October 24, 1850

First National Woman's Rights Convention Ends in Worcester

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspapers, 1850
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On this day in 1850, the first national convention for woman's rights concluded in Worcester. For two days, more than 1,000 delegates from 11 different states had filled Brinley Hall to overflowing. Speakers, most of them women, demanded the right to vote, to own property, to be admitted to higher education, medicine, the ministry, and other professions. Many newspaper reporters heaped scorn on the convention. Although derisive, the press coverage actually helped bring the convention to the attention of a broad national audience and build support for the movement. Other national conventions followed, but change was slow. It took another 70 years — long after most of the delegates to the Worcester Convention had died — before American women won the right to vote.

Although a few newspapers, such as the Massachusetts Spy (whose editor was the husband of one of the main convention supporters), published positive reports about the convention, most accounts were scornful and hostile.

In 1848, 240 men and women met for the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and issued what amounted to a women's Declaration of Independence. Over the next two years, the group generated a great deal of discussion about the inequality and injustice suffered by American women. Many of the women had been active in anti-slavery work, and they had begun to see themselves as enslaved by a society that denied them basic rights.

In the late spring of 1850, those who had taken up the cause decided to hold a national convention to test the proposition that a political movement for woman's rights could garner support from around the country. The question was: Would anyone come to such a gathering? Woman's rights pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley, and Lucretia Mott all signed the call to convene, as did such leading male reformers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and William Lloyd Garrison.

They need not have worried. On October 23rd, the first day of the convention, the streets surrounding Brinley Hall in Worcester were overflowing with delegates. The New York Tribune reported that "above 1,000 people were present, and if a larger place could have been had, many more thousands would have attended."

To most Americans, the demand for political, legal, and social equality with men seemed absurd, or worse.

But how much support was there for the "Woman Question" outside of reform circles? To most Americans, the demand for political, legal, and social equality with men seemed absurd, or worse. The vast majority of people believed that a legal system that disenfranchised women, gave men complete control over married women's earnings, property, and children, and excluded women from higher education, the pulpit, and the professions was both proper and "natural." With many newspapers depicting the female advocates of woman's rights as unfeminine at best, dangerous at worst, and their male supporters as radicals and infidels determined to overthrow the social order, the convention organizers wondered how many people would dare to embrace publicly such an unpopular cause.

The convention organizers hoped to create a national organization and a plan of action. The speakers, most but not all of them women, addressed the need for equal rights for women. One speaker refuted biblical arguments frequently used to justify woman's subordinate status. Another argued that founding mothers had done as much as founding fathers to create the country. Other speakers identified the rights they planned to secure. Lucy Stone called for giving women the right to own property and to vote. Abby Price argued for women's equal access to trades and professions. Dr. Harriet Hunt read the letters of rejection she had received from Harvard Medical School and insisted on women's right to higher education. When Sojourner Truth spoke of the plight of slave women, the convention resolved that "the trampled women of the plantation" must have an equal share in the rights the convention goers sought for themselves.

Worcester native Abby Kelley gave some of the most fiery speeches. Her militant tone shocked even some of the more liberal-minded delegates.

Worcester native Abby Kelley gave some of the most fiery speeches. Her militant tone shocked even some of the more liberal-minded delegates. She asserted woman's right to revolt against tyranny "as did our father's against King George the Third — the right to rise up and cut the tyrants' throats." A New York Herald reporter derided this speech: Kelley, he wrote in disbelief, "urged that the work should be commenced by educating both sexes together, and that all distinctions in society between man and woman should be abolished, and that a woman was just as well qualified to be President as a man." The Herald was incredulous.

Although a few newspapers, such as the Massachusetts Spy (whose editor was the husband of one of the main convention supporters), published positive reports about the convention, most accounts were scornful and hostile. The New York Herald, edited by a strong opponent of the woman's movement, made fun of the speakers' appearance, demeanor, and words. In the Herald's version, the convention, and the demands of the women present, were ridiculous and, at a deeper level, subversive.

All the satirical articles on the "Insurrection in Petticoats" drew attention to the woman's rights movement and helped win converts to the cause.

The Herald summed up what it called "the actual designs of that piebald assemblage called the Women's Rights Convention" this way:

  1. abolish the Bible;
  2. abolish the constitution and the laws of the land;
  3. reorganize society upon a social platform of perfect equality in all things, of sexes and colors;
  4. establish the most free and miscellaneous amalgamation of sexes and colors;
  5. elect Abby Kelley Foster President of the United States and Lucretia Mott Commander-in-chief-of the Army;
  6. To cut throats ad libitum;
  7. To abolish the gallows.

Newspapers across the nation echoed the Herald's mocking tone, but the Worcester Convention was an early case of "no press is bad press." All the satirical articles on the "Insurrection in Petticoats" drew attention to the woman's rights movement and helped win converts to the cause.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Central region of Massachusetts.

Sources

Once-Told Tales of Worcester County, by Albert Southwick (Worcester Telegram and Gazette, 1985).

Lucy Stone, by Andrea Moore Kerr (Rutgers University Press, 1992).

Concise History of Woman Suffrage, by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle (University of Illinois Press, 1978).

Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, by Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick (Harvard University Press, 1975).

Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and the Politics of Antislavery, by Dorothy Sterling (Norton, 1991).

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