Defending the Rights of Women

The women's rights movement is the fascinating story of the individuals who fought for a change of the status quo.

By Cathy Neushul

women putting their hands together

While it is a very important part of United States history, the women’s rights movement is not always given the emphasis it should. It is possible for high school students to graduate without knowing much about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, or Mary Ann McClintock, and they may have never heard of the Seneca Falls Convention (the first women’s rights convention). You can make sure that your class knows and understands the significance of this important event in history by discussing the convention and the people who made it possible.

The Birth of the First Women’s Rights Convention

One of the women who helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Stanton was the type of person who was willing to stand up for what she believed in, even if it made her unpopular. She was drawn into the reformers sphere through her cousin, Gerrit Smith. Her areas of interest included the abolitionist, temperance, and women’s rights movements.

Stanton led a conventional life in the sense that she got married and had seven children, but she didn’t accept injustice without a fight. When she married Henry Stanton and accompanied him to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, she was told she could not attend because she was a woman. She found this unacceptable and joined others in protest.

Eight years later, she helped organize the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York to try to right the wrongs she saw in society. More than 300 men and women attended the event. A document called the Declaration of Sentiments, enumerating the rights of women, was created at this convention.

Here is an excerpt from 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. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice 

He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.

The Women Behind the Movement

For students to understand the importance of the first women’s rights convention, they need to understand a little about the backgrounds and convictions of the individuals who planned the event. You can have each learner (or group of learners) pick a name from a list of women at the convention, have them conduct research on this person, and then share their findings with the class. 

Here is a list of some of the women they could choose to learn about:

  • Lucretia Mott
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Amy Post
  • Mary Ann McClintock 

It’s important for students to realize that these women had relatively normal lives. They were mothers and wives, but they also stood up for their beliefs.

Reaction to the Seneca Falls Convention

One of the best ways to learn about history is through the people that lived it. The Library of Congress has a collection of newspaper clippings, collected by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that give an interesting insight into the first women’s rights convention. For example, one of the articles praises the ideas expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments, but criticizes organizers for not allowing men to participate in the deliberations conducted the first day.

The Library of Congress website also has pictures published about the event and the organizers. There is a list of the people who signed the Declaration of Sentiments, and a picture of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in a controversial bloomer outfit, long baggy pants. Some of your pupils may be surprised to learn that women were restricted in what clothing they were allowed to wear. Women were expected to wear dresses; pants were for men only.

Lead a Debate

As a culminating activity, you can have your class participate in a debate in which they argue for and against the need for equal rights for women. You can have them focus on the 1800s or on modern times. Either way, they will have to do extensive research to make their case. This is one way to ensure that your students really understand the importance of the Seneca Falls Convention. 

Women’s Rights Movement Lessons:

Women’s Equality Changing Attitudes and Beliefs

Pupils delve into the beliefs and attitudes that stymied the women’s rights movement. They use primary sources to better describe this situation. Additionally, scholars will come up a list of pros and cons relating to women’s rights.

Who Were the Foremothers of Women’s Equality?

Have your class learn about the women who changed history in America. Students learn about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, individuals who were important members of the women’s rights movement. They conduct research on this movement. 

Women’s Suffrage

Using primary sources, pupils learn about the women’s rights movement. They look at cartoons, pamphlets, petitions, etc. to learn about this topic. It is a terrific way to have your class delve into the topic of women voting.

Women’s Rights: Comparing the 19th and 20th Centuries

For a more modern view of women’s rights, teachers can use this resource. Using the Library of Congress website, pupils research the Nineteenth Amendment affected the lives of women. This lesson could be a great way to kick off a research project on this topic.