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Thursday, October 24, 2019

October 24, 2019: The 1850 Women’s Rights Convention: The Men

[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 remembering, but not over-emphasizing, the men at a women’s rights convention.
As was the case at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, and as I would wager a guess would be the case for most of the era’s other women’s rights conventions as well, the list of attendees and speakers for the 1850 Worcester convention features a number of male activists, including three of America’s most prominent abolitionist leaders (that’s the first web result for “American abolitionist leaders” I clicked on, and its header is portraits of the three): Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. Other male speakers in 1850 included another famous (if now less well-known) abolitionist leader, Stephen Symonds Foster (whose wife, the Worcester-born women’s rights and abolitionist activist Abby Kelley, gave one of the convention’s standout speeches), as well as the radical Unitarian minister and author William Ellery Channing. Phillips in particular was a founding member of the National Women’s Rights Central Committee (along with his friend and frequent collaborator Lucy Stone), and in that role helped organize and direct nearly all of the 1850s women’s rights conventions around the country, including Worcester’s.
There are at least a couple significant reasons to better remember these male participants in the 1850 convention. For one thing, it can be all too easy to see women’s rights as a “woman’s issue,” and thus the women’s rights movement as solely the province of female activists or voices. Yet in truth, as with any civil rights issue, the struggle for women’s rights affects and implicates every one of us, and many progressive male figures have (at every stage of the women’s rights movement) recognized and responded to those connections. Moreover, to take a step back from such individual (if representative) figures, the history of 19th century social movements in America is one of deep interconnections—just as these women’s rights and abolitionist leaders (female and male) were often the same figures and always in conversation, so too do those interconnections extend to the temperance movement, to prison reform, to progressive theories of education, and to many other social issues and arenas. Each movement deserves its own collective memories to be sure, but the broader story is unquestionably one of interconnection and shared communities.
Those individual and collective interconnections, cross-pollinating influences of identity and history, are all important and at times under-narrated parts of the story of American social movements, and remembering the men at the 1850 Worcester convention offers a clear way to frame them. But at the same time, as I wrote in the final paragraph of yesterday’s Sojourner Truth post, individual figures and stories comprise vital elements to our collective memories. And the simple fact is that for much of American history, we’ve featured male figures and stories much more consistently and centrally in our collective memories than female ones. So the very last thing we would want to do (and I believe the opposite of their own purpose) is to focus the story of the 1850 convention on male participants like Wendell Phillips. Remember that they were there (literally and figuratively), absolutely; but let them take a supporting role in our collective memories of the event and the movement, with the leading roles given to all-too forgotten figures like the subjects of Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis and Sarah H. Earle.
Last 1850 attendee tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Figures or histories from the women’s rights movement you’d highlight?

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