Lucy Stone met with Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, Abby Kelley Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and six other women to organize the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850. This national convention brought together for the first time many of those who had been working individually for women’s rights.
While this and subsequent conventions provided a place where women could support each other in their concerted effort for expanded women’s rights, they also highlighted some of the challenges of unifying strongly opinionated leaders into one movement. Women’s rights activists held opposing stances on many difficult issues: Should the movement include or exclude men? Who was to blame for women’s inequality? What remedies should they seek? How could women best convince others of their need for equality? One goal, however, was clear to all those involved with the women’s rights movement: political, legal, and social equality among the sexes.
Following this inaugural 1850 convention, women’s rights advocates held national conventions every year save one until the onset of the Civil War. Some future leaders got their start at these meetings. Twenty-six-year-old Matilda Joslyn Gage, one of the eventual leaders of the movement, presented her first speech at the 1852 meeting. She spoke so timidly that few could hear. Meanwhile, others had been honing their skills in the temperance (anti-alcohol) and abolitionist movements for years.
Abby Kelley Foster boldly stated, “For fourteen years I have advocated this cause in my daily life. Bloody feet, sisters, have worn smooth the path by which you have come hither. Abolitionist and ex-slave Sojourner Truth commanded attention at a regional meeting at Akron, Ohio in 1851, challenging the notion that equality was only for white, educated men and women. When she rose to her nearly six-foot stature and gave an oration that became known as the “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, she invoked great joy and gladness among those in attendance.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was conspicuously missing from most of these early conventions. Following an active autumn in 1848, Stanton felt her family pulling her inward. Neither her father nor her husband supported her women’s rights work and her family continued to grow and demand her attention. While others, such as Lucy Stone, kept up a grueling pace lecturing and organizing conferences, Stanton was primarily occupied with her children and other domestic concerns. She did, however, make time to advocate under the pen name Sunflower in various letters to the editor and other published articles during this time.
Stanton’s strong opinions didn’t always make her popular. One young woman from the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls refused to ride in the same carriage as her, saying, “I wouldn’t have been seen with her for anything, with those ideas of hers.” In 1851, she met 31-year-old Susan B. Anthony who, stung by discrimination against women in the temperance movement, gradually diverted her considerable energy to the cause of women’s rights. Anthony emerged as a gifted organizer, and Stanton as a sharp thinker. Anthony eventually assumed leadership of the women’s rights movement and formed a formidable partnership with Stanton. You can read more at the ACLU page on women’s rights.
By 1860, women’s rights advocates had made some headway. Although access to divorce depended upon what state a person lived in and their legal resources in that area, in Indiana, divorces could be granted on the basis not only of adultery, but also on the basis of desertion, drunkenness, and cruelty. Also, in New York, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio, women’s property rights had been expanded to allow married women to keep their own wages. There was still much to be done, though. For instance, in some states divorce remained unattainable on almost any grounds, even in situations where violence existed.
However, the real triumph was the success reformers had in placing the issue of women’s oppression in the national consciousness and establishing a movement that would continue to change American attitudes for years to come.