The first women’s rights convention in Pennsylvania was held right here in Chester County, June 2-3, 1852. Despite being held in the middle of the week, it filled West Chester’s Horticultural Hall, now home to the Chester County Historical Society. The convention sought legal, economic, social, and educational equality for women.
The convention was part of a national movement. Just four years earlier, in 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States met in Seneca Falls, New York. It was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The West Chester meeting was the seventh such convention; it followed meetings in Seneca Falls and Rochester, NY (both 1848); in Salem and Akron, Ohio (1850, 1851); and two national conventions in Worcester, MA (1850, 1851).
Holding the convention in West Chester was the idea of Jacob Painter, a Delaware County Quaker whose natural history collection and land became the foundation for Tyler Arboretum. A letter read at the convention congratulated them on meeting in Chester County: “In no part of the State could a community be found better qualified to appreciate the objects of such a meeting . . . Chester has undoubtedly taken the lead of all her sister Counties in Educational movements.”
The meeting was organized by Hannah Darlington of Kennett. Unlike most women of her time, she was well-versed in running meetings. Not only had she gained experience through women’s meetings of the Society of Friends, she had also attended anti-slavery conventions and the two national meetings in Worcester, MA.
“The question of women’s rights affects the whole human race. We know from sad experience that man cannot rise while woman is degraded.”
The convention attracted many prominent reformers of the day, such as Lucretia and James Mott, Frances D. Gage, and Ernestine Rose. Most of the officers, committee members, and speakers were members of, or had connections to, the Society of Friends. Nineteenth-century women’s rights advocates were also typically active in other reform movements such as abolitionism (ending slavery) and temperance (ending the sale and use of alcohol). These reforms were seen as parts of an overall effort to improve or perfect society, and many of the early women’s rights supporters were men. Evan Pugh of East Nottingham was only 24 years old when he attended the Pennsylvania convention. He addressed the crowd briefly, stating that “the question of women’s rights affects the whole human race. We know from sad experience that man cannot rise while woman is degraded.”
“We ask that woman shall have free access to vocations of profit and honor, the means of earning a livelihood and independence for herself!”
The main speech of the convention was given by Ann Preston, M.D. (1813-1872) of West Grove. Dr.
Preston had just graduated five months earlier as a member of the first class of the Female Medical College in Philadelphia (now part of Drexel University). In her address to the 1852 convention, she discussed the importance of education and careers: “We ask that woman shall have free access to vocations of profit and honor, the means of earning a livelihood and independence for herself! As a general rule, profitable employments are not considered open to woman, nor are her business capabilities encouraged and developed by systematic training… Their brothers may go out into society and gain position and competency; but for them there is but little choice of employment, and, too often, they are left with repressed and crippled energies to pine and chafe under the bitter sense of poverty and dependence.”
Women like Preston who wished to become doctors in the mid-nineteenth century faced opposition from male physicians, medical schools, and many in society. Women were viewed as too weak and delicate to withstand the rigors of medical education and practice. Many people also considered it “unwomanly” and immoral for women to study the human body, especially in the presence of male students. Women physicians played a prominent role in the 1852 convention. In addition to Dr. Preston’s address, Dr. Harriot Hunt of Boston spoke. Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree, sent a letter of support.
The West Chester meeting adopted 16 resolutions, including one endorsing woman suffrage. They protested “no taxation without representation.” The convention also passed a resolution on the right of women to study the sciences. If you rewrite the resolutions in today’s language, you will see today’s issues. They wanted equal pay for equal work. They wanted equal treatment before the law.
American women were granted the right to vote in 1920, yet many of the convention’s goals have not been achieved. Read the 1852 convention proceedings. Read the 2016 update to the CCFWG Blueprint Report Leveraging Progress. Consider what’s changed. Consider what hasn’t.
Laurie A. Rofini
Chester County Historical Society