- History, Mythology, and Power in the Women’s Rights Movement
In early 1855, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote to Lucretia Mott of her plans to write a history of the women’s movement. “This is just the right work for thee, dear Elizh.,” Mott replied, “and success will no doubt attend the undertaking.” Stanton had asked Mott for information, and Mott suggested that she begin her book with Sarah and Angelina Grimké’s controversial antislavery lecture tour and the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1837. Mott’s letter ranged from Mary Wollstonecraft, Nantucket, and female Quaker ministers to the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention, Lucy Stone, and Ernestine Rose. At the end of the letter, Mott wrote, “thou must do thyself justice. Remember the first Convention originated with thee. . . . I have never liked the undeserved praise in that Meeting’s Proceedings, of being ‘the moving spirit of that occasion,’ when to thyself belongs the honor, aided so efficiently by the M’Clintock’s.”1 The “first Convention” was the meeting at Seneca Falls, New York, held seven years earlier on July 19–20, 1848, where Mott, Stanton, and 100 women and men had signed the Declaration of Sentiments. Today, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, the only national park devoted to the history of feminism, commemorates this event. Given the number of different people, places, and events mentioned in Mott’s letter, how did the Seneca Falls convention emerge as the recognized birthplace of the women’s rights movement?
Lisa Tetrault’s groundbreaking The Myth of Seneca Falls answers this question by analyzing the historical memory of the movement. As a result, her book is not a history of the Seneca Falls convention and does not replace Judith Wellman’s The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Woman’s Rights Convention (2004) or Sally G. McMillen’s Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement (2009). Further, Tetrault’s provocative title does not imply that the Seneca Falls meeting itself is a myth, or somehow untrue; she defines myth as “a venerated and celebrated story used to give meaning [End Page 99] to the world” (p. 5). Tetrault does not offer an alternative founding moment, referencing, like Mott, many possible moments. Instead, she demonstrates how the Seneca Falls convention came to be remembered as the beginning of an organized movement. She argues that the Seneca Falls convention attained mythological status only during the messy, fractured women’s movement that emerged from the U.S. Civil War. Tetrault’s book examines this postwar women’s rights movement, then, and how Stanton and Anthony seized control of the movement by writing its history.
Despite her earlier correspondence with Mott, Stanton did not publish a history of the women’s movement until 1881. The History of Woman Suffrage, written with Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eventually filled three volumes and combined narrative with substantial excerpts from newspaper and personal accounts. As Tetrault describes, much to the dismay of other contributors and activists, Stanton was a heavy-handed editor. By publishing this history, she and her coworkers deliberately shaped the memory of the movement. They also participated in the larger national project described by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2002): they interpreted the Civil War for political ends, and they rewrote the history of the war and emancipation from the white point of view. As Mott predicted, the History of Woman Suffrage was a success, and it remains an important resource for historians of the women’s rights movement. Yet Tetrault’s analysis of the politics of the women’s movement shows that the volumes should be approached with care.
Tetrault emphasizes that the postwar women’s movement differed from its antebellum predecessor. The first national convention, presided over by Paulina Wright Davis, met in Worcester, Massachusetts, in October 1850. Subsequently, activists gathered in Syracuse, Cleveland, Cincinnati...