150th Anniversary of the Women's Right Convention Seneca Falls

Remarks by the First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
150th Anniversary of the First Women's Rights Convention

Seneca Falls, New York
July 16, 1998

Thank you for gathering here in such numbers for this importantcelebration. I want to thank Governor Pataki and Congresswoman Slaughterand all the elected officials who are here with us today. I want to thankMary Anne and her committee for helping to organize such a greatcelebration. I want to thank Bob Stanton and the entire Park Service stafffor doing such an excellent job with the historic site. I want to thankour choirs. I thought the choirs really added; I want to thank oursingers whom we've already heard from and will hear from because this is acelebration and we need to think about it in such terms.

But for a moment, I would like you to take your minds back a hundredand fifty years. Imagine if you will that you are Charlotte Woodward, anineteen-year-old glove maker working and living in Waterloo. Everyday yousit for hours sewing gloves together, working for small wages you cannoteven keep, with no hope of going on in school or owning property, knowingthat if you marry, your children and even the clothes on your body willbelong to your husband.

But then one day in July, 1848, you hear about a women's rightsconvention to be held in nearby Seneca Falls. It's a convention to discussthe social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of women. You runfrom house to house and you find other women who have heard the same news.Some are excited, others are amused or even shocked, and a few agree tocome with you, for at least the first day.

When that day comes, July 19, 1848, you leave early in the morning inyour horse-drawn wagon. You fear that no one else will come; and atfirst, the road is empty, except for you and your neighbors. But suddenly,as you reach a crossroads, you see a few more wagons and carriages, thenmore and more all going towards Wesleyan Chapel. Eventually you join theothers to form one long procession on the road to equality.

Who were the others traveling that road to equality, traveling to thatconvention? Frederick Douglass, the former slave and great abolitionist,was on his way there and he described the participants as "few in numbers,moderate in resources, and very little known in the world. The most we hadto connect us was a firm commitment that we were in the right and a firmfaith that the right must ultimately prevail." In the wagons andcarriages, on foot or horseback, were women like Rhoda Palmer. Seventyyears later in 1918, at the age of one-hundred and two, she would cast herfirst ballot in a New York state election.

Also traveling down that road to equality was Susan Quinn, who atfifteen will become the youngest signer of the Declaration of Sentiments.Catharine F. Stebbins, a veteran of activism starting when she was onlytwelve going door to door collecting anti-slavery petitions. She also, bythe way, kept an anti-tobacco pledge on the parlor table and asked all heryoung male friends to sign up. She was woman truly ahead of her time, asall the participants were.

I often wonder, when reflecting back on the Seneca Falls Convention,who of us--men and women-- would have left our homes, our families, ourwork to make that journey one hundred and fifty years ago. Think about theincredible courage it must have taken to join that procession. Ordinarymen and women, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands andwives, friends and neighbors. And just like those who have embarked onother journeys throughout American history, seeking freedom or escapingreligious or political persecution, speaking out against slavery, workingfor labor rights. These men and women were motivated by dreams of betterlives and more just societies.

At the end of the two-day convention, one hundred people, sixty- eightwomen and thirty-two men, signed the Declaration of Sentiments that you cannow read on the wall at Wesleyan Chapel. Among the signers were some ofthe names we remember today: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott,Martha Wright and Frederick Douglass and young Charlotte Woodward. The"Seneca Falls 100," as I like to call them, shared the radical idea thatAmerica fell far short of her ideals stated in our founding documents,denying citizenship to women and slaves.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who is frequently credited with originatingthe idea for the Convention, knew that women were not only denied legalcitizenship, but that society's cultural values and social structuresconspired to assign women only one occupation and role, that of wife andmother. Of course, the reality was always far different. Women havealways worked, and worked both in the home and outside the home for as longas history can record. And even though Stanton herself had a comfortablelife and valued deeply her husband and seven children, she knew that sheand all other women were not truly free if they could not keep wages theyearned, divorce an abusive husband, own property, or vote for the politicalleaders who governed them. Stanton was inspired, along with the others whomet, to rewrite our Declaration of Independence, and they boldly asserted,"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are createdequal."

