Episode Show Notes & Transcript
How do we tell the story of the (unfinished) struggle for women’s voting rights? Who gave us the dominant suffrage narrative? And who gets left out?
Our host is Laura Free, a historian of women and politics. She reflects on the suffrage story she learned as a child, one that centers a few white women. She speaks with historians Bettye Collier-Thomas and Lisa Tetrault about the work they’ve done to show there is much more to the story. Next, Laura travels to Seneca Falls, New York, site of the 1848 women’s rights convention, with historian Judith Wellman. Dr. Wellman describes a movement that was both complex and diverse, and helps us to see an old story in an entirely new light.
This episode serves as the prologue to the series, inviting listeners to amend their understanding of women’s suffrage history.
Laura Free: If I asked you to think about the history of women’s rights in America, is there a specific person… moment… or story that comes to mind?
If you learned about the subject in school, your textbook probably mentioned the suffrage movement―the fight for women’s right to vote. Maybe it taught you that a few rich, white women were the only leaders. And that they won the battle in 1920, with the 19th Amendment to the constitution.
Bettye Collier-Thomas: We find ourselves in a dilemma now in 2020.
How do you tell that story and history?
Laura: When that amendment was ratified 100 years ago, it enabled more American women to vote than ever before. But it did not guarantee voting rights for all women.
Lisa Tetrault: We pay scant attention to what the amendment actually says…
Martha Jones: But here is a story to pursue in the archives.
Laura: The suffrage history we often celebrate centers and glorifies a few white women. And it excludes the stories of key people who were on the frontlines from the beginning.
Martha Jones: There have always been Black suffragists as long as there have been suffragists.
Sharia Benn: You white women here speak of rights, I speak of wrongs.
Laura: I’m Laura Free and you’re listening to Amended, a podcast from Humanities New York. Amended is a series of stories from groundbreaking historians. We’ll go back to the 1800s, and through to the present day, to trace a movement for equal voting rights for all women. How we think about this history matters right now. Because it shows us why voting rights are still profoundly threatened for millions of Americans. Over the course of the show, we’ll talk about what’s been gained, what’s been lost, and what’s still left to be done.
Bettye Collier-Thomas: People of color as a whole, whether you’re talking about male or female. they still are being stripped of their natural right. The right to vote as citizens of the United States of America.
Act I: Scene I
Laura: I feel like I’ve always known about the fight for women’s voting rights in America. As a little kid, I had a coloring book of famous suffragists. As I colored, I admired these women. Because of them, I thought, when I was old enough, I’d be able to walk into a school gym, pull the curtain closed on a voting machine, and cast my ballot. To me, they were heroes.
That changed very suddenly for me in high school. I was researching an assignment and I found some writing by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a white suffrage advocate from the 19th century. In her articles, Stanton used racist stereotypes to argue that white women deserved the right to vote more than men who were Black or Asian American, or immigrants, or who couldn’t read. Why did my history books celebrate someone who advocated racist policies? What else was missing from the histories I thought I knew?
I’ve never stopped asking questions like that. Today I’m a historian of women. And a history professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. My first book was about how the racism of white suffragists like Stanton hurt the movement for women’s equality… But it’s not enough just to call out this racism. As a white historian I believe it’s essential for me to use the access and privilege I have to help reframe how this history gets taught in the first place.
Because not only does the traditional history center white women, but it also focuses on how white women were oppressed without acknowledging the systems of oppression they helped make and benefitted from.
To take only white women’s stories as the whole history of suffrage, is to ignore race, citizenship status, and class and to pretend that sex was the only battleground for women’s equal rights. It also means overlooking decades of scholarship by activists, writers and historians whose work has shown that the fight for women’s equality in America has always been as diverse and complex as the nation itself. One of those scholars is Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas.
Bettye: Hi cutie pies, aren’t you cute.
Laura: Thank you so much for having us.
Bettye: And a little taller than I am and as slim as I used to be. Come on in….
Laura: Thank you.
Laura: My producer Reva and I recorded with Bettye at her home back in February. She’s a brilliant historian of African-American history and a professor at Temple University. Bettye has been researching and writing about Black women in activism and politics since the 1960’s. And I think she’s kept everything she ever found…
Bettye: So welcome to “Bettye Land”. Come on down.
Laura: All right. I think all historians are pack rats, right? Because it’s archive.
Bettye: Well darling, I have all this down here but I also have lots of boxes in the garage.
Laura: Look at these whole walls of file cabinets.
Bettye: This is all suffrage here. See come over here. Anything one wants to know, I could write more books on this stuff.
Laura: Oh my gosh, look at this… This has gotta be the largest personal archive I have ever seen.
Bettye: It is, it’s the largest one on Black women, too.
Bettye: Come on guys. You got Bettye talk going.
Laura: I do. I’m loving it…
Laura: I was seriously blown away. I’ve been in public archives that aren’t as extensive or as organized as Bettye’s private collection. She has miles of bookshelves, cabinets full of microfilm. Thousands of historical papers and photos. And many of the women who show up in her sources were lost to history before she wrote about them. We’ll hear some of their stories later in our season.
But before we dive into that, it’s really important to talk about why it’s been such an uphill battle to get the political actions of Black women included in the popular suffrage history. Or in other words, how the history was written to leave them out. Because we can’t dismantle exclusionary history without understanding where it came from and why it looks like it does.
Bettye: My first experience teaching in the white academy in 1970, I received several evaluations and one said “she seems to think that Black history is American history.” That said it all. They had been taught a sanitized version where they were taught U.S. history. I mean, this is what we are dealing with now in real time. Before really around the 1980’s, there was no discussion about women in textbooks. Now, women get more treatment than African-Americans, but they don’t get a lot of treatment. They give you a couple of the names that are well known, but beyond that you do not get the story. So I’m always adding things. Which they don’t always appreciate. And believe it or not, there is still much to be written.
Laura: You’ve probably heard this idea before. That the history most of us learn is filtered through a lens that is white and male. This signals that the actions of white men in power are the most consequential. The contributions of anyone and everyone else get squeezed into sidebars. Women’s rights history tends to be one of those sidebars, which is a huge problem for such a broad movement. And then every inch of that narrow space usually goes to how white women fought for a federal suffrage amendment. So why is it just those people and that goal? Historian Dr. Lisa Tetrault is going to tell us.
Act I: Scene II
Laura: Lisa, I’m curious. What do you think most people in America know about how women got the right to vote?
Lisa Tetrault: That is a very good question. What do most people know?
Laura: Lisa’s a historian of women at Carnegie Mellon University. She called in from W.E.S.A. in Pittsburgh, to tell me about the popular suffrage narrative, and why it needs to change. So what do most people know?
Lisa: They know that it was a struggle. I don’t think they know when it began. I don’t think they know when it finished. And I think they would be hard-pressed to name anyone maybe other than Susan B. Anthony. But I don’t know. What are your thoughts about what people know?
Laura: I think they absolutely know Anthony right. Her “Aunt Susan” image permeated American popular culture.
Lisa: Although I’m surprised when I speak how many times people say to me, she was like suffrage or something like that? Like, it’s kind of amazing. Chances are if they got any education about women’s history in say high school or college, the chances are Seneca Falls would have been the story told them.
Laura: Yeah, I think they might know Seneca Falls as a place. Right. And, you know, they might have a vague notion that something happened there that’s tied to suffrage.
Lisa: Although it’s problematic in all kinds of ways, I think that’s the story most people know if they know the story.
Laura: If Susan B. Anthony rings a bell with you, it’s because she’s the most famous white suffragist of the 19th century. Maybe you can even picture her stern face and tiny glasses. “Seneca Falls” is lesser known, but it’s widely taught as the “once upon a time” moment of the suffrage story. And it stars another famous suffrage icon — Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I asked Lisa to tell us that story in case anyone needs a refresher.
Lisa: So it would go something like this. In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton was living in Seneca Falls, New York. She had recently been married. She was birthing children. She had a prodigious intellect and a great spirit. Sort of withering under domestic demands. Enter Lucretia Mott who comes in from the East. They meet up at Jane Hunt’s house. Five women, they have tea. And as Stanton pours out her domestic woes the five women agree then and there that they will hold the first convention to demand women’s rights. They only have a couple of days, they scramble, they put an announcement in the local newspaper that this convention will take place. and meanwhile, they get busy trying to figure out what to do at the convention. They draft something called the Declaration of Sentiments, which is a women’s rights manifesto. And eventually, it seems that Stanton comes up with the idea of modeling it on the Declaration of Independence, that sacred document declaring freedoms. And they rewrite those sacred opening lines “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal.”
Laura: So Stanton and her friends work on the Declaration together. And they include some pretty basic demands for women’s equality. Equal pay for women’s labor, access to higher education and careers, they thought married women should have the right to own property, and finally suffrage — the right to vote. So when the convention begins, people come from around the region to Seneca Falls. They fill the pews of the Wesleyan Chapel, a church on the town’s main street. When Stanton gets up and reads the Declaration of Sentiments, everybody is pretty much on board with most of its ideas. But then she gets to suffrage.
Lisa: That demand was controversial. It did not pass unanimously the way the other demands did. And there’s debate among historians about why that’s the case. But the famed Frederick Douglass, who was just a rising star in the abolitionist movement, who was there at the convention, stood up and gave an impassioned defense, and with that it passed, and made it into the ultimate Declaration of Sentiments. That Declaration was then sent out across the nation. It inspired women to then organize their own conventions and eventually within a year or two it ignited what is considered to be a mass women’s rights movement in the United States. That’s the conventional story.
Laura: Now voting rights have a long and complicated history, and the Seneca Falls convention was not the first time, on record, that American women demanded the ballot. But someone had to place their finger at this one moment and say “It started here.” Lisa’s book The Myth of Seneca Falls explains who did this and why. You’ll notice she starts to mention Susan B. Anthony. Anthony wasn’t at the Seneca Falls convention. She and Stanton met three years later and worked and strategized together for the rest of their lives. Stanton as the writer, Anthony as the organizer and public voice of the suffrage movement.
Lisa: I argue in the book that Stanton and Anthony ultimately create the story, in concert with other people who start to adopt it and repeat it as well. They first hold a women’s rights convention in 1873 that’s a 25th anniversary of Seneca Falls. And it’s there that they start to tell this story in the form that it will eventually have. It might have felt obvious to them. And I think it certainly felt true to them. It was their truth. But what they did is they took this truth and made it the movement’s truth and in doing that, they were also saying what they believe the direction of the movement ought to be. I think they understood that controlling the story meant also controlling a degree of politics around you. And they would be keepers of the suffrage story and they would codify it and disseminate it in ways that no other suffragist really did.
Laura: A lot had changed by the time Stanton and Anthony started this work to control the movement’s story. The Civil War started and ended. Slavery was abolished. And the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting voter discrimination based on race. So Stanton and Anthony wanted a 16th Constitutional Amendment that would do the same thing for women. But there were lots of other activists who, for very good reasons, questioned Stanton and Anthony’s strategy and their leadership at this moment. We’ll learn why in a future episode. So by starting the suffrage story at the Seneca Falls convention, with Stanton front and center, Stanton and Anthony could legitimize themselves, and their tactics. In our terms — they were trying to “control the narrative.”
Lisa: Stanton and Anthony also did something that no other suffragist really did as effectively as they did, they started writing history. A stroke of genius that women’s history deserved to be told, and that by telling women’s history you embolden women in the present. And eventually they wrote a three volume 3,000 page history of the movement. I mean, it was massive, and it took them 10 years of their life.
Laura: Stanton and Anthony wanted their version of history to be what everyone remembered. And for the most part, it worked. But it was not everyone’s story. And it left so much out. Most importantly, it left so many people out.
Lisa: It’s always been accepted, at least in the 20th century, that this is where the women’s rights movement began. It’s where the women’s suffrage movement began. And with that come a whole host of additional assumptions, which is that the vote was always the most preeminent demand for women. It was always the most radical and that Stanton and Anthony were in fact the sort of natural presumed leaders from the beginning. It puts white women in charge of women’s rights. It says women’s rights originated with white women. and it elevates sets of concerns that largely impact the lives of white women at the forefront of the agenda.
Laura: Who gets excluded when Stanton and Anthony write their history?
