Elizabeth Cady Stanton and The Declaration Of Rights and Sentiments

In 1848 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention in New York for the purpose of discussing social, civil, and religious conditions, and the rights of women.  It was the first convention held for such discussion.  From this meeting emerged a declaration establishing the goals of the women’s movement to gain equal rights as citizens of the United States and as human beings.

The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments as written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at that time was closely modeled on the framework of the Declaration of Independence which was ratified on July 4, 1776, proclaiming the independence of the    thirteen American colonies from Great Britain.  Thomas Jefferson is usually given credit as the main author of this document although John Adams and Benjamin Franklin added their observations, and the Continental Congress made additional changes before its ratification.

The Stanton and the Jefferson Declarations are both organized through the use of a tight, logical argument structure called a categorical syllogism, consisting of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion that validly follows both.

Jefferson’s major premise, as given in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence, states that the purpose of government is to protect men’s natural rights and that government is established through the consent of the governed.  Natural rights are here defined as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Since all men are equal, it is argued, they all have these natural rights and so are wholly deserving of government protection. If a government fails to protect, it should be altered, or abolished and replaced.

Stanton’s major premise is also stated in the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Sentiments, and the wording itself is very similar, if not identical in many respects to that of the earlier document, but there are two important differences here.  First, the assertion that “all men and women are created equal” replaces the expression “all men are created equal” of the original.  Second, the intention of the Stanton document is not to “alter or abolish” a tyrannical government, but rather “to refuse allegiance” to it.  The aim is not to seek independence from the government but to insist upon equal status so that women may enjoy their natural rights.

The minor premise in the Declaration of Independence specifically charges the government of Great Britain, the king in particular, as having violated the natural rights of the citizens in the colonies.  A long list of twenty-six violations follows, identifying the abuses that had occurred under the British rule.  Many of these deal with enactment of unjust laws, failure to initiate needed laws, and measures used to circumvent existing laws.  In this way, Jefferson uses empirical evidence to prove the case that Great Britain had failed to protect the natural rights of its citizens in their American colonies which were denied representation in the British parliament creating the laws governing them.

Following Jefferson’s example, Stanton lists sixteen abusive laws and practices that violated women’s natural rights in the United States.  Especially, she emphasizes that these laws are enacted without the consent of the governed since women were denied the franchise.  Because of this denial, women were oppressed without recourse.  If married, they were “civilly dead.”  If they were divorced, the children’s guardianship was given to their fathers. Economically, women were disadvantaged since men monopolized the employment fields and denied women access to the education required for the practices of medicine, law, and the ministry.  Moreover, Stanton continued, the moral codes for men and women differ, and therefore women are judged differently from men.  Finally, Stanton indicated (in modern terminology) that women are damaged psychologically since they are treated as second-class citizens and therefore have feelings of low self-worth.

The conclusion to the Declaration of Independence is given in the final paragraph: the United States are, and ought to be, free from the British Crown and have the right to form their own government.  Stanton’s conclusion is also brief but logically derived: that women be given “immediate admission to the rights and privileges which belong to them as United States citizens.”  The Declaration of Independence proved to be an excellent resource for Stanton’s declaration because its principles should apply to both men and women, all being citizens, and because of the veneration given to this document in the country’s history.

The Declaration of Independence was signed by fifty-six men who pledged their “lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor” to defend the historic declaration and its principles.  The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments was signed by sixty-eight women and thirty-two men, one hundred in all, who pledged themselves to use every endeavor to fight for equal rights for women.

The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which was ratified by the Women’s Rights Convention of Seneca Falls, launched the fight for women’s suffrage. Seventy-two years later, after long and bitter struggles, that goal would become realized through the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, giving women the right to vote.  The year was 1920, eighteen years after the death of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The franchise was won after a magnificent struggle long after Elizabeth Cady Stanton had announced to the world that all citizens need to be represented, their voices heard.  Yet her message had many other concerns: the need for equality in employment and wages, the need for power to make one’s own decisions, the need for respect from mankind.  That work is not yet finished.  We cannot rest until all of the concerns on Elizabeth’s list have been addressed and equality is reached for women in every aspect of human living.

Published Date: 
February 28, 2017