baumfree – was the child of an enslaved couple under the ownership of Johannes Hardenbergh. Because of the major cultural influences of the part of New York they lived in, Baumfree’s first spoken language was Dutch. It was not until Baumfree was sold to another master named John Neely in 1806 when she first started learning English at nine years old. Baumfree was sold to different masters up until the age of twenty-nine, when her latest master John Durmont went back on his word to grant her and her children freedom. New York had abolished slavery in 1799, but it would not be until 1827 when it would be completely eliminated from the state. In response to Dumont failing to uphold his promise, Baumfree took her infant daughter Sophia and escaped from their slavery in 1826. Her remaining children remained behind on the grounds that they were not legally freed under the previous agreement shared between Baumfree and Dumont. Baumfree later remarked that she did not specifically run off from slavery, “for [she] thought it was wicked, but [she] walked off, believing that to be all right.” Baumfree and her infant daughter were eventually taken under the care of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, guaranteeing that she would only serve them until the remaining year of her obligated servitude was complete. After Baumfree and her daughter were freed in 1827, she soon discovered that her other son Peter was illegally resold to a new master named Solomon Gedney  in Alabama. With assistance from the Van Wagenen family, Baumfree drafted and filed a lawsuit against Gedney, demanding that he be returned to her. The case eventually went to the New York Supreme Court, where Baumfree successfully regained custody of her son Peter from slavery. This legal battle made Baumfree one of the first African-American women to successfully file a lawsuit against a white man and win. In 1843, Baumfree converted to Methodism and legally changed her name to Sojourner Truth, symbolizing her personal belief that the spirit of God compelled her to preach to those she encountered in her life. In the waning years of the Second Great Awakening, Truth attended several Millerite Adventist encampments preaching about Christianity. Her experiences in preaching religious doctrines to others gave her substantial experience in public speaking and outreach, culminating in Truth joining the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in 1844. As an abolitionist organization that supported women’s rights, religious tolerance, and pacifism, Truth was able to personally meet and make the acquaintances of William Lloyd Garrison – the abolitionist founder of The Liberator newspaper – as well as Frederick Douglass, who had recently published his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Years later in 1850, Truth would eventually dictate and publish with Garrison her own memoir entitled The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. 

Anti-slavery medallion published by the abolitionist “Genius of Universal Emancipation” newspaper, c. 1830. (Public Domain)
Bust of Sojourner Truth created by Artis Lane, on display at the Capitol Visitor Center in Emancipation Hall. (Architect of the Capitol)

In company with British abolitionist George Thompson, Truth traveled to Akron, Ohio to attend the Women’s Rights Convention. Although the women’s rights movement was progressive for the time period, there was still an underlying sense of separation between the ethnicities of the attendees. Truth was the only African-American woman in attendance, and there were some of the white women’s rights activists who did not wish for her to speak at all. Nonetheless, Truth delivered her most notable speech on the second day of the convention to a substantial audience. In her words, Truth asked that if a woman has a pint of intelligence, “and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full?” She further asserted that men need “not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold.” Using her religious background to appeal her arguments, Truth recalled the Biblical story of how “Eve caused man to sin,” and further asserted that “if woman upset the world” because of this, then men should give women “a chance to set it right side up again.” Recounting her life and struggles as a female slave, Truth used her experiences as a case study of why it was necessary for women to be treated as equals to men. Truth’s speech was transcribed by the Rev. Marius Robinson in the Anti-Slavery Bugle newspaper, and is presently the most-accurate version of the words she said at the convention. A more popular version of the speech was later published in 1863 by feminist and abolitionist Frances Dana Barker Gage. Gage had attended the convention with Truth and Robinson, and claimed to have transcribed the new version of the speech from memory. As it was published in the midst of the American Civil War, Gage’s transcription of Truth’s speech was widely spread and received in the northern Union states, as it helped to reinforce the increasing pro-emancipation sentiments of the American public. The most popular, albeit feigned, element of Gage’s transcription was Truth being quoted as frequently asking the crowd “Ain’t I a Woman,” changing her original dialect of Dutch-accented English to a Southern accent, as it was considered the more common “speaking voice” of African-Americans of the era. Despite the frequent arguments historians have since engaged in over the specific characteristics of the speech and how it was delivered, it nonetheless placed Truth into the national spotlight. She would spend the next few decades of her life continuing to preach and publicly advocate for abolition and the equality of the sexes. In the years before and after the American Civil War and the elimination of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, Truth personally spoke with and met more notable figures in the women’s rights and abolitionist movements, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After spending the majority of her eighty-six years engaged in public outreach, Sojourner Truth died in 1883. Her career and legacy was held in high regard by both the women’s rights movement, as well as the increasing equal rights movement as the 20th century drew near. In recognition of her life and legacy, visual artist Artis Lane created a bronze bust sculpture of Sojourner Truth for the Architect of the Capitol. The very first bust that depicts an African-American woman in the building, the sculpture of Truth is currently on display in Emancipation Hall at the United States Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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