Lisa: A variety people get excluded when they write this history. It reduces a really broad and complex women’s political activism to the story of the vote. And it even collapses the story of the vote down further to the story of the federal amendment and Stanton and Anthony when it was many things to many people. It also excludes a whole lot of African-American women, their story is not very well chronicled. Other women’s rights activities is largely absent. There was a free love movement at the time that argued that women’s bodily autonomy was the most important thing. There was a temperance movement, there was a women’s labor movement. Lastly, it makes us think that this has been accomplished and achieved in 1920. Lots and lots of people don’t vote in 1920 and when we say women won the right to vote in 1920 we erase the long and complicated history of race in this story.
Laura: Why isn’t 1920 the end?
Lisa: So when we tell a story about Seneca Falls, we conclude it in 1920. And the triumphal ending, you know, the promise of the vote which had first been demanded in 1848, which, in fact, was not the first demand. And we’re going to hear over and over again in the centennial that 1920 gave women the right to vote or women were secure in the right to vote after 1920, but none of that is true. We pay scant attention to what the amendment actually says, and all the amendment said was, you may not discriminate in voting on the basis of sex. So in other words, states couldn’t bar you from voting if you were female. But they could still bar you from voting on all kinds of other grounds. There were only two ways in which the federal government had intervened in voting. The 15th Amendment, which said you couldn’t discriminate in the basis of race and the 19th Amendment, which said you couldn’t discriminate on the basis of sex and other than that, states, which controlled suffrage which we forget could continue to disenfranchise on any grounds they saw fit. Through things like poll taxes which many poor, Black sharecroppers can’t afford. Or understanding clauses where things that would say like, if you’re going to be a voter, you really need to understand how government works. So tell me, for example, all 56 county judges, otherwise, we don’t want you voting.
Laura: Long after the 19th Amendment passed, states enforced these racist laws. And even when African-Americans met all the requirements, they were often brutally attacked by white supremacists when they went to vote. Native Americans and Asian Americans were also excluded from citizenship and voting by federal law until many years later. so there is no single easy story that takes us from “no women can vote” to “all women can vote.” Why is it so hard to let go of that idea?
Laura: Lisa, one of the things I really appreciate about your work is that you’re not afraid to take on the traditional story that’s shaped so much of what we think we know about women’s voting rights. And it’s a story that people are really, really attached to. How do people react to your work?
Lisa: Some of the positive takeaways from the book that I’ve heard from people have been their increased understanding that history is not just dead, and in the past, it’s living and in the present, and people keep reinvesting history with new meanings and new stories and new emphases—and that’s very much what history is about to me. It’s about how we make meaning in the present. And I think people have felt crestfallen and afraid that bringing down the story of Seneca Falls challenges something that they have felt to be true and inspiring. And if that’s not true, then from where did they draw their inspiration? People fought really, really hard to get that story visible and that was part of a political project to insist that women should have rights in the present. and i think some people feel that if that story falls, women’s rights might fall with it. although plenty of people of color would argue that story is really about white women. So when you use that story to protect women’s rights, really, you’re protecting white people and you’re blinded to the needs and the different demands that face people of color.
Laura: Now we know why “once upon a time in Seneca Falls” is a problematic way to start the women’s rights story. But there are some really important takeaways about what that moment was. Things we want to hold onto from the story. More on that when we come back. Stay with us.
Laura: Welcome back. We spent part one of the episode learning the origin myth of suffrage and how much it leaves out. That said, in some ways the convention was the beginning of organized activism for women’s equal rights in the nineteenth century. And what the convention organizers said about women’s oppression was pretty radical for the time. So I’m not saying that the Seneca Falls convention didn’t happen or that it wasn’t important. Only that racial bias and political baggage have left us with an incomplete picture of suffrage history. The traditional story of the convention focuses on the few people at the front of the room. How might the story change if we simply ask who else was there? probably no one knows more about this than Dr. Judy Wellman. She’s the author of The Road to Seneca Falls and has spent much of her career studying the people and the activism of this New York region in the 1800’s. I asked her to meet me in Seneca Falls and share some of what she’s found.
Laura Free: Thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate it.
