by David Mislin
Today, July 19, marks the 169th anniversary of the start of the women’s rights meeting at Seneca Falls, New York. The two-day event, attended by approximately 300 people, produced the Declaration of Sentiments, which is best known for its advocacy of women’s suffrage.
I often teach the Declaration of Sentiments to college students, and I’m always struck – as they are – by the breadth of the statement and its accompanying resolutions. Some of its points are very broad and general in their terms, such as the opening proclamation that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.”
Many other elements of it are quite specific. Men had denied women “the facilities for obtaining a thorough education,” had taken for themselves “all the profitable employments,” and had “created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women.”
Recently, I’ve had reason to consider these declarations through a different lens: the experience of young women living near Seneca Falls in the years after the meeting.
One of my current writing projects is a biography of the minister Washington Gladden, who grew up in Owego, New York, about seventy miles southeast of Seneca Falls. Because of its location on the Susquehanna River, Owego served as a regional transportation hub. Raw materials from the Finger Lakes region were carried by land to the town, where they were loaded onto the river and sent to the mid-Atlantic region. Owego was also a popular stopping point for travelers between New York and Buffalo. As such, the community provided fertile ground for discussion of popular ideas.
From the archival evidence I’ve found, ideas under discussion included the role of women in society.
Washington Gladden’s correspondence includes a series of letters from two young women, Nettie Brister and Hattie Hamilton, with whom he was friendly. The letters date from the latter half of the 1850s – eight to twelve years after the Seneca Falls meeting, at a time when both women were in their late teens and early twenties.
What’s striking is the degree to which both women – without mentioning the document –echoed the criticisms of the Declaration of Sentiments. Even more noteworthy, though, are the ways in which both Brister and Hamilton pushed against social conventions.
Hamilton and Brister were both well educated. They had attended Owego Academy, which was one of the better schools in the region. Yet, for both, the education amounted to little. Brister wrote to a male friend that while for him the end of adolescence meant “a future so bright” thanks to the possibilities of college and career, her situation was bleaker. The lack of vocational opportunities meant that she “must plod on in the same weary way for years, earning just enough to support myself till I am old.”
Nor were things better for Hattie Hamilton. She had trained in one of the few fields open to women – education – and worked as a schoolteacher. But Hamilton found the work increasingly unfulfilling. For a person who enjoyed reading and discussing literature and theology, teaching young children had become a “duty” without “any pleasure.”
The frustration about vocation expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments carries through the musings of these young women in the 1850s. The end of youth brought higher education and intellectual opportunity for men; for women, at best, it brought drudging, mind-numbing labor.
But Hamilton and Brister did not merely channel the critiques offered at Seneca Falls. In their own lives, they also pushed slightly against them, especially in the realm of morality. Hamilton freely pursued romantic interests, and was unabashed about telling men her feelings. She appeared unfazed and was perhaps even proud of the fact that men found her “coarse, vulgar, and unrefined.”
Brister pushed against moral expectations with her behavior. She and a male friend attended a concert in a nearby town, and he did not bring her home “till three o’clock in the morning.” When the landlady objected that it “did not look well to be out so late,” Brister expressed little patience for the older woman’s moralizing (as an alterative, she suggested to the landlady that she and the young man could have spent the night together in another town; the landlady was not amused).
Considered together, these letters offer a vivid portrait of how young women perceived their situation as they lived – geographically and chronologically – in the shadow of Seneca Falls. A decade after the meeting, they voiced their own experiences that matched the frustrations expressed by the meeting’s organizers.
Even more significantly, though, both women found subtle ways to push back against the Declaration of Sentiments had criticized. That is the most important point of all. When we think of the legacy of Seneca Falls, we tend to think in terms of the long arc of history: the meeting led to the suffrage movement, which in turn led to the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification in 1920. But the meeting’s message clearly resonated more immediately in the lives of two young women a few years later and a few miles away.
The letters from Hamilton and Brister can be found on reel 1 of the microfilm collection of Washington Gladden’s papers, which is housed at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus.