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Thursday, July 20, 2023

July 20, 2023: Seneca Falls Studying: Rochester

[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 why the follow-up convention was so important, and two of its more groundbreaking details.

In that weeklong blog series hyperlinked in my intro above (and again here, ‘cause why not?), I highlighted the October 1850 Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, the first to bill itself as national and certainly an important step into a more widespread movement. But when it comes to follow-up conventions to Seneca Falls, I’m not sure there could be a more significant one than the August 2nd, 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Rochester. Taking place just two weeks after and less than 50 miles away from Seneca Falls, the Rochester convention was explicitly defined as a “recovening” of the earlier one, and included for example a formal approval of the Declaration of Rights. And I think that interconnected but sequential nature of the two conventions was crucially important—as I wrote in this week’s first post, the Seneca Falls Convention came about quite informally and haphazardly, and so the follow-up in Rochester represented a vital reflection of the fact that this was indeed the start of a more formal series and movement.

As you’d expect, many of the same people who had organized and run the Seneca Falls Convention played similar roles in Rochester. But there was also a significant difference in leadership: the Rochester Convention elected the prominent local activist and abolitionist Abigail Bush as its presiding officer. Bush was the first woman to preside over a public meeting that featured men as well as women, and her election was thus hugely controversial, with vocal opposition from fellow leaders like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who “thought it a most hazardous experiment to have a woman President”). Bush later recognized both the toll and the stakes of her service, noting, “When I found that my labors were finished, my strength seemed to leave me and I cried like a baby. But that ended the feeling with women that they must have a man to preside at their meetings.” Indeed, I’d say that this detail alone makes the Rochester Convention as important as the Seneca Falls one, or at least again a vital complement that also took the women’s rights movement forward in key ways.

Moreover, the Rochester Convention didn’t simply approve or continue the business from Seneca Falls—it also featured new additions to the movement’s evolving and deepening debates and platforms. Particularly striking was the convention’s attention to working women, both through an overt call for equal pay for equal work and through the creation of a Women’s Protection Union in the city to investigate and address working women’s circumstances and concerns. Speaking for myself, it’s far too easy to see contemporary communities and movements like these women’s rights conventions and the efforts of the Lowell Mill Girls to organize and fight for their rights as entirely distinct—while of course they were separate and unique in various ways, these details and emphases from Rochester make clear that working women’s rights could become part of the broader women’s movement, a hugely significant layer that this follow-up convention added into the mix.

Last Seneca context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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