Reflections on the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions
July 9, 2012 by Ann Harmon
The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.
The Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions is one of America’s most important documents advocating women’s rights. It was written mostly by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and was presented to the participants at America’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York, in July of 1848. It was not only presented in the same month as the Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress, but it was actually based on the Declaration of Independence; to show this, I have bolded the words the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions shares with the Declaration of Independence. Thus we can compare the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions to the Declaration of Independence. My own comments are in italics.
Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them tosuch a course.
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; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it, and to insist upon the institution of a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer; while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they were accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
So we see that the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions compared the position of women relative to men with the position of the colonies to Great Britain. This was quite a bold move. It did keep the male-centric language of the Declaration of Independence (“mankind” instead of “humanity for example) but that was how everyone wrote in those days. There now follows a list of ways men oppressed women, each described as something “he has” done, just as the Declaration of Independence listed the ways King George III oppressed the colonies, listing most oppressions as something“ he has” done (other times writing they were angry with him for doing such-and-such a thing). There are sixteen oppressions listed in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, whereas there are twenty-seven listed in the Declaration of Independence, with eighteen of them described as something “he has” done. Here is a link to a blog post (not by me) showing how many of the oppressions in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions have been fixed; the post shows that ten of them have been fixed in America and none have been fixed worldwide.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
Women in America were allowed to vote until 1777 in New York, until 1780 in Massachusetts, and until 1784 in New Hampshire. In 1787 the U.S. Constitutional Convention placed voting qualifications in the hands of the states, and women in all states except New Jersey lost the right to vote. In 1807 women lost the right to vote in New Jersey, the last state to revoke the right. Thus, in 1848 women did not have the right to vote. Gradually they won back this right state by state until 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment became law, giving all American women the right to vote. The following few statements also refer to the right to vote; you can see what an important right it is.
He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men-both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
“Civilly dead” refers to the fact that, upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights were subsumed by those of her husband. This was part of the laws of England and the United States throughout most of the 1800s. The idea was described in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England like so, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.”
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her; morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master-the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.
He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes, and in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given, as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of women-the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of man, and giving all power into his hands.
After depriving her of all rights as a married woman, if single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.
He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her.
He allows her in Church, as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.
Even today (I doubt the numbers have changed dramatically since 2010, the nearest year I could get statistics for) the largest Christian denominations in America are the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, both of which do not ordain women.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church opposes birth control and the Southern Baptist Convention declares that wives should submit to their husbands.
He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God.
He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.
Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation-in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions embracing every part of the country.
Here I would like to look at the Resolutions part of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, and see how many of them have come true.
Whereas, the great precept of nature is conceded to be that “man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness.” Blackstone in his Commentaries remarks that this law of nature, being coeval with mankind and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries and at all times; no human laws are of any validity if contrary to this, and such of them as are valid derive all their force, and all their validity, and all their authority, mediately and immediately, from this original; therefore, Resolved, That such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of nature and of no validity, for this is superior in obligation to any other.
This is a bit subjective, but I think it is fair to say that there are still laws existing in America which conflict “with the true and substantial happiness of woman,” (for example laws preventing women from accessing birth control if the provider decides it is against their conscience, though this is not legal for any other medicine) so I would say this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature and therefore of no force or authority.
It is clear that there are laws which prevent women from occupying certain positions in society – for example, religious groups are legally allowed to only ordain men. So I would say this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that woman is man’s equal, was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.
Is woman recognized as man’s equal? Certainly not everywhere in America; for example, I have just mentioned that the Southern Baptist Convention thinks the Creator intended wives to submit to their husbands. So this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that the women of this country ought to be enlightened in regard to the laws under which they live, that they may no longer publish their degradation by declaring themselves satisfied with their present position, nor their ignorance, by asserting that they have all the rights they want.
It is difficult to see whether all women of this country are enlightened in regard to the laws under which they live, but some women do say they are satisfied with their present position and have all the rights they want. In that way I say this resolution has not come true. But it has come true in that information about laws regarding women is widely available (at the National Women’sLaw Center for example: www.nwlc.org/), and that American women today would not be satisfied with the rights of American women in 1848. So all in all I say this resolution has partially come true.
Resolved, that inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is preeminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.
Women are not encouraged or even allowed to speak in all religious assemblies (for example, in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church: so this resolution has not come true.
Resolved, that the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.
I would say this resolution has not come true. It is still often considered shameful for a teenage girl to have sex and acceptable for a teenage boy to do so, for example.
Resolved, that the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in feats of the circus.
I think this resolution has partially come true. Certainly it is much more acceptable for women to speak in public than it was in 1848. But it is still not acceptable to all people (as I pointed out before, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church does not allow women to speak in its religious assemblies) and yet those same people do not refuse to see women speak in the theater, at concerts, or at the circus.
Resolved, that woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.
This resolution has partially come true, in that American women today would be very dissatisfied with the lives of American women in 1848, as I have already said, and since 1848 women in general have moved into a larger sphere of life, working at jobs and obtaining degrees women never before did. But there are still women who think all women belong at home, and are satisfied to be kept within circumscribed limits. There are also women who think all fights for women’s rights have been settled, and are happy to stay within the limits America placed on women today.
Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.
As we all ought to know, women are allowed to vote in America (thanks to the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920) so this resolution has come true, though it is notable that it took 72 years.
Resolved, that the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities.
This statement is a bit difficult to understand, but it basically says that women and men are equal in capabilities and responsibilities and so deserve to be treated equally. I would say most but not all Americans agree with this, so this resolution has partially come true.
Resolved, that the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.
I do not think the cause of women’s rights has been a speedy success (just look at how many resolutions have not come true yet) but I would say there have been zealous and untiring efforts on the part of many men and women (though not all) for women to have equal rights to be preachers, and to have equal rights in all trades, professions, and commerce. So this resolution has partially come true.
Resolved, therefore, that, being invested by the Creator with the same capabilities and same consciousness of responsibility for their exercise, it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held; and this being a self-evident truth growing out of the divinely implanted principles of human nature, any custom or authority adverse to it, whether modern or wearing the hoary sanction of antiquity, is to be regarded as a self-evident falsehood, and at war with mankind.
This resolution has not yet come true, as not everyone (or even every woman) believes that woman and men have the same capabilities, or that women should have the right to speak in all assemblies (as previously noted) so such things are not regarded as self-evident falsehoods.
Thus, I would say that six of these resolutions have not come true, five have partially come true, and one has absolutely come true (women’s right to vote.) In reflecting on this, I would just like to say that the fight for women’s rights in America has been going on since long before any of us were born, and will likely be going on long after we die. That can be disheartening, but I think it can also be inspiring. Happy Independence Day to you all.