In the 19th century, ample water and rich soil made Seneca Falls a town full of thriving farms and optimistic people. Idealism took hold in the many calls for progressive political reform and utopian community-building, as residents of the small New York town committed to causes like the abolition of slavery, harmony between indigenous people and settlers, and even the dismantling of church hierarchy.
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Seneca Falls’ flowing streams also gave it the water power to build industry at a time when industry was transforming family structure. Children could be assets to farm families that needed more hands to share the labor of harvests and animal husbandry, but in industrial settings, they could be a liability, bringing costs to the home in the form of food, clothing, medical care, and education. Many women tried to avoid pregnancies by using the family planning methods of that era, which included spermicidal douches and abortion, as well as pills and tonics advertised for the “stoppage of nature” and other veiled references to contraception. As women became less involved in childbearing, their roles in the home — and society — began to change as well.
Amid those influences, the women’s rights movement coalesced in Seneca Falls, spearheaded in large part by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They were reformers who met through the anti-slavery movement but turned their attention to the emancipation of women. Stanton evoked the parallels between those causes in a speech she gave before the New York Legislature, in which she decried how color and sex had put many “in subjection to the white Saxon man.” Thus, from the beginning, reproductive freedom and women’s rights were closely linked, and they were connected with anti-racism and other social justice movements. Continue reading