Bringing the radicalism of Seneca Falls into the 21st century

A century and a half after the Declaration of Sentiments and Rights, President Obama’s nod to Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall is important to the politics of equality, a potent reminder that, contrary to a view that was gaining ground in recent years, the fight for equality in late capitalist countries is far from over

Marion Bowman
28 January 2013
Parchment with hundreds of names on it, women's appearing before men's

Signatures on the Seneca Falls DeclarationSeneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall. Barack Obama’s rhetorical skills are indisputable and his speech on January 21, inaugurating the second term of his Presidency, was keenly anticipated given the backdrop of the school massacre at Newtown in December, the state of Congressional politics, and the ‘fiscal cliff’ that is dogging Obama’s efforts to lead on economic recovery in the US. Those few alliterative ‘S’ words in one section of the speech added an unexpected element to the way in which Obama wants his Presidency to be defined.

The references to equality as a crucial component of American freedom, and to Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall – all representing key moments in the history of the struggle for equality in America – were a welcome signal that whatever powder Obama was keeping dry in his first term may now be put to use. The speech’s promotion of collective action – with its ‘socialist’ overtones - as a pre-requisite for individual freedom – the American Holy Grail – was rhetorical finesse, but it may also signal a shift in political style.

Invoking Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall as central to the American story and character was bold in a speech of this national, non-partisan significance. The town of Selma, Alabama, was the focus of the 1960s voter registration movement that challenged the intricate and brutal system of white supremacy that was put in place in the South following the Civil War and abolition of slavery. A few years later, after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the New York City police raided a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, precipitating riots that led to the emergence of the gay liberation movement. Selma and Stonewall were both part of the history of equality in the 20th century and both are still resonant in the minds of people living in the 21st.

Seneca Falls may be less well known today but it is a small town in upstate New York with two claims to fame: one, that it is the real-life place on which Frank Capra based his fictional town Bedford Falls in his film ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’; the other, that it was the site of the first ever women’s rights convention in the western world, held in 1848.

The Seneca Falls Convention was organised by Quaker women and the principal author of the Declaration of Sentiments and Rights issued at the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Declaration caused a sensation for its radicalism which included this:

‘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.’

The Declaration presents evidence to substantiate its claim – including the limitations of Obama’s beloved Constitution - and demands equality. But the text is not an idealistic, naive plea about abstractions. It acknowledges the struggle ahead:

‘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.’

A century and a half after the Declaration of Sentiments and Rights, Obama’s nod to Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall is important to the politics of equality, a potent reminder that, contrary to a view that was gaining traction in recent years, the fight for equality in late capitalist countries is far from over. Nevertheless, progress since the second wave of feminism in the 1970s has been significant. And one apparent measure is the extent to which men – even an American President – have signed up to the cause of women’s rights. From a situation a few short decades ago when as the Seneca Falls Declaration predicted, tactics like women-only organising were subject to ‘misconception, misrepresentation and ridicule’, gendered research, analysis, and campaigning is more accepted – even expected - in academia, politics, policy and public life. Serious attention is given to the female vote, and even though practical measures like quotas for the representation of women in positions of power is met with significant resistance, no major institutions or political party can claim total authority or credibility without the semblance of measures to at least address, if not effect, women’s equality.

A cartoon of a courtroom scene in which all the positions of power are taken my ladies in full skirts and ribbons.

'A New Court of Queen's Bench, As it Ought to Be'. An 1849 caricature by George Cruikshank for the 1850 Comic Almanack.

These historic conditions are, however, a moment for caution. Professor Joni Lovenduski of Birkbeck University in London has spent a lifetime working in the discipline of feminist political science in the UK. She says: ’It was a struggle in the early days and in some ways it still is. The danger now is from men who think they get it but really don’t. An example would be the feminisation of poverty. There are still men who study the politics of poverty but completely miss that out. They just don’t think about it without prompting even though they think they get it (gender).’ 

In politics itself, progress has come through the mobilisation of women within political parties and reforms to the structures and processes of parties. In Britain, the story of Labour’s all-women shortlists for selection as parliamentary candidates is a significant example.  As a result of this mechanism, Labour women were elected in unprecedented numbers in 1997, then there was a counter attack, the policy was outlawed and the numbers fell back at the 2000 election. The commitment of male leaders to this kind of initiative can be hard to win and sustain without internal political work by women. ‘Tony Blair was very, very uncomfortable with [all women shortlists] whereas Alistair Campbell [his spin doctor] was all gung-ho for it. But when it happened and it was realised it was good thing, a claiming of ownership of it started, ‘ said Lovenduski. ‘In 2001, they brought it back in and by last year you have the Labour Party conference passing a resolution that says that the top two leaders can’t be the same sex, as if it was a normal motion. You didn’t have a bunch of guys jumping up and down and being hysterical about it, they just passed it. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer any sexism in the Labour Party but it does mean they have come to understand this is a political good for them.’

This kind of institutionalisation of women’s representation is essential says Lovenduski: ‘Women in every country where I’ve spoken to politicians say one problem is it’s not enough to get elected, you have to refight those battles every time.  So having systems and structures that say we are going to carry on doing this until we have parity means that women who are elected can do something about pensions, or war, or all the other things they are interested in. They don’t have to keep refighting the battles for women’s representation.’

These moves towards putting more power and influence in the hands of more women are in their infancy and, as the all-women shortlist story shows, gains can be easily lost. The new political and constitutional structures that went hand in hand with devolution in Scotland and Wales – with constituency candidacies and party lists influenced by commitments to gender balance – gave more opportunities for women to be elected. In 2003, the Welsh Assembly became the first  legislature in the world to have an equal number of women and men. In Scotland 51 women were among the 129 members of parliament elected that year. But there are concerns now about the legacy of the pioneers. That generation is retiring and according to a Hansard Society report there is no following generation of women emerging.’

The smallest of increases in women’s representation can also be heralded, as in the 2010 UK election, and then quickly recognised as false dawns: while the Labour Party has continued to push forward, despite reverses in the struggle, other parties are having less clear success, and impact, so that, taken together, it is still the case that the battles have to be fought and refought and progress, looked at over several generations, which it is now possible to do, is moving at a glacial pace.

So let’s thank Barack Obama for reminding us of Seneca Falls, but use the words of the Declaration to harry him and every other male leader who signs up to the women’s cause, as well as those who will continue to resist us:

‘Now...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...'

‘In entering upon the great work before us ...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.’


Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData