The origins of the first U.S. women’s rights convention in the United States, held in July 1848 at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, can be traced to a different event held eight years earlier in London, England. After crossing the Atlantic with their husbands to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were barred (like all women) from the main floor, and forced to listen from the gallery. The two women bonded over their common indignation, planting the seeds for what would eventually grow into the U.S. women’s rights movement.
In 1848, Stanton and Mott, along with Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane Hunt issued a call for a women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls, where Stanton lived. In the days before the event, Stanton drafted the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances, which she modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Opening with the preamble “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” she proceeded to lay out the existing injustices against women in the United States. The declaration then called for women to be viewed as full citizens, and granted the same civil, economic and political rights as men.
Stanton read the document aloud before the 200 women in Wesleyan Chapel on July 19, the first day of the Seneca Falls Convention. The following day, after more than 30 men joined the gathering at the women’s invitation, the convention proceeded to adopt and sign the Declaration of Sentiments. One of the men who attended, the celebrated black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, then took the declaration to a print shop in Rochester, New York, in order to publish it in his newspaper, The North Star. Douglass likely also took to the printer the minutes taken by Mary Ann McClintock, who was appointed secretary of the Seneca Falls Convention.
After that point, as White House Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith learned after she launched her quest, the original Declaration of Sentiments disappears from the known historical record. Smith, who spent part of her childhood in upstate New York, explained on the White House blog that “I had always wanted to see the Declaration of Sentiments and wanted to begin to raise awareness about its existence, its importance, its origin story, and its content because I’ve found that most people had never heard of it, despite its important content and position in world history.”
The oldest known copy of the declaration is the printing made by Douglass. The tea table on which Stanton wrote it has been found, but not the document itself; McClintock’s notes are similarly lost to history. The declaration wasn’t included in the National Archives, which in itself wasn’t surprising, as it wasn’t a federal government document. At Smith’s request, a team from the Library of Congress searched its collections, including the Elizabeth Cady Stanton papers. They turned up a copy of the declaration included in a report on the convention saved in a scrapbook by Stanton and her daughter—but not the original.
In addition to canvassing women’s studies professors and historians, the White House team searched online marketplaces to see if the document might have come up for sale. Finding nothing, they decided to call on the public to help in the search. At last week’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in Houston, Texas, Smith officially launched a nationwide search for the Declaration of Sentiments, asking anyone with any information or ideas to contact the White House, and share them via social media.
The #FindtheSentiments campaign is not the only step in Smith’s effort to bring women’s history out of its niche and into the historical mainstream. She has also launched an online oral history project called “The Untold History of Women in Science and Technology,” aimed at inspiring young women and girls to pursue careers in the sciences.
When it comes to the U.S. women’s rights movement—which after years of struggle led to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920—many details remain foreign to later generations, though many people may have heard of Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and a handful of other pioneers. According to Smith, “We need to expand who is included in our well known history….The Declaration of Sentiments can help us tell that story.”