Examining ‘Seneca, Selma, and Stonewall’

Making History
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 6, 2013

tji_stonewall_Kate_main
BEAMING IN Author Kate Bornstein's next book comes out in May.

It will be recalled as the most famous line from President Barack Obama's second inaugural address delivered January 21:

"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall, just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone, to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth."

In the New Yorker, Hendrick Hertzberg said this "thrilling" section of the speech would be remembered for decades to come; in the New York Times, David Brooks said Obama's "unapologetically liberal speech" was a "strong argument for modern liberalism." It was the first time in history that gay rights were mentioned in an inaugural address. That Obama chose to highlight three fundamental moments in American civil-rights history signaled his solidarity with those who have been, and those who continue to be, oppressed.

Three experts will speak to the significance of the "Seneca-Selma-Stonewall" speech on Friday, March 8 — International Woman's Day, incidentally — as part of the University of Southern Maine's annual Women's History Month celebration. Each of them will address one of the events that Obama name-checked in his speech.

Priscilla Murolo, a history professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, will talk about the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention — the country's first women's rights gathering, at which a group of about 200 women and 100 men (almost all of them abolitionists) issued a "Declaration of Sentiments" listing grievances perpetrated against women by men (100 attendees — 68 women and 32 men — actually signed the document).

"The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her," the writers declared in the document's opening paragraphs. Among other things, the Declaration of Sentiments lamented women's limited (or non-existent) access to education, property, voting rights, and participation in church affairs.

Murolo believes there are lessons we can still learn from Seneca Falls. For one thing, she notes that "the convention took place halfway through a year of revolutions" across the globe (1848 was a year of unrest in Italy, France, Brazil, and Sri Lanka, among other places) and that "the women at Seneca Falls were quite aware of those." Tapping into worldwide sentiment can be useful, if only to boost morale.

Secondly, Murolo appreciates that the women at Seneca Falls embraced the concept of "the personal is political" long before it became a feminist slogan in the late 1960s and 1970s. She points specifically to this complaint from the Declaration of Sentiments: "[Man] has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life."

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