The Most Important Piece of US Women’s Rights History Is Missing
The White House wants your help to find it.
You would think that a document as important as the Declaration of Sentiments — which “changed the course of history” in 1848 by boldly insisting for “the first time in human history,” according to Hillary Clinton, that women deserve equal rights — rests in a place of honor among America’s most precious treasures. And you would be wrong.
The truth is — someone lost it. Seriously. The milestone articulation of the first rally for women’s equality, a staggering 72 years before the 19th Amendment finally granted women the right to vote, is missing. And for nearly a year, the White House has been trying to find it with a campaign U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith calls “a real-life ‘National Treasure.’”
Indeed, the quest to find the original has been filled with mystery and frustrations that recall the wild goose chases in the 2004 blockbuster (albeit without backstabbing looters). Smith has reportedly reached out to women’s studies professors, historians, online marketplaces, and even enlisted staff at the Library of Congress to scour their collections. A copy turned up, but no original.
“The fact that we don’t know where it is is an example of how sloppy record keeping was in the old days,” David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States at National Archives in Washington D.C., told Global Citizen. “This country didn’t even have archives until 1934. It’s a miracle that anything survived. It would not surprise me either that the Declaration could have been deemed less important at the time.” Which is exactly why locating it is so essential.
“It would be an incredible piece to link people to the event,” says Kimberly Szewczyk, The chief of interpretation and education at Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. Not to mention, physically have it could raise the Declaration’s profile.
“I’ve found that most people had never heard of it, despite its important content and position in world history,” Smith writes on the White House’s website in her blog: The Lost History: Help Us Find the Declaration of Sentiments.
“In the past,” Szewczyk told Global Citizen, “the women’s movement wasn’t deemed important enough for our history books so it was left off, which is a shame because women represent 51 percent of our population and they aren’t being discussed.”
At the time the Declaration was introduced before the first U.S. women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19, 1848, of course, women were undeniably overlooked, in government, politics, and any recognized spheres of influence.
Obama walks into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton detailed just how marginalized women were in the text of the piece, titled in full: “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” and modeled on the language of the Declaration of Independence.
“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,” she wrote, adding within a list of “facts” that, “He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
The 200 women at the convention in Seneca Falls (where Stanton lived) agreed. Sixty-eight women and 32 men adopted and signed the paper calling for women to be recognized as citizens in full and granted identical rights, political, economic, and civil, as men.
Resolving that “all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of nature, and therefore of no force or authority,” Stanton had officially sparked the women’s movement.
“…[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their duty to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security,” she wrote. “Such has been the patient sufferance of the women under this government, and such is now the necessity which constrains them to demand the equal station to which they are entitled.”
And the revved-up revolutionaries weren’t interested in waiting for equality either. “…[I]n view of the unjust laws … and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States,” Stanton challenged.
Story has it that the declaration was promptly passed to one of the convention attendees, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, so that he could publish it in his newspaper “The North Star.” Douglass brought the document to his print shop in Rochester, New York, published it — and the original has never been seen since.
Finding it now, as the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote looms four short years away, isn’t about closing this circle of history, though. It’s about opening people’s eyes to the role they play in the ongoing — global — struggle for women’s equality.
“The Declaration of Sentiments really is on the level of documents such as the Bill of Rights and perhaps even The Declaration of Independence,” says Szewczyk. “It started the largest social movement in American history. And this movement is still in progress and growing. The message it shares is just as important today as it was then.”
Does archivist Ferriero think it will actually be found after 168 years? “I’m not so sure,” he admits. “But I can tell you, discoveries are being made in attics every day…”
Have a tip on where the Declaration may be, an idea, or a story about it? Post to #FindtheSentiments.
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