Photo credit: Library of Congress.
Charlotte Woodward Pierce was a teenager at the Seneca Falls convention for women’s rights. She was 91 when women finally went to vote in 1920
By Kat Eschner
July 19, 2017
Years after attending the Seneca Falls convention, which occurred this week in 1848, Charlotte Woodward Pierce recalled that she was “just a young girl, little knowing the broad field awaiting laborers.”
Around 300 people attended the convention: most were locals, due to the minimal advertising, writes the Library of Congress. In a newspaper advertisement promoting the event in the Seneca County Courier, it was described simply as “A convention to discuss the social, civil and religious conditions of the rights of Woman.”
At that convention, 100 people–68 of whom were women–signed a Declaration of Sentiments that had a few things to add to the words of America’s founders: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal," they wrote.
Pierce, who was one of the farthest traveled, was one of the signers, listed as Charlotte Woodward. (She took the last name Pierce later, when she married.) Many of her fellows “eventually withdrew their names because of the intense ridicule and criticism they received after the document was made public,” Encyclopedia Britannica writes, but Pierce wasn't among them.
She lived to get a unique perspective on the suffrage movement–when women went to the federal polls for the first time 72 years later, she was the only signatory to the Seneca Falls document who was there to see it.
But back in 1848, Woodward was just 18 or 19, living in Waterloo, New York and working from home when she saw the announcement for the convention. “She ran from one house to another in her neighborhood,” historian Judith Wellman wrote, “and found other women reading it, some with amusement and incredulity, others with absorbed interest.”
Six of her friends agreed to come with her, travelling the short distance to Seneca Falls. They planned to stay at least for the first day, which was a women-only day.
“An independent seamstress at the time, she went to the convention out of a need to agitate for more opportunities for women,” writes Esther Inglis-Arkell for Gizmodo.
After the convention, she continued to work with women’s rights agitators, moving twice–once probably to Rhode Island and the second time to Philadelphia, where she lived out the rest of her life, according to the National Park Service.
In that time, as Mary Jergenson points out in the Petoskey News, Pierce lived through the Civil War and witnessed the temperance movement. She joined the American Woman Suffrage Association, and saw her acquaintance Susan B. Anthony (who belonged to the other major women’s suffrage organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association) arrested for trying to vote. And she was alive to see the tide turn.
In 1920, American women went to the polls for the first time. Pierce, aged 91, bedridden and unable to vote herself, was aware of the occasion, but sad to miss casting her own ballot. “I’m too old,” she said according to historian Judith Wellman. “I’m afraid I’ll never vote.”
She did live to send a trowel to the National Woman’s Party in 1921, bearing the inscription “In recognition for progress made by women,” and to clear up the impression that this meant she thought women should participate in women’s-only political parties.
“I think women should go into the existing parties,” she said. “My heart is with all women who vote. They have gained it now, and they should not quarrel about the method of using it.”