While many people recognize the name of Elizabeth Cady Stanton as one of the early activists in the Women’s Rights Movement, Jane Hunt’s legacy is often overshadowed by the more prominent founding members. The original group of five women who launched the movement included Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Martha Wright.
In July of 1848 Jane Hunt, living in Waterloo, New York, hosted a parlor tea for four of her like-minded friends. The purpose of the tea was not merely to discuss the inequities of the laws regarding women, but to devise a plausible plan of action on how to get those laws changed. The five women had a lot in common. They were all married, had children, and were firmly opposed to slavery. Four of them were Quakers.
United in purpose, they became a ‘Formidable Five’.
A misconception about the group lingers, that a woman’s right to vote was their solitary goal. In actuality, voting rights was one of the pinnacles of the Woman’s Rights Movement, but the overarching goal was for women to become legally equal to men in all aspects of the law.
To understand the political and social climate of the 1840s one must remember that slavery was still legal in many parts of the country and women of all races were relegated to second class status. At that time, most women could not vote, hold office, attend college, make contracts, sue for divorce, get custody of their own children, own property, or work in any profession other than as a teacher, seamstress, factory worker or a domestic. In several states husbands were still allowed to beat their wives with a stick, as long as it was no thicker than the man’s thumb.
For female slaves, there were no rights at all.
When the Formidable Five met in Waterloo on July 9, 1848 at Jane Hunt’s house, they decided to host a convention in nearby Seneca Falls where they would present their ideals about women’s rights to the public at large. They recognized the need for their sentiments to be put in writing and labored for several days composing a document based upon the same principles as the Declaration of Independence.
They called this document The Declaration of Sentiments and it began: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …” In the document they demanded equality in property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family, and the right to vote. Those very thoughts were a radical notion to many Americans and the Formidable Five must have prepared themselves for serious opposition.
They ran an advertisement in the Seneca County Courier about the planned convention to be held July 19 – 20 in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, and worried that perhaps only a few women might attend.
However, on the morning of July 19, 1848, wagon loads of women descended upon Seneca Falls and approximately 300 women and a handful of men crowded into the Wesleyan Chapel to hear the Declaration of Sentiments read aloud. After lengthy discussions on the first day of the convention some minor amendments were attached. On the following day all attendees were invited to come forward and sign the document. One hundred signatures were attached, including noted abolitionist Frederick Douglas who was in attendance.
It was only the beginning. After the success of the Women’s Rights Convention, as it is now known, the Formidable Five continued to champion for women’s rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the most notable spokesperson for the national movement. Lucretia Mott went on to help establish the women’s college of Swarthmore in Pennsylvania. Martha Wright became friends with Harriet Tubman and the Wright house in Auburn New York evolved into a safe haven for escaped slaves. Mary Ann M’Clintock eventually moved back to Philadelphia with her husband where they worked diligently with the American Anti-Slavery Society.
What about Jane Hunt? She spent the rest of her life quietly involved with the Underground Railroad and turned the carriage house on her property into a safe station for runaway slaves.
It should be noted that all of the Formidable Five were married to husbands sympathetic to the ideals of equality. While their wives were ridiculed in the newspapers in many parts of America, the men still offered their moral and financial support to help further the cause.
Not one of the Formidable Five would live to see women get the right to vote. That landmark legislation did not fully occur until August 26, 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was put into law. But Jane Hunt and her four friends each had helped to sow the seeds.
At one point Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.”
I would like to amend that: “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives, but as verbs.”
Jane Hunt and her friends were surely strong women of action.
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