The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898.
Beginning with its arresting title, The Myth of Seneca Falls offers a refreshing and much-needed new perspective on the early decades of the US women's suffrage movement. The book tells two intertwined stories: how antebellum activists' broadly conceived women's rights agenda became a more narrowly focused women's suffrage crusade in the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras, and how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony created an "origin story" for their branch of the movement by writing its history, the foundational History of Woman Suffrage. In the process, as Lisa Tetrault convincingly argues, a small, local, and undoubtedly significant 1848 convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, assumed titanic stature for later generations, and Anthony, who had attended neither it nor a second convention held in Rochester shortly afterward acquired historic monumentality as the "mother" of the suffrage movement. Simultaneously, the grassroots activism of Stanton and Anthony's rivals, particularly that of individuals such as Lucy Stone, who led the American Woman Suffrage Association, largely disappeared from historical memory just as their archival remains were heavily excised from the History of Woman Suffrage.
Remembering and forgetting--the two sides of the memory coin--receive significant analysis in Tetrault's retelling of the Seneca Falls convention's history. As she demonstrates, the convention and its concerns did not receive much attention in the decades immediately following 1848. Indeed, during those years, few women's rights activists made any effort to identify a single point of origin for their movement. Instead, they acknowledged a number of important forerunners, including abolitionist and anti-slavery meetings and conventions, the lecture tours that speakers such as Angelina Grimke and Lucy Stone had undertaken in the 1830s and 1840s, and the national women's rights conventions that began in 1850.
Claims for the importance of the Seneca Falls Convention arose only in the Reconstruction years, as internal conflicts among abolitionists over black male suffrage moved women's lack of the franchise to the top of the list of necessary "woman's rights." Then, and only then, as Tetrault clearly delineates, did advocates begin to construct a "suffragist memory" (p. 113), designating not only the Seneca Falls Convention but also suffrage itself as central elements in an emerging story of women's rights. Gradually forgotten or eclipsed along the way were African American and radical white women's understandings of "woman's rights," as well as the concerns of working class women in labour organizations who doubted that the ballot could have the transformative power that suffragists claimed for it.
We have known some aspects of this story, especially the bruising battles among abolitionists over whether to support ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and their outcome in producing two competing woman suffrage groups. Tetrault's signal achievement is to trace the process whereby Stanton and Anthony constructed a suffrage-focused historical memory that grew more convincing and powerful over the decades. Through carefully delineating the development of commemorative practices, Tetrault shows how the two women elevated the Seneca Falls event to mythic status. The "meeting at Seneca Falls [began to] become the myth of Seneca Falls" (p. 16), she argues convincingly, in the aftermath of Susan B. Anthony's 1872 arrest for illegal voting, when she and Stanton shrewdly arranged a twenty-fifth Anniversary event in 1873, thereby deflecting other efforts to designate the 1850 Worcester National Convention as the movement's "birthplace and time" (p. 46). Other anniversaries followed, in 1878, 1888 (a week-long International Council of Women meeting), and 1898, each setting another memorial stone into place. By the time that the National and American Woman Suffrage Associations agreed to unify in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the "memory work done by the myth of Seneca Falls" made the decades of disunion fall away and unification seem like "re-unification" (p. 168).
Tetrault's history of how Stanton, Anthony, and others wrote and researched the History of Woman Suffrage, which eventually grew to six volumes, is particularly notable. While giving the work its due as a "stunning act of historical imagination" that assembled both "the story and the archive all in one," (p. 115), she is careful to chronicle the snipping and erasing that went into its construction. Not only did the volumes' compilers find ways to "monopolize" a "movement origins tale" (p. 137) to the exclusion of other possible stories, but they minimized the work of the American Woman Suffrage Association and its leaders, especially Lucy Stone. Alternatives to the suffrage strategies that Stanton and Anthony favoured, particularly the pursuit of partial suffrage at the territorial and state levels, were dismissed, and alternative rights demands, especially those favoured by black women, were rendered invisible. By the time the fourth volume arrived, the editors (Anthony and Ida Husted Harper) had not only made the arrival of one "centralized, hierarchical movement" (p. 166) seem inevitable, but they had turned Anthony herself into the "principal embodiment" of the Seneca Falls story (p. 173), enough so that later generations would "remember" that Anthony had been present at the creation. Anthony and Harper then burned most of the archive they had collected.
In connecting her story to the "broader national memory debates after the Civil War" (p. 16), Tetrault makes a puzzling claim: that the Fourteenth Amendment "defined citizenship as 'male'" (p. 23). To be sure the Amendment's second clause introduced the word "male" in an effort to make permanent the provisions of the 1867 Reconstruction Act, but the first clause contains no such qualification. As a statement of principle, it is unambiguous; the citizenship definition applied to "all persons." It was precisely that clarion language, as Lisa Materson has demonstrated, that attracted African American women's rights advocates, whose consistent demand was that Congress and the states enforce the amendment's provisions.
With this important book, Tetrault joins ranks of historians challenging the framework that the story of Seneca Falls established, and the notion that 1848 and 1920 marked undeniable turning points in the history of women's rights activism. In doing so, she and they are reclaiming the messier, more complicated history that women's rights activists lived. As Tetrault concedes, dislodging the 1848 myth will be not be easy, but the work must be undertaken if we are to write new, more inclusive, and more accurate histories.
Anne M. Boylan, University of Delaware
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|Author:||Boylan, Anne M.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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