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The “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States”

An illustration is of Richard Henry Lee (grandson) reading the actual engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1876 just before Susan B. Anthony and others stormed the stage with their Women's Declaration.
An illustration of Richard Henry Lee (grandson) reading the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1876 moments before Susan B. Anthony and others stormed the stage with their Women's Declaration.

Library of Congress.

Philadelphia’s July Fourth, 1876 celebration kicked off the nation’s one-hundredth birthday celebration to large, enthusiastic crowds. Among those in the city for the festivities was the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), an organization founded in 1869 to advocate for a constitutional amendment insuring women’s right to vote. The NWSA planned to participate in the Centennial event by presenting their “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States” to the nation.

The Women’s Declaration equated women’s oppression by men with that of the American colonies by King George III. The document cited rights denied women (like those of trial by jury of one’s peers and taxation with representation) and condemned the federal government for “excluding one-half of its adult population from any active participation in the administration of its affairs.” Despite hostility and ridicule, the Women’s Declaration said, “We, therefore, women of the United States of America, do solemnly publish and declare that we are by nature, and of right, ought to be by law, free and independent citizens, possessing equal political power with our brother men.”1

Earlier in July, the NWSA’s president, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had requested time on the July 4th program to present the Women’s Declaration. The head of the US Centennial Commission, General Joseph R. Hawley, responded to Stanton’s request with six tickets in the audience (not those on the stage that Stanton had wanted) and regret that the July 4th program was already too crowded with events to include the NWSA’s presentation. Stanton and Lucretia Mott were prepared to stand down after Hawley’s rejection, but other NWSA members convinced them to proceed with their Declaration’s presentation.

From a stage behind Independence Hall, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (whose grandfather had proposed independence from England two hundred years earlier) read the original Declaration of Independence aloud from the very piece of paper signed in 1776. Others on the stage included the president pro tem of the Senate, Thomas W. Ferry, who represented President Ulysses S. Grant, and General Joseph R. Hawley. When Lee finished the reading, Susan B. Anthony and four of her associates rose from the audience, walked up to the stage and handed Senator Ferry their Women’s Declaration. According to Stanton’s memoirs, “Ferry’s face paled as bowing low, with no word he received the Declaration, which thus became part of the day’s proceedings…while General Hawley, thus defied and beaten in his audacious denial to women of the right to present their Declaration, shouted, ‘Order, order!’.”2

The six NWSA members then walked around to the front of Independence Hall where Susan B. Anthony read the Women’s Declaration aloud prefaced by the plea: “We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”3 This call to action, codified in the “Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States”, inspired the subsequent quest for universal human suffrage that culminated with the passage of the 19th Amendment a generation later.

Notes:

[1]”Women at the Polls”, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, March 22, 1876.

[2] Elizabeth Cady Stanton to General Hawley, July 1, 1876 and Joseph R. Hawley to Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, July 2, 1876 both quoted in Stanton, Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897, Chapter XIX.

[3] Susan B. Anthony, remarks on the presentation of the “Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States”, July 4, 1876.

Last updated: July 16, 2019