So, as a Washington Post headline would have it, “White House is searching for the origins of women’s rights.” Though the silly headline cannot be blamed on the White House, surely someone in Washington must know that “the origins of women’s rights” predate the founding of the United States of America. Behind the headline, where the White House speaks through the voice of Megan Smith, its Chief Technology Officer, there are other inflated claims, but the goal is more modest. Smith writes that the Declaration of Sentiments, adopted at a convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, is “the foundational document for women’s rights” and it is lost and it should be found. Smith coaches the American people, “Let’s see if we can find this thing.” (Links to Smith’s blog, press coverage, and the text of the Declaration appear at the end of this post.)
The Declaration, like its model of 1776, spells out offenses that justify rebellion–in this case offenses against woman by the tyrant man. In number they are fewer than those counted against King George in Jefferson’s declaration, but they were potent indictments of men’s claims to govern women. Some of them have current pertinence.
He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.
Everyone should know the text. It focuses attention on how one group of white, northern women perceived the burdens of inequality. It also allows a quick overview of what has changed in women’s situation since 1848. Few American women would recognize their experience in this complaint:
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
Laws have changed.
The fact is, the Declaration of Sentiments is not really lost at all. We know exactly what it says as printed within the month after its composition. The Declaration was launched into the world as a text within a 12-page pamphlet, Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention, Held at Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19th and 20th, 1848. The names of women who signed to indicate their agreement appear in printed columns. I rather like the Declaration that we do have–our current original. I especially like the fact that this famous text in women’s history was printed on a press owned by Frederick Douglass at his North Star Office in Rochester. To me that lineage gives added respectability to these beginnings and hints at inclusive origins.
Because finding the historical records of this movement for women’s rights has been my profession for many decades, I’m curious about Megan Smith’s romantic quest for something truer or more authentic. She imagines an object that might have once existed and assumes that it is simply hidden somewhere. But what is “this thing,” this “It” that she hopes her national treasure hunt will find? A big part of any document’s story is how it came into existence, and in this case, we need to look for evidence that the kind of holy writ chased by Smith ever existed. Let’s go to the details.
A version of “It” existed before the convention gathered on July 19 “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from Seneca
Falls, wrote to her co-laborers in nearby Waterloo, “I intend to spend Sunday [July 16] with you that we may all together concoct a declaration.” Her solo efforts at a draft were “not as perfect” as they should be, she added. When the team of women planning this event reached agreement about what to present to the first day’s meeting of women alone, they prepared a manuscript. We infer that because they had something at hand to read aloud when their meeting began. No one has seen that first “It.”
But maybe “It” did not matter: by noon of Day One, the women changed “Its” wording. The minutes note that the Declaration was read aloud and “after much consideration, some changes were suggested and adopted.” A second “It.” Then, when the women reconvened in the afternoon,
The reading of the Declaration was called for, an addition having been inserted since the morning session. A vote taken upon the amendment was carried, and papers circulated to obtain signatures.
A third “It.” No doubt the task of writing down those changes fell to Mary Ann M’Clintock, secretary of the convention. But how did she record the emendations? Did she strike out and write new language in the margins? Substitute one page for another? Scribble the changes on a scrap to incorporate later? The “It” of late afternoon, twice altered since the day began, was likely a mess. An argument can be made that this marked up and altered text is the real treasure: what were they changing and adding? Wouldn’t you like to know?
Nothing in the Report of the convention at Seneca Falls even hints at women stepping up like John Hancock to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. I see no evidence that a clean copy for their signatures existed at that moment when the minutes say they signed. No one seriously imagines that an emissary dashed off in the lunch break to find a calligrapher to prepare a copy worthy of the National Archives. Quite the opposite: we know that someone was busy in the lunch break amending what had just been approved. When it came time in the afternoon of Day One to gather the names of women, “papers circulated to obtain signatures.” I wager that means clean sheets of paper were circulated for signatures.
On July 20, men and women met together. The Declaration–form and format unknown–was read aloud again and adopted unanimously by the larger group without further changes. To the best of our knowledge, the text of “It” as adopted that day appears in the Report of the convention. Only on that second day could the names of men that appear in the Report be gathered, but it is not clear that they were asked to sign the Declaration. In the Report, women are actors, said to “affix our signatures to this declaration,” while men are observers, described as “the gentlemen present in favor of the movement.” There’s a distinction there, even if at this remove we cannot be sure what it is.
Before adjourning, participants appointed “a Committee to prepare the proceedings of the Convention for publication.” It consisted of the M’Clintock sisters from Waterloo (and thus the secretary of the event), Elizabeth Stanton, her friend and neighbor Eunice Foote, and Amy Post from Rochester. We don’t know whether they gathered at someone’s house to do the job or used the mails. And we don’t know what “It” looked like either at the start of the committee’s work, as one element in a record of the convention’s business, or at the conclusion, as a component of clean copy shipped to a printer. Would they have sent the actual signatures to the printer or made him a list of the names? No way to know.
If we imagine for a minute or two that there was something lovely to look at issuing from the convention at Seneca Falls on the summer day when material was sent to the printer at Rochester, where might it be? Printers did not usually return the copy from which they set type, and rarely did they keep it among their own papers. Evidence suggests that this is true not only for political tracts but even for fiction by popular authors. Of course there are exceptions. And that hope runs up against the very sad fact that on June 2, 1872, the house of Frederick Douglass burned to the ground. “I have only fragments now, of all the work accomplished during these twelve years,” from 1848 to 1860, he wrote. I doubt there ever was a lovely copy of the Declaration of Sentiments, but if you insist upon believing in its existence, that fire may mark the end of the hunt.
It’s not often that an historian ponders the question, how might the bully pulpit (or is it bully blog) of the White House be used to excite Americans about their history or women’s history in particular? How about: 1) Historians of women are a busy lot, and many of them find new evidence or “treasures” every day. Encourage them. Perhaps even read their work. 2) Two federal agencies–the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission–have awarded grants to search for the papers of women’s history since 1975. Fight to fund those agencies. Check out the editions that their grants underwrite. 3) Engaging citizens in the quest for more historical evidence is a terrific idea that numerous historians already practice, but sending them on what is very likely to be a treasureless hunt is not a winning plan.
Megan Smith’s blog: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/find-the-sentiments
Washington Post coverage: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/10/14/the-white-house-is-searching-for-the-origins-of-feminism
Declaration of Sentiments & resolutions: http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/seneca.html