Seneca Falls, 1848: Women Organize for Equality

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 17 pages.
A role play allows students to examine issues of race and class when exploring both the accomplishments and limitations of the Seneca Falls Convention.

  • Time Periods: Early 19th Century: 1800 - 1849, 19th Century | Themes: Civil Rights Movements, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights, Organizing, Women's History | Reading Levels: High School | Resource Types: Teaching Activity PDFs
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

The first organized gathering of women to demand their rights as women took place during two days in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. The manifesto produced by the women in Seneca Falls offered a blueprint for feminist organizing for decades to come. The most “radical” demand — at least the only demand not passed unanimously by the assembly — was for universal suffrage. Not all attendees were women. In fact, it was the most prominent African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who seconded Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s motion for female suffrage. However, the large majority of those present were women, and many, perhaps most, were veterans of the abolition movement. Some of those in attendance were working-class, but most came from privileged backgrounds. Their Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions proclaimed that “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.” But, as the feminist scholar Gerda Lerner points out, the authors of this denunciation “did not speak for the truly exploited and abused working woman. As a matter of fact, they were largely ignorant of her condition and, with the notable exception of Susan B. Anthony, indifferent to her fate.” Nor did the document address the plight of women who were not white.

The role play included here is designed to simultaneously honor the accomplishment and explore the limitations of the women of Seneca Falls. The activity includes roles for the upper-class and middle-class white women who organized the convention, but also for women who were not in attendance: poor, working-class white mill workers; enslaved African American women; Cherokee women 10 years after the Trail of Tears; and Mexican women in territory newly conquered by the United States in its war with Mexico. This is not the entire rainbow coalition that would have been in attendance at an assembly fully representative of this country’s women in 1848. But it’s representative enough to give students a chance to imagine the additional demands that might have been raised that summer had it not been so limited in race and class.

Published by Rethinking Schools.

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