|McMillen's Book Cites Seneca Falls As Key Landmark on the Long Road to Women's Rights
February 05, 2008
by Rachel Andoga
(Read a review of Sally McMillen's new book in The Christian Science Monitor.)
Sally G. McMillen, Mary Reynolds Babcock Professor of History, describes the instant which led her to write her new book, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement as "one of those serendipitous moments."
|McMillen's book tells the story of the Seneca Falls Convention by focusing on the lives of four key suffragists. |
It happened when historian James McPherson lectured at Davidson College a few years ago. "He mentioned that he was co-editing a new series that Oxford University Press had just started called 'Pivotal Moments in American History.'" When she asked what titles the series would feature, she was astonished that none of the pivotal moments addressed women's history. "So I blurted out, 'But you have nothing on women!' He looked at me and asked, 'Do you have any ideas?' And I said, 'Well, as a start, Seneca Falls.'"
It seemed like a natural to McMillen. "Seneca Falls changed things for half of the nation's population," she said. "So being able to tell that tale in a way that meant something to me..." she said, trailing off. "That was so exciting."
Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Woman's Rights Movement tells the story of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention by focusing on four suffragists -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone. "The Oxford series has a focus on people, which is the way I like to write history," she said. "My style of teaching, and my interest in the people behind the history led me to write about these four women as the key players in the nineteenth-century struggle for women's equality."
Before Seneca Falls, women had startlingly few rights. Once a woman married, she lost any rights to her possessions, any wages she might claim, and even guardianship rights to her children. Two major issues galvanized women against these injustices: the public's increasing attention to women's education and the anti-slavery movement.
With the rise of industrialism, middle-and upper-class women gained enough free time to begin getting engaged in reform activities, including temperance and various maternal associations.
And, as women activists began to get involved in the anti-slavery effort, many began to feel as oppressed as the people they were struggling to free.
In fact, the Seneca Falls convention gained its impetus from an 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention held in London. The first day of the convention was spent deciding whether or not women had the right to be present, let alone participate in the discussion. In the end, male delegates determined that the women could sit behind a curtain to listen to the proceedings, but they could not participate.
Two women in attendance, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, became fast friends and vowed that some day they would hold a convention for women's rights. That day took eight years to arrive. The 1848 Seneca Falls convention produced a document, "The Declaration of Rights and Sentiments," that argued why women deserved equality and on what terms it should occur.
Though it was a chance encounter that provided the impetus for McMillen to write her new book, her interest in the women's rights movement grew out of a deep-rooted belief in gender equality.
"Raised in California, I'd never encountered gender discrimination," she said. "I attended a women's college, where it didn't exist."
In her introduction to the book, she notes, "Like the women in this book-Lucretia, Elizabeth, Lucy, and Susan -- I have long been interested in women's issues and know that these four made my life's path far easier than theirs."
|McMillen's book is part of an Oxford University Press series on "Pivotal Moments in American History."|
McMillen's work was facilitated through receipt of a Boswell Family Faculty Fellowship, which provided her a year's sabbatical at full pay to compile her research and write the book. McMillen, who specializes in the American South and American women's history, with an emphasis on the 19th century, has written three previous books -- Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing (Louisiana State University Press, 1990), Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South (Harlan Davidson, 1992), and To Raise Up the South: Sunday Schools in Black and White Churches, 1865-1915.
Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement is available for purchase through Oxford University Press and Amazon.com.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.
Posted By: Bill Giduz