Wellman chronicles first women's rights convention

imageJudith Wellman, a professor emerita of history at SUNY Oswego, recently published the first full-length account of the event that launched the women’s movement with “The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention.”

Wellman chronicled the landmark Seneca Falls convention in 1848, as well as how leaders and movements came together for it, in part because she saw the event being underappreciated and unrecognized for a long time.

Wellman, who began teaching at SUNY Oswego in 1972 and continues to teach online local history courses, led an early women’s history class on a field trip to Seneca Falls. The Wesleyan Chapel that hosted the extraordinary convention had dissolved into an apartment building and laundromat. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house was private dwelling, covered with bright green shingles,” Wellman recalled. “We realized that sites related to the single most important women’s rights convention in the history of this country were not well marked, to say the least!”

Most of those involved in the convention became as obscure as the landmarks. Of the 100 people—68 women and 32 men—who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls gathering, “we realized that only four of them—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass and Martha Wright—ever became national woman’s rights leaders,” Wellman said. “All the rest were virtually unknown.”

Who the participants were and why they signed what was perceived as such a “radical” document intrigued Wellman. She started the project in the late 1970s, but put it aside until she felt she could do the type of work the topic deserved.

The exhaustively researched account often follows Stanton but also explores how disparate groups such as legal reformers, abolitionists, early feminists and radical Quakers came together under the same roof.

Wellman wanted to produce a work for both scholars and general readers who may be interested in the topic. “It will give you a solid and accurate information, written in a lively way about real people, told as much as possible in their own words,” Wellman said. “I kept the work of David McCullough in my mind as I wrote this book.”

One interesting point is how the attendees “patterned their Declaration of Sentiments after the U.S. Declaration of Independence, so instead of saying that ‘all men are created equal,’ they said that ‘all men and women are created equal,’” Wellman explained.

She believes the concerns of the convention more than 150 years ago still resonate in the 21st century. “Except for the right to vote, which U.S. women finally received in 1920, we still struggle with almost every other issue raised at Seneca Falls—equal rights in education, jobs, family, religion, moral standards, and personal decision-making,” Wellman said. “In many ways, this is a document that speaks for the ages, and the people who created it were people who spoke not only to those of their own time but to us as well.”

“The Road to Seneca Falls” is published by the University of Illinois Press and sells for $25.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Historic first—Judith Wellman, a professor emerita of history at SUNY Oswego shown in Penfield Library’s special collections room, recently authored “The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention.” The book represents the first full-length account of the 1848 conference in Seneca Falls that launched the women’s movement.

(Posted: Feb 03, 2005)