The 168th anniversary of Seneca Falls reminds us: Our moment is now

On this day in 1848, America's first women's rights convention proclaimed women's full equality with men. Even today, the fight goes on.

Melanne Verveer is Executive Director, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and co-founder of Seneca Women.

Kim Azzarelli is a business, legal and philanthropic adviser, Chair of Cornell Law School's Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and co-founder of Seneca Women.

This piece is excerpted from Fast Forward: How Women Can Achieve Power and Purpose, by Melanne Verveer and Kim Azzarelli

IN 1848, CHARLOTTE WOODWARD was earning a pittance stitching gloves in her home in Waterloo, New York. Like other women of her era, the former schoolteacher, not yet twenty years old, had been denied property ownership rights, citizenship, and political representation. In some states, if a woman married, everything she owned or earned belonged to her husband. That July, Woodward was intrigued by an announcement she read in the newspaper about a meeting of women to be held in a chapel forty miles away in the town of Seneca Falls. Looking for an opportunity to better her life and that of her family, she did what women have done throughout history and to this day: she joined a network.

Earlier that month, over tea one Sunday, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and three other women came up with the idea for the Seneca Falls Convention. Stanton and Mott recalled their journey to London, where, as women, they had been relegated to the sidelines at an international abolitionist gathering. They agreed then and there to organize a women's rights convention when they returned to the United States. Back home, they discussed their frustration with their second-class status, and together they drew up an announcement for an assembly "to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman." Their resulting campaign to reform child custody, divorce, property laws, equal pay, and suffrage gained steam from the moral outrage and organizational channels of the abolitionist movement.

Stanton and Mott also drew inspiration from the writings of Sarah Moore Grimké. The erudite daughter of a plantation owner, Grimké was one of the first women to espouse women's rights and perhaps the earliest proponent of equal pay for women in the United States. Her revulsion at slavery moved her to join the abolitionist cause, but her energies shifted to women's rights when, working as a schoolteacher, she learned that her male colleagues earned three times as much for the same work.

Charlotte Woodward longed for connection to such a purposeful sorority. She tentatively approached her neighbors to see if anyone might like to join her on the trip to Seneca Falls, which would take more than two days. She was met with mixed reactions when she knocked on doors. Undeterred, she set out early on July 19 by horse and carriage, accompanied by the handful of fellow travelers she had mustered. If they formed a dishearteningly thin procession at first, they were joined at each crossroad by other women, gaining heart and strength.

Also traveling to Seneca Falls were abolitionists, including the former slave Frederick Douglass, who found common cause with women's emancipation and would prove to be an important male ally of female suffrage.

Others on the road to the gathering included pacifist Quakers from Philadelphia, wives and mothers who had never had the opportunity to work outside their homes, and teenage girls, including one who had started going door to door at age twelve with antislavery petitions. When Woodward reached the hot, packed Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, she found a diverse crowd, bound together by a shared purpose, moved to further action by the inspiring speeches.

To be sure, not everyone was moved. The convention was widely derided in the press. A Philadelphia newspaper editorial huffed, "A woman is nobody. A wife is everything." An Albany newspaper warned that equal rights would "demoralize and degrade" women. The convention was condemned as "the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity."

By the end of the momentous two-day gathering, one hundred signatures--those of sixty-eight women and thirty-two men--were dry on the Declaration of Sentiments, which demanded basic civil, economic, and political rights, including the vote, for women. The negative press fueled publicity, as word of mouth traveled and spurred women's rights activists to form regional groups. In 1851, Susan B. Anthony would join Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her efforts, spending the next fifty years of her life advocating for women's suffrage. Each year, Anthony traveled around the country, giving up to one hundred speeches, in an effort to educate her fellow citizens.

Given the pace of transportation and communication in the mid-nineteenth century, but mostly the momentous shift in thinking that would be needed to secure the vote, the early women's movement was a slow-burning phenomenon. It would take more than seventy years from the date of the Seneca Falls Convention before women would secure the right to vote, when the Nineteenth Amendment, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, passed on June 4, 1919. Neither she nor Elizabeth Cady Stanton would live to see women cast their votes. Indeed, Charlotte Woodward, the young glove maker, was the only participant of the Seneca Falls Convention who lived to see their dream achieved.

Since Seneca Falls, we have been on a journey to women's full and equal participation, a journey that requires a change in the way we view and value half the world's population. This shift in perspective starts within each of us: knowing our own power, finding our purpose, and connecting with others to turn that purpose into action.

And we are not on this journey alone: male champions from around the world are recognizing that investing in women and girls is not solely a women's issue. Progress for women means progress for all. We believe there is a collective shift under way, evidenced by the mounting data, fueled by technology and connectivity, and propelled by emerging women leaders.

There are few propitious moments in history when forces converge, creating the potential for a transformative leap--a moment when we can move fast and we can move forward. Our moment is now.

Melanne Verveer is Executive Director, Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and co-founder of Seneca Women.

Kim Azzarelli is a business, legal and philanthropic adviser, Chair of Cornell Law School's Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and co-founder of Seneca Women.