Seneca Falls Perspectives

158 years ago, abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered like-minded delegates to a village in upstate New York "to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women." That gathering, known as the Seneca Falls Convention, sparked the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Depending on your perspective, the anniversary of America’s first women’s rights convention might inspire celebration, regret, or ambivalence. For those who are disappointed by the amount of progress women have made since July 19, 1848 (either too little or too much), such historical events can be too much of a downer–even when compared to the Civil War.

Historian Katherine J. Parkin, author of Food Is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, considers why a student might chose grizzlier subjects over women’s history.

A graduate student recently told me that in deciding between a course on the Civil War and my course on U.S. Women’s History, his greatest concern was that the course would be too depressing.  I assumed that meant he would select Woman’s History over a course analyzing a war that killed 620,000 people and ripped our country apart. But to my surprise, he saw the women’s history course as more depressing.  I never dreamed that he would consider my life’s work studying women’s history downbeat.  I have always respected historians who do difficult history, like the late Iris Chang, who bravely documented the horrors of war in The Rape of Nanking.  I had never counted those in the field of women’s history among those who shouldered such a difficult load.

Why did a student consider women’s history more dismal than a civil war? In some ways, I suppose it is not surprising that someone might perceive women’s history as depressing compared to much of the history that Americans embrace. There are wars, but we win them.  How Americans freed themselves from their British oppressors or saved the world from the Nazi threat prove to be compelling action adventure stories.  How women struggle against oppressors closer to home seems less patriotic and triumphant.

Another problem with the storyline is that it would seem that Americans are not quite sure they want women and men to be equal.  Therefore, the progressive narrative, in which worthy heroes prevail over injustice, never unfolds to our full satisfaction.  Even at the start of the 21st century, women continue to face challenges to their rights and respect.  In October 2005, Neil French, the creative director for one of the world’s largest advertising conglomerates, told an audience that, "Women don’t make it to the top because they don’t deserve to. They’re crap."  Compounding the sexism, many believe that women’s rights have already been sufficiently secured.  Many seem comfortable with 21st-century reports that men earn considerably more than women in the workforce, accepting of the fact that women continue to put in twice as many hours a week on housework than men, and unfazed that women hold only 15 percent of the seats in the US Congress. Americans who seem at peace with women’s inequality may not be drawn to a history of those who fight against it.

We are fortunate, however, to have generations of women who fought to secure opportunities to live freely in whatever way they chose. And scholars of women’s history can find satisfaction in illuminating the work of these women.  While famous women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan quickly spring to mind, less famous women, too, have changed lives.  For example, simultaneously transforming her own life and American history, Nancy Kirk-Gormley set in motion a new awareness of domestic violence when she started the first local N.O.W. Task Force on battered women in 1973.  Margaret Mead said we should, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

History is filled with powerful, proud, resilient women who have changed the world.  And that is worth celebrating.

Related Penn Press Books in Women’s History:

History Matters

by Judith M. Bennett

Victoria Woodhull’s Sexual Revolution

by Amanda Frisken

History and the Texture of Modern Life: Selected Essays

by Lucy Maynard Salmon. Edited by Nicholas Adams and Bonnie G. Smith

Women’s Radical Reconstruction
by Carol Faulkner

The Education of Jane Addams
by Victoria Bissell Brown