Judy Wellman: You’re welcome. This is exciting.
Laura Free: Let’s do Seneca Falls.
Judy Wellman: Let’s do it!
Laura: Seneca Falls feels very much like the classic American small town, with a modest but busy main street. I’ve lived nearby since graduate school and have been there more times than I can count. But Judy’s history there goes back even further. In 1972, she was teaching one of the first women’s history classes in the country at SUNY Oswego; where she was a professor for many years. Judy decided to take her students on a Seneca Falls road trip. Now this was 8 years before the local suffrage sites had been restored and made into the Women’s Rights National Park. So when she and her students got there, there wasn’t much to see. They took out the Declaration of Sentiments and read it together.
Judy: The Declaration was signed by 100 people, 68 women and 32 men. And we looked at their names and recognized almost no one except Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The rest of them were completely unknown. And I said, who are these people? Where did they come from? Why did they come to this meeting? And that set off a 25-year search on my part looking at the environment of Seneca Falls, and looking at local records to create an image of what this community was like.
Laura: What kind of documents were you able to find?
Judy: I started with census records and looking at just who was in Seneca Falls. There were almost 4300 people in 1850 and I used newspapers on microfilm at that time. So they weren’t online and easy to search. But there was a lot of information about the development of the community and about individual people.
Laura: Judy also researched the big picture until she had a clear vision of Seneca Falls in the 1840’s. What she saw was a place that had undergone huge transformations within a generation; from land that white settlers stole from the indigenous Cayuga Nation, to a small farming community. Then to an industrial and transportation hub. By the time the convention happened in 1848, upstate communities like Seneca Falls were growing. With English and Irish immigrants; religious rebels, abolitionists, and free Black men and women.[church bells ring]
Laura: We heard music from a nearby church as we walked to a modest two-story house on state street. The house doesn’t have a historical marker, because it’s not a part of the Women’s Rights National Park. Today it’s just somebody’s home. In 1848, it was home to an African-American family: Sarah and Thomas James, and their daughter Martha.
Judy: Thomas James, in 1850, was asked by the census taker, where are you born? Well, he said, my wife’s born—Sarah’s born in Pennsylvania. Our daughter, 12-year-old Martha, was born in Canada. I don’t know where I was born. and that’s a clue that he, in fact, had been born in slavery and was not going to tell a federal official that in case it would threaten him. He probably came to Seneca Falls in the late 1830’s because he buys this house—this lot by the early 1840’s.
Laura: So tell me about Thomas James’ connections to the Seneca Falls community.
Judy: Thomas James was one of the barbers in Seneca Falls. I think everyone in the community would have known him not only did he live right next to the train station, where he was very obvious and very visible as was his whole family, but he probably cut everyone’s hair, women as well as men. And somehow he managed to save enough money to build an enormous business block on probably the major downtown corner in Seneca Falls.
Laura: So it would sort of indicate a connection to lots of people in the community who might—
Judy: Oh yes, everyone. Everyone would have known Thomas James. In spite of the fact that the Supreme Court had declared that no Black man has a right that any white man is bound to respect, obviously people respected Thomas James in this community and he did very well for himself and the building is still standing.
Laura: So the picture that you’re painting is of a community that seems very interconnected.
Judy: I think you can see that with the women’s rights convention too. It’s definitely not race based. It’s definitely not class based. It’s definitely not sex based. It’s a convention that tries to implement ideals of equality and justice for all people.
Laura: So do you think he was there?
Judy: I think he probably was actually. We have the signatures of 100 people on the Declaration of Sentiments and we know those 100 people went to the Seneca Falls convention. But we also know that the chapel was filled to overflowing. I would be very surprised if Thomas James and maybe Sarah-Elizabeth and Martha were not among them.
Laura: The signatures on the Declaration of Sentiments have been a key piece of evidence about who was present at the convention. But we also know that only about a third of the people who attended ended up signing their names. Among those signers, abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the only African-American — not particularly surprising in predominately white Seneca Falls. But even though we don’t have documentation that any other people of color were there, it is possible. Sarah Elizabeth, Martha, and Thomas James, would have had good reason to attend — because Thomas was a trustee of the Wesleyan Chapel where the convention was held. That’s where Judy and I were headed next and as we’re about to learn formerly enslaved people were an important part of that church community.
Laura: Should we go in?
Judy: Let’s do it.
Laura: The restored Wesleyan Chapel is one big, brick room with rows of antique pews.
Laura: There was an upstairs, right?
Judy: Yeah there was a balcony, you can see where it was connected in with these support beams.
Laura: It may look like a traditional church, but back in the 1840’s, the Wesleyan Chapel was a pretty radical place. Its founders were antislavery Methodists who built the chapel in 1843 after they split with their denomination. They wanted to focus on fighting slavery, which was still legal in 15 of the 29 U.S. States. Their church was a space to strategize and to hear self-emancipated people speak about their experiences. So what did it feel like to walk in there when the convention started?
Judy: When they came we know it was a very hot day, because Mary Bascom was only 13 years old and she remembered later that it was 90 degrees when she came into the chapel, so you can imagine people would have been hot and sweaty. Amelia Bloomer, who edited a temperance newspaper called The Lily, walked in Thursday night, second day, late. She said it was so crowded, I had to go up into the balcony. So we know there was quite a crowd here. Sometimes not so many, but in the evening when they held meetings by candlelight, you would come in and there would be candles on the windows… I think they’re all trying to figure out what do we do next? What does this mean? What have we done? Who else could be our friends and allies?
Laura: Judy told me that alongside the antislavery Methodists, there were two other groups of potential allies at the convention. one group belonged to the new Free Soil Party. these people opposed the Western expansion of slavery mostly for economic, rather than moral reasons. The other group was more progressive and egalitarian. They were abolitionist members of the religious society of friends, also known as Quakers. The Quakers at the convention were motivated by their faith that all people, women, men, enslaved, and free, were equal in the eyes of god. Judy has studied all these people for so long they seem like old friends.
Laura: Judy, if we were sitting here on July 19th and 20th in 1848, who would be joining us in the pew?
Judy: Thomas James is here, I suspect because he’s a trustee of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and has been very active in abolitionism. Maybe his daughter Martha is over there, too. right over there, I see Charles Hoskins. Everyone knew Charles because he kept the largest general store in town. I know he had three daughters, and I think he might have come to see what the issues about legal rights for women were and especially about whether his daughters could inherit property. Sitting up there this tall man with kind of long white hair, that’s Thomas McClintock. He has a drug store in Waterloo. He only sells material that’s free from the labor of slaves. He says there’s nothing in his store that has anything to do with slavery. His daughters are walking around here acting as ushers helping people find their seats and I see they’re passing around a paper and asking people to sign that declaration about women’s rights. Should I do it? I don’t know…
Laura: I think I see James and Lucretia Mott in the front. Tell us what have they been up to lately?
Judy: They’ve just come back from a long tour. They’d gone to visit people who had escaped from slavery and settled in Canada. They’d gone to Auburn Prison to talk to prisoners, and they went to Cattaraugus to meet with Seneca People. These Quakers were different because they saw reform as all of a piece. it wasn’t that you could become an advocate for abolitionism and not become an advocate for Seneca Indian land rights or women’s rights or peace. For them, reform was for everyone. There were no limits on equality or justice. It applied to everyone everywhere all the time.
Laura: So Judy, your description of these people, I can see them sitting here in the pews with us.
Judy: Yeah, you can really feel their echoes as you sit here. I always get chills. There is something different about the atmosphere, you can feel a change in the way the air swirls around.
Laura: Yeah. history in some ways, right? It’s always the echoes that we’re trying to grasp on to and sometimes they’re really loud and it’s easy to make that connection and to channel the voices and sometimes they’re more ephemeral and it’s harder.
Judy: I think one goal I have as a historian is not to intrude on what they want to say, but to hear what they’re saying, as well as I can in terms of what it meant to them, but then the reason that we, probably you too, choose to study a particular topic like women’s rights is because we realize it also has something to say to us. What does it mean to me? To you, as we sit here in our time, what do they have to say to us? And how do we carry it forward?
Laura: How do we carry it forward? After hearing our guests today, I hope one of the things you’ll carry with you is that there was so much more to Seneca Falls than one woman and one demand. It was a moment when many different radical activists converged, with a range of big human rights problems on their minds.
They were thinking about how to end slavery. About the rights of prisoners and indigenous people. And about women’s equality. All these issues were spokes on the same wheel. People here knew that the oppression of one group was a threat to the rights of all.
So the women’s rights movement did not emerge in a vacuum, and it could not fully succeed in one… before we move on from here, there’s one more thing I want to leave you with. After I said goodbye to Judy, I made one last stop.
Laura: Next to the Wesleyan Chapel is a long, green lawn space. and, it’s contained by a long green wall with water pouring over it. As you walk down the ramp into this recessed space, the sound of the traffic fades and all you hear is the sound of the water pouring over the monument. The first few panels are blank. and then as you move along the wall, the text of the Declaration appears: “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal.” It says “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman. He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit to laws in the formation of which she had no voice.” That’s really powerful. Men have oppressed women always. There’s a long history of oppression and here are the ways that women have been oppressed and then it’s laid out on this really long wall so you can see just how many ways there were that women are oppressed. So I want to point out one line here in the text of the Declaration. It says here, “He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men, both natives and foreigners.”
Laura: That line just screams out at me — even at this moment of great potential in a radical abolitionist church… as the crowd discussed so many of the ways women were oppressed… the Declaration they held in their hands contained a clear message that there was a hierarchy as to who deserved equality more. That the white women who wrote the Declaration should have the privileges of white men — not that all people deserved the same fundamental rights.
The Seneca Falls convention took place in a majority white community, in a majority white space. Most attendees were people of racial and economic privilege who had the freedom to do and say what they wanted. They had influence, access, and resources. And as radical as many of them were, they were not free of prejudice against those they called quote “ignorant and degraded.” That line foreshadows huge problems to come.
After this moment, Stanton (and occasionally Anthony) would continue to disparage people they deemed inferior. Their words and actions got more explicitly racist at times, even as they believed their work was advancing the rights of all women. We’ll see a little bit of how that played out later in this series, but Stanton and Anthony will not be at the center.
Going forward, our focus is on women who could not or would not fully be part of a movement that claimed Stanton and Anthony as foremothers. Because although there were no enslaved women at Seneca Falls to express their demands, no Native American women there to protest the genocide and displacement of their people, no immigrants there who were not white — there were hundreds, if not thousands, of women among those groups and others who would go on to build political power and work on their own terms for all women’s equality.
Amended seeks to tell some of their stories. We’ll hear from scholars who’ve worked for decades to recenter the story of women’s rights around those who never settled for an incomplete vision of equality based on sex alone.
In our next episode, we’re going to Baltimore to meet legal historian Dr. Martha Jones. She’ll tell us about three remarkable enslaved women who were not free to gather, organize, or speak out. but who deserve to be remembered as warriors for women’s equality.
Don’t miss these great books by Laura Free and this episode’s guests:
Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville by Judith Wellman
Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion by Bettye-Collier Thomas
Still craving more?
Check out these HNY reading lists: “Amended, Suffrage, and Beyond,” “Suffrage and Beyond: 19 Books for Women’s History Month” and the “Votes for Women” collection, which includes more great reads on women’s struggle for the vote.
Podcast: AMENDED Episode: 1 “Myths and Sentiments”
Production Company: Humanities New York
Laura Free, Host & Writer
Reva Goldberg, Producer, Editor & Co-Writer
Scarlett Rebman, Project Director
Kordell K. Hammond
Consulting Engineer: Logan Romjue
Art by Simonair Yoho
Music by Michael John Hancock and Live Footage
A special thanks to Stephanie Freese at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Greg Cotteral at WEOS Studios in Geneva, NY, and the team at WESA, Pittsburgh.
Additional thanks to episode advisors for their feedback: Carol Faulkner, Dominique Jean-Louis, Martha S. Jones, Alison Parker, and Kishauna Soljour.
Amended is produced with major funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and with support from Baird Foundation, Susan Strauss, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Phil Lewis & Catherine Porter, and C. Evan Stewart.
This transcript has been revised and published by Humanities New York for public use. All rights reserved 2020.