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Monday, July 17, 2023

July 17, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: Quaker Communities

[July 19-20 marks the 175th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Although, as I argued in this weeklong series, our focus on Seneca Falls has overshadowed other important early conventions, it’s still a milestone moment, and this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts. Leading up to a weekend post on our 21st century movement!]

On both a delightfully specific and an important broad layer to the Convention’s origins.

As I imagine is the case with many significant historical moments and events, the Seneca Falls Convention came about quite haphazardly. A large number of Quakers (members of the Religious Society of Friends, formally) had made New York’s Seneca County (and specifically the county capital of Waterloo) their home over the preceding half-century, including influential Quaker families (and abolitionists) like Thomas and Mary Ann M’Clintock and Richard and Jane Hunt. Perhaps no American Quaker was more famous in that era than Lucretia Coffin Mott, the abolitionist and activist who had gained a reputation as one of the nation’s most fiery and eloquent orators. Mott’s sister Martha Coffin Wright lived in nearby Auburn, New York, and in the summer of 1848 Mott and her husband James traveled to the area to visit with her sister and also to continue their activist work on a number of local levels: with the region’s sizeable community of formerly enslaved people; at the Auburn State Penitentiary where Mott lectured; and on the nearby Seneca Cattaraugus Reservation.

On Sunday, July 9th, Mott attended a local Quaker worship and then joined a group of these women from the area—her sister Martha, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and her fellow activist (and the group’s only non-Quaker) Elizabeth Cady Stanton for tea at the Hunt home. The conversation apparently and unsurprisingly turned to the frustrating and unnecessary challenges that faced these women as women, both in their activist work and in every other arena of their lives in mid-century American society. They decided to take advantage of Mott’s visit and prominence and to host a women’s rights convention, creating on the spot an announcement that began “WOMAN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION—A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman” and that ran in the Seneca County Courier beginning on July 11th. Other regional and national periodicals like Frederick Douglass’ North Star picked up the advertisement as well, and despite the short notice the word spread and a fair number of attendees made it to Seneca Falls and its newly constructed Wesleyan Methodist Chapel for the July 19-20 Convention.

I really love how informal and intimate that origin point was, and again I think it has a lot to tell us about how history is very often made and shaped (too often by informal gatherings of the powerful and privileged, of course, whether in smoke-filled rooms or otherwise; but in this case something quite different and far more inclusive). But it’s also far from coincidental that this was a gathering of Quakers, held at a prominent Quaker family’s home after a Quaker worship service. Other than briefly in this post on one of my very favorite American writers and voices, John Woolman, I don’t think I’ve engaged nearly enough in this space with the oversized (given the community’s numbers) and inspiring role that Quakers have played in American activist and social movements and progress. That certainly included both the abolitionist and the early women’s rights movements, the combination of which truly defined conventions like Seneca Falls. I’m not sure any historical detail better captures that foundational presence and influence than an afternoon tea at which a group of determined Quaker women launched a national movement!

Next Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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