Where women made history

They convened in 1848 at Seneca Falls to demand rights taken for granted today. A national park and a hall of fame now stand at the spot.

Posted: February 19, 2012

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal."

- Declaration of Sentiments, 1848

 SENECA FALLS, N.Y. - When I was growing up, the only noteworthy falls in Upstate New York that I knew about were at Niagara. Seneca Falls, in the state's Finger Lakes region, was as anonymous as Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. The history that was made in Seneca Falls in 1848 - the first women's rights convention in the United States - was not mentioned in the textbooks my schools provided.

Now Seneca Falls is the location of both Women's Rights National Historical Park and the National Women's Hall of Fame. High schools today teach about the history that happened here 164 years ago, most importantly the document known as the Declaration of Sentiments that was ratified in the Wesleyan Chapel on a summer day that year.

In a talk given on the chapel site, interpreter Andrea Dekoter filled us in on the events that took place where we stood. The impetus for the 1848 convention was an 1840 abolitionist convention that Boston residents Elizabeth Cady and Henry Stanton attended in London; the women attendees were forced to sit in the back of the hall and their participation was limited. Stanton then decided that a convention advancing the rights of women was needed. The idea went to the back burner for a time, but once the Stantons moved to Seneca Falls in 1847, Elizabeth connected with area Quakers and other progressives, reigniting her interest. The convention was planned and the Declaration of Sentiments, based largely on the Declaration of Independence, was drafted.

What women sought in the Declaration of Sentiments are rights that today are taken for granted: the right to own property, the right for married women to keep wages they earned, the right to discard corsets for comfortable clothes, to name a few. Because the right to vote was too fiery an issue, it was not addressed.

What happened to raise Seneca Falls from anonymity to a keystone of America's social history? According to chief of interpretation Lee Werst, the idea of preserving the remnants of the Wesleyan Chapel began with grassroots efforts in the 1970s. The establishment of the national historical park in 1980 piqued the interest of authors and historians. Werst specifically mentions a 1999 documentary by Ken Burns in addition to the works of local author Judy Wellman. "I would not go so far as to say the park is the reason, but it is one of the reasons. A whole bunch of different things came together."

Women's Rights National Historical Park is a multiunit property of the National Park Service.

The park's anchor is the visitor center/museum, next to the shell of the Wesleyan Chapel. Other units are the houses where activists lived or worked. The house of Stanton, architect of the 1848 convention, is on the outskirts of town on Washington Street, near the Cayuga-Seneca Canal locks. The home of Mary Ann M'Clintock, where the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted, is in the neighboring town of Waterloo.

The best place to begin, as with most national parks, is the visitor center. Here the story of the 1848 women's rights convention unfolds. It is also here that interactive video terminals allow visitors to register their views on today's gender issues. On one video terminal, a female actor in the role of a factory worker opines that she has the right to take a potentially hazardous job. In the companion video, a female actor playing a supervisor states that the safety of her employees is her responsibility, and that the hazards inherent in her job could affect the health of women of childbearing age.

We are asked to push a button to vote for the side we agree with. Totals are displayed, and when we visited most sided with the factory worker. However, we were warned not to take the totals too seriously, since youngsters tend to push buttons for the fun of it.

A timeline relates historic events concerning the women's rights movement to parallel occurrences in the United States. While women in much of the nation were without basic rights for the first half of the 19th century, there were exceptions. One reads that in 1839 the state of Mississippi granted married women control of their own property. And in 1848, the same year as the Seneca Falls convention, Boston Female Medical School opened with 12 students.

The convention did not happen in a vacuum. This area of Upstate New York was an abolitionist stronghold. There was a significant population of activist Quakers. There was also a growing temperance movement, with the ultimate purpose of eradicating the abuse of women and children.

The focal point at the visitor center is "The First Wave," a mini-gathering in bronze of 20 life-sized sculptures representing the men and women who attended the convention. (Interestingly, Susan B. Anthony, the best-known women's rights advocate, was involved at the time with the abolitionist movement in nearby Rochester and had nothing to do with the 1848 convention.)

Its mark on history ignored for over a century, the chapel served many roles through the decades including car dealership, movie theater, and laundromat. Today only part of the building is original to 1848, and for years, all visitors saw was that partial shell. However, a roof and an extension of the walls giving the former chapel a more finished appearance was completed last summer.

A grassy expanse known as Declaration Park separates the chapel from a granite wall on which the entire Declaration of Sentiments is inscribed. The park is also an inviting place to read or simply sprawl and relax. A sheet of water runs over the wall, and visitors can read the words through the flowing water. Because of canal construction and reconstruction over the decades, these are the only falls in town today.

One can round out a visit by stopping at the supplementary sites. Furnishings are sparse in the Stanton house. There is a piano and china believed to be family items, but the main attraction is the story of the woman who lived here. The M'Clintock House is highlighted by a copy of the table on which the Declaration of Sentiments was written. (The original is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.) A visit to the reproduced early-20th-century print shop represents activist Amelia Bloomer's office where she produced her suffrage newsletter, the Lily. It affords a revealing look at the rigors of mass communications in the mid-19th century.

The best place to wrap up a Seneca Falls stop is the National Women's Hall of Fame, a block and a half from the national historical park visitor center. Classic recordings of inductee and jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald were playing as we pored over biographies of the 236 inductees, commemorated on plaques.

According to executive director Christine Moulton, anyone can submit a nomination. Inductees are selected by a national panel of judges. Some are world-famous: Harriet Tubman, Annie Oakley, Billie Jean King, Amelia Earhart. Some are obscure: Wilma L. Vaught, Esther Peterson, Mary Jacobi. Some are Democrats: Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some are Republicans: Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Sandra Day O'Connor. Some are controversial: Faye Wattleton, Margaret Sanger. Moulton says, "Just because a woman is in the hall does not necessarily mean that we agree or disagree with their politics. It means that a national panel of judges found the candidate's achievements to have a lasting impact on our country. In fact, many are not politically active at all."

A few personal belongings are on view, but museum space is limited. The hall will be relocating to the nearby 1844 Seneca Knitting Mill building. A target date has not been set.

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