The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898

The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898

The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898

The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898


The story of how the women's rights movement began at the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 is a cherished American myth. The standard account credits founders such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott with defining and then leading the campaign for women's suffrage. In her provocative new history, Lisa Tetrault demonstrates that Stanton, Anthony, and their peers gradually created and popularized this origins story during the second half of the nineteenth century in response to internal movement dynamics as well as the racial politics of memory after the Civil War. The founding mythology that coalesced in their speeches and writings--most notably Stanton and Anthony's History of Woman Suffrage --provided younger activists with the vital resource of a usable past for the ongoing struggle, and it helped consolidate Stanton and Anthony's leadership against challenges from the grassroots and rival suffragists.

As Tetrault shows, while this mythology has narrowed our understanding of the early efforts to champion women's rights, the myth of Seneca Falls itself became an influential factor in the suffrage movement. And along the way, its authors amassed the first archive of feminism and literally invented the modern discipline of women's history.


The problem of a beginning is the beginning of a problem.


The Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention came to order on 10 May 1866. The guns of the Civil War had quieted a year before, and many felt the time had come to revisit unfinished business. The woman’s rights movement, which had suspended activity during the bloodiest war in American history, held its first postwar convention in New York City’s Church of the Puritans. Lucretia Mott, aged seventy-three and an elder stateswoman of the movement, looked out over the enormous crowd and saw the cause passing into new hands. “It is no loss,” she explained to those assembled, “but the proper order of things, that the mothers should depart and give place to the children.” The fact that Mott appeared battle scarred, with hoarse voice from a head cold and bruised face from a recent streetcar accident, added poignancy to her remarks. She recalled the long history of women’s rights activism that had led to this day. “Young women of America,” she urged, “I want you to make yourselves acquainted with the history of the Woman’s Rights movement.”

Mott highlighted the importance of collective historical memory to the operation of social movements—the central preoccupation of this book. Mott was not alone in urging women to learn their history. After the Civil War, women’s rights activists with similar concerns held commemorative conventions, gave speeches on women’s rights history, celebrated the accomplishments of pioneering women, held birthday celebrations, observed anniversaries, wrote historical accounts, and more. All of it was instructive. Indeed, activists rebuilt a movement after the disruptions of the Civil War, in no small part, by getting acquainted with history—that is by consciously and unconsciously creating collective memories for the movement. Remem-

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