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Monday, October 21, 2019

October 21, 2019: The 1850 Women’s Rights Convention: Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis

[On October 23-24, 1850, the first national Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, MA; it followed the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention but was the first to bill itself as national, and it featured more than 900 attendees (triple the 1848 numbers). So for the convention’s anniversary, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy a handful of representative such attendees!]
On the convention organizer and president who embodies the multi-layered nature of reform.
On October 23rd, 1850, the President-elect for the National Women’s Rights Convention, named in the convention transcript as Paulina W. Davis, rose to deliver the event’s opening Address. Davis, who would spend her influential life between upstate New York and Providence, Rhode Island, had helped choose Worcester as the convention site and organize the event, and so she knew the promotional materials well and felt free to dispense quickly with specifics about the convention’s program and work. Instead, she offered “some general reflections upon the attitude and relations of our movement to our times and circumstances, and upon the proper spirit and method of promoting it.” She did so in part by following up the 1848 convention and its “declaration of rights,” which she sought to complement with arguments for “the adjustment of [the] work to those conditions of the times which [the reformer] seeks to influence.” But this was not a retreat into practicality by any stretch: “the reformation which we purpose,” Davis argued, “in its utmost scope, is radical and universal.” The path would not be easy; as she concluded her remarks: “In principle these truths are not doubtful, and it is therefore not impossible to put them in practice, but they need great clearness in system and steadiness of direction to get them allowance and adoption in the actual life of the world.”
By 1850, Davis would have been well-versed in the necessary combination of ideals and practicality, principles and work, at the heart of any long-term, radical activist effort. She and her first husband, New York merchant Francis Wright, had been active in the abolitionist movement since the early 1830s: they resigned their church in opposition to its pro-slavery stance, served on the New York Anti-Slavery Society’s Executive Committee, and organized an anti-slavery convention in their home city of Utica in 1835 (which as that story details was met with a rioting white supremacist mob). Although Francis Wright died in 1845, Davis would continue those activist efforts throughout her life, and she thus illustrates (as do many of the other attendees at the 1850 convention, as some of my later posts in the week’s series will highlight) the deep interconnections between the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. I’ve written for my Saturday Evening Post Considering History column about the racial discrimination and segregation that was all too central to the women’s suffrage movement, but it’s worth being clear that other activists like Davis brought those causes together—and since she was a key member of Susan B. Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association, Davis brought that perspective to the national movement to be sure.
Another important aspect of Davis’s life and work, one situated between that abolitionist work and the 1850 convention, reflects just how broadly the tendrils of such activist efforts could extend. During her marriage to Wright, Davis began studying health and medicine, and after his death she dedicated herself to those studies, moving to New York City and giving a series of lectures to women on anatomy and physiology. She then embarked on a speaking tour, continuing to highlight those medical disciplines but also urging women to study medicine and become practicing doctors. In one of my earliest posts in this space, I highlighted the interesting literary and cultural phenomenon of “woman doctor” novels and characters from the early 1880s, an era when that professional opportunity and role was becoming prominent. But Davis’s efforts from forty years earlier highlight both the long development of that trend and, most importantly, the ways in which it was anything but coincidental or accidental—in which, instead, activist voices helped push such professional changes and reforms alongside social and cultural ones. One more reason to better remember the 1850 National Women’s Rights Convention’s organizer and president!
Next 1850 attendee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories from the women’s rights movement you’d highlight?

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