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Relive women’s history in Seneca Falls’ national park and come away with new heroes

When Melinda Grube was in grade school, a male teacher told her that “women are not in the historical record, because they never did anything important.’’

She vowed then that she “would never allow anybody to say that to me again.” Grube, now armed with a PhD in women’s history,  is a historical interpreter at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, working to make sure girls now hear a different message.

In a long black dress with a hoop skirt and a lacy cap, she depicts Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement that shook this part of western New York and eventually the rest of the country in the mid-1800s.

Coline Jenkins has been a feminist since early childhood. In her family, she said, “it comes with mother’s milk.” That made her listeners smile because they knew who she was: Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter.

The one crucial question to ask when visiting a national park: 'What about the women?' »

Both women were talking with visitors in Stanton’s white frame house in Seneca Falls, now part of the national historical park. The occasion was Convention Days, the park’s annual celebration in July of the 1848 convention on women’s rights, the first one held in America.

I’ve struggled to explain to friends how it felt to stand with those women in Stanton’s small parlor and listen to them reminisce. Time bent a little. It was like being with reenactors at Gettysburg or Valley Forge, at those rare moments when living history turns into real life.

That’s what a good national park is supposed to do, of course: make you open your eyes wider, help you see in new ways and, ideally, send you home with new insights and new heroes.

Melinda Grube (in costume) is an historical interpreter, who often appears as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, educating visitors about the role Stanton played in pushing for equal rights for women. Here she speaks to visitors at the park's Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home.
Melinda Grube (in costume) is an historical interpreter, who often appears as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, educating visitors about the role Stanton played in pushing for equal rights for women. Here she speaks to visitors at the park's Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The heroes I took home from Seneca Falls this summer were not only Stanton, but also Quakers Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Jane Hunt and Mary Ann M’Clintock —  five women who gathered here for tea one July day in 1848 and plotted revolution.  

The five, like all married women across the country then, were, in Stanton’s words, “civilly dead.’’ That meant they had no rights; everything, even their children, belonged to their husbands.

They weren’t just bumping against glass ceilings — they were trying to break out of glass prisons.

Until this summer, I had underestimated what those ladies were up against, what they achieved and the legacy they left to women like me.

And if you just rolled your eyes or started to turn away, then you’ve made the same mistake I did. I’d been beguiled by their cumbersome hoop skirts and antique manners, so I didn’t take them seriously. Except for Stanton’s, I couldn’t have told you their names.

But this park showed me who they really were: Firebrands. Radicals. Activists. Fighters all, as fierce as any of my feminist heroes of the 1960s. And they weren’t just bumping against glass ceilings — they were trying to break out of glass prisons.

The first women's rights convention was held here at the Wesleyan Chapel in 1848, now part of the Women's Rights National Historic Park.
The first women's rights convention was held here at the Wesleyan Chapel in 1848, now part of the Women's Rights National Historic Park. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

On July 19 and 20, 1848, just two weeks after the tea party, more than 300 people— mostly women but some men, including former slave Frederick Douglass — gathered in a plain brick Methodist chapel in downtown Seneca Falls to debate their own version of the Declaration of Independence.  

Stanton was the primary author. Called the Declaration of Sentiments, it included this  incendiary wording change: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men AND WOMEN are created equal...’’          

Today, the Methodist chapel is the centerpiece of the national historical park, sharing a downtown block with the visitor center and a small green space where the Declaration of Sentiments is inscribed on a “waterwall’’ — a long stone fountain with a gentle sheet of water flowing continuously over the words.  

I had never read the entire declaration until I stood in front of the waterwall this summer. It was spine-tingling, and its import made me gasp.

These women weren’t merely challenging a king of England: They were challenging the history of humankind — the “absolute tyranny’’ of man over woman through the ages.

This park showed me who they really were: Firebrands. Radicals. Activists.

What they wanted was nothing less than to be full citizens of the United States, with the right to keep property they inherited, retain custody of their children after divorce, be permitted to attend colleges and universities, hold responsible jobs outside their homes and be fairly paid for their work.

It might not surprise them to know that the fight still continues, though it might disappoint them. After all, they had devoted their lives to it.

Here is Stanton, nearly half a century after the Seneca Falls convention, arguing for women’s rights in front of a congressional committee in Washington. She chose a metaphor dear to my traveler’s heart — a sailing ship:

“To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot, engineer; with chart and compass to stand at the wheel; to match the wind and waves and know when to take in the sail, and to read the signs in the firmament over all. It matters not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman.’’

Visitors read about the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home.
Visitors read about the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

If you go

Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor Center, 136 Fall St., Seneca Falls; (315) 568-0024. Open Wednesdays to Sundays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; open daily in summer. Guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Free. Engaging exhibits explain how restricted women’s lives were in the 19th century (and long before that) and how gender discrimination continues today in such matters as equal pay. The park is working to increase connections with children, said Kimberly Szewczyk, chief of interpretation and education. “A class from California can’t come to us,” she said, “but now, through Skype, we can go to them.’’

The Cayuga-Seneca Canal is part of the Erie Canalway, seen from Seneca Falls. The historic mill, right, will be the new site of the National Women's Hall of Fame. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
The Cayuga-Seneca Canal is part of the Erie Canalway, seen from