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“Leaders of the Woman’s Rights Convention Taking an Airing” (1848)

The Seneca Falls convention holds an iconic place in the history of women’s suffrage, even though it was not, as is often asserted, the first convention ever held on the question of women’s rights. On July 19-20, 1848 in the small upstate New York town of Seneca Falls three hundred women and men came together to discuss “the social, civil and religious condition of woman.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, turning the Declaration of Independence on its head by asserting that “all men and women are created equal.” The only resolution to spark controversy was the call “to secure for themselves their sacred right to elective franchise.”

One of the first visual documents to refer to the convention was a color print captioned “Leaders of the Woman’s Rights Convention Taking an Airing,” which was published that year. The portraits are not literal portrayals of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott who were in attendance but function as visual satire. The print’s message can be summed up in one word: transgressive. All four women are dressed in outfits that depart from traditional female dress, including helmets and top hats. No respectable side-saddle for them—they ride like men astride their steads, showing a shocking amount of leg (even a knee!) and appendages that are more like hooves than dainty female feet. Everything seems topsy-turvy—a perfect depiction of a world turned upside down when women began to challenge their exclusion from the public sphere. The women’s rights advocates may have been out “taking an airing” but this print was not going to win many converts to the cause.