"All men and all women." It was the shout heard around the world, andif we listen, we can still hear its echoes today. We can hear it in thevoices of women demanding their full civil and political rights anywhere inthe world. I've heard such voices and their echoes from women, around theworld, from Belfast to Bosnia to Beijing, as they work to change theconditions for women and girls and improve their lives and the lives oftheir families. We can even hear those echoes today in Seneca Falls. Wecome together this time not by carriage, but by car or plane, by train orfoot, and yes, in my case, by bus. We come together not to hold aconvention, but to celebrate those who met here one hundred and fifty yearsago, to commemorate how far we have traveled since then, and to challengeourselves to persevere on the journey that was begun all those many yearsago.

We are, as one can see looking around this great crowd, men and women,old and young, different races, different backgrounds. We come to honorthe past and imagine the future. That is the theme the President and Ihave chosen for the White House Millennium Council's efforts to remind andinspire Americans as we approach the year 2000. This is my last stop onthe Millennium Council's tour to Save America's Treasures--those buildings,monuments, papers and sites--that define who we are as a nation. Theyinclude not only famous symbols like the Star Spangled Banner and not onlygreat political leaders like George Washington's revolutionaryheadquarters, or creative inventors like Thomas Edison's invention factory,but they include also the women of America who wrote our nation's past andmust write its future.

Women like the ones we honor here and, in fact, at the end of my touryesterday, I learned that I was following literally in the footsteps of oneof them, Lucretia Mott, who, on her way to Seneca Falls, stopped in Auburnto visit former slaves and went on to the Seneca Nations to meet with clanmothers, as I did.

Last evening, I visited the home of Mary Ann and Thomas M'Clintock inWaterloo, where the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted, and which thePark Service is planning to restore for visitors if the money needed can beraised. I certainly hope I can return here sometime in the next few yearsto visit that restoration.

Because we must tell and retell, learn and relearn, these women'sstories, and we must make it our personal mission, in our everyday lives,to pass these stories on to our daughters and sons. Because we cannot--wemust not--ever forget that the rights and opportunities that we enjoy aswomen today were not just bestowed upon us by some benevolent ruler. Theywere fought for, agonized over, marched for, jailed for and even died forby brave and persistent women and men who came before us.

Every time we buy or sell or inherit property in our own name--let usthank the pioneers who agitated to change the laws that made that possible.

Every time, every time we vote, let us thank the women and men ofSeneca Falls, Susan B. Anthony and all the others, who tirelessly crossedour nation and withstood ridicule and the rest to bring about the 19thAmendment to the Constitution.

Every time we enter an occupation--a profession of our own choosingand receive a paycheck that reflect earnings equal to a male colleague, letus thank the signers and women like Kate Mullaney, who's house I visitedyesterday, in Troy, New York

Every time we elect a woman to office--let us thank ground breakingleaders like Jeannette Rankin and Margaret Chase Smith, Hattie Caraway,Louise Slaughter, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm--all of whom proved that awoman's place is truly in the House, and in the Senate, and one day, in theWhite House, as well.

And every time we take another step forward for justice in thisnation--let us thank extraordinary women like Harriet Tubman, who's home inAuburn I visited yesterday, and who escaped herself from slavery, and, thenrisked her life, time and again, to bring at least two hundred other slavesto freedom as well.

Harriet Tubman's rule for all of her underground railroad missions wasto keep going. Once you started--no matter how scared you got, howdangerous it became--you were not allowed to turn back. That's a prettygood rule for life. It not only describes the women who gathered inWesleyan Chapel in 1848, but it could serve as our own motto for today.We, too, cannot turn back. We, too, must keep going in our commitment tothe dignity of every individual--to women's rights as human rights. We areon that road of the pioneers to Seneca Falls, they started down it 150years ago. But now, we too, must keep going.

We may not face the criticism and derision they did. They understoodthat the Declaration of Sentiments would create no small amount ofmisconception, or misrepresentation and ridicule; they were called mannishwomen, old maids, fanatics, attacked personally by those who disagreed withthem. One paper said, "These rights for women would bring a monstrousinjury to all mankind." If it sounds familiar, it's the same thing that'salways said when women keep going for true equality and justice.

Those who came here also understood that the convention and theDeclaration were only first steps down that road. What matters most iswhat happens when everyone packs up and goes back to their families andcommunities. What matters is whether sentiment and resolutions, once made,are fulfilled or forgotten. The Seneca Falls one hundred pledgedthemselves to petition, and lit the pulpit and used every instrumentalitywithin their power to affect their subjects. And they did. But they alsoknew they were not acting primarily for themselves. They knew theyprobably would not even see the changes they advocated in their ownlifetime. In fact, only Charlotte Woodward lived long enough to seeAmerican women finally win the right to vote.

Those who signed that Declaration were doing it for the girls andwomen--for us--those of us in the twentieth century.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a letter to her daughters later in lifeenclosing a special gift and explaining why. "Dear Maggie and Hattie, thisis my first speech," she wrote, "it contains all I knew at that time; Igive this manuscript to my precious daughters in the hopes that they willfinish the work that I have begun." And they have. Her daughter, HarriotBlatch, was the chiefstrategist of the suffrage movement in New York. Harriot's daughter, NoraBarney, was one of the first women to be a civil engineer. Nora'sdaughter, Rhoda Jenkins, became an architect. Rhoda's daughter, ColleenJenkins-Sahlin is an elected official in Greenwich, Connecticut. And herdaughter, Elizabeth is a thirteen-year-old, who wrote about the sixgenerations of Stantons in a book called, 33 Things Every Girl Should Know.

So, far into the twentieth century, the work is still being done; thejourney goes on. Now, some might say that the only purpose of thiscelebration is to honor the past, that the work begun here is finished inAmerica, that young women no longer face legal obstacles to whatevereducation or employment choices they choose to pursue. And I certainlybelieve and hope all of you agree that we should, everyday, count ourblessings as American women.

I know how much change I have seen in my own life. When I was growingup back in the fifties and sixties, there were still barriers that Mrs.Stanton would have recognized--scholarships I couldn't apply for, schools Icouldn't go to, jobs I couldn't have-- just because of my sex. Thanks tofederal laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title 9, and the EqualPay Act, legal barriers to equality have fallen.

But if all we do is honor the past, then I believe we will miss thecentral point of the Declaration of Sentiments, which was, above all, adocument about the future. The drafters of the Declaration imagined adifferent future for women and men, in a society based on equality andmutual respect. It falls to every generation to imagine the future, and itour task to do so now.

We know that, just as the women 150 years ago knew, that what weimagine will be principally for our daughters and sons in the 21st century.Because the work of the Seneca Falls Convention is, just like the work ofthe nation itself, it's never finished, so long as there remain gapsbetween our ideals and reality. That is one of the great joys and beautiesof the American experiment. We are always striving to build and movetoward a more perfect union, that we on every occasion keep faith with ourfounding ideals, and translate them into reality. So what kind of futurecan we imagine together.

If we are to finish the work begun here--then no American should everagain face discrimination on the basis of gender, race or sexualorientation anywhere in our country.

If we are to finish the work begun here--then $0.76 in a woman'spaycheck for every dollar in a man's is still not enough. Equal pay forequal work can once and for all be achieved.

If we are to finish the work begun here--then families need more helpto balance their responsibilities at work and at home. In a letter toSusan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton writes, "Come here and I will dowhat I can to help you with your address, if you will hold the baby andmake the pudding." Even then, women knew we had to have help with childcare. All families should have access to safe, affordable, quality childcare.

If we are to finish the work begun here--then women and children must be protected against what the Declaration called the "chastisement of women," namely domestic abuse and violence. We must take all steps necessary to end the scourge of violence against women and punish the perpetrator. And our country must join the rest of the world, as so eloquently Secretary Albright called for on Saturday night here in Seneca Falls, "Join the rest of the world and ratify the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women."

If we are to finish the work begun here--we must do more than talkabout family values, we must adopt polices that truly value families--policies like a universal system of health care insurance that guaranteesevery American's access to affordable, quality health care. Policies liketaking all steps necessary to keep guns out of the hands of children andcriminals. Policies like doing all that is necessary at all levels of oursociety to ensure high quality public education for every boy or girl nomatter where that child lives.

If we are to finish the work begun here--we must ensure that women andmen who work full-time earn a wage that lifts them out of poverty and allworkers who retire have financial security in their later years throughguaranteed Social Security and pensions.

If we are to finish the work begun here--we must be vigilant againstthe messages of a media- driven consumer culture that convinces our sonsand daughters that what brand of sneakers they wear or cosmetics they useis more important that what they think, feel, know, or do.

And if we are to finish the work begun here--we must, above all else,take seriously the power of the vote and use it to make our voices heard.What the champions of suffrage understood was that the vote is not just asymbol of our equality, but that it can be, if used, a guarantee ofresults. It is the way we express our political views. It is the way wehold our leaders and governments accountable. It is the way we bridge thegap between what we want our nation to be and what it is.

But when will the majority of women voters of our country exercisetheir most fundamental political right? Can you imagine what any of theDeclaration signers would say if they learned how many women fail to votein elections? They would be amazed and outraged. They would agree with aposter I saw in 1996. On it, there is a picture of a woman with a piece oftape covering her mouth and under it, it says, "Most politicians thinkwomen should be seen and not heard. In the last election, 54 million womenagreed with them."

One hundred and fifty years ago, the women at Seneca Falls weresilenced by someone else. Today, women, we silence ourselves. We have achoice. We have a voice. And if we are going to finish the work begunhere we must exercise our right to vote in every election we are eligibleto vote in.

Much of who women are and what women do today can be traced to thecourage, vision, and dedication of the pioneers who came together at SenecaFalls. Now it is our responsibility to finish the work they began. Let'sask ourselves, at the 200th anniversary of Seneca Falls, will they say thattoday's gathering also was a catalyst for action? Will they say thatbusinesses, labor, religious organizations, the media, foundations,educators, every citizen in our society came to see the unfinished struggleof today as their struggle?

Will they say that we joined across lines of race and class, that weraised up those too often pushed down, and ultimately found strength ineach other's differences and resolved in our common cause? Will we, likethe champions at Seneca Falls, recognize that men must play a central rolein this fight? How can we ever forget the impassioned plea of FrederickDouglass, issued in our defense of the right to vote?

How can we ever forget that young legislator from Tennessee by thename of Harry Burns, who was the deciding vote in ratifying the 19thAmendment. He was planning on voting "no," but then he got a letter fromhis mother with a simple message. The letter said, "Be a good boy Harryand do the right thing." And he did! Tennessee became the last state toratify, proving that you can never ever overestimate the power of oneperson to alter the course of history, or the power of a little motherlyadvice.

Will we look back and see that we have finally joined the rest of theadvanced economies by creating systems of education, employment, child careand health care that support and strengthen families and give all womenreal choices in their lives.

At the 200th anniversary celebration, will they say that women todaysupported each other in the choices we make? Will we admit once and for allthere is no single cookie cutter model for being a successful and fulfilledwoman today, that we have so many choices? We can choose full-timemotherhood or no family at all or like most of us, seek to strike a balancebetween our family and our work, always trying to do what is right in ourlives. Will we leave our children a world where it is self-evident thatall men and women, boys and girls are created equal? These are some of thequestions we can ask ourselves.

Help us imagine a future that keeps faith with the sentimentsexpressed here in 1848. The future, like the past and the present, willnot and cannot be perfect. Our daughters and granddaughters will face newchallenges which we today cannot even imagine. But each of us can helpprepare for that future by doing what we can to speak out for justice andequality for women's rights and human rights, to be on the right side ofhistory, no matter the risk or cost, knowing that eventually the sentimentswe express and the causes we advocate will succeed because they are rootedin the conviction that all people are entitled by their creator and by thepromise of America to the freedom, rights, responsibilities, andopportunity of full citizenship. That is what I imagine for the future. Iinvite you to imagine with me and then to work together to make that futurea reality.

Thank you all very much.

August 1998

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150th Anniversary of the Women's Right Convention Seneca Falls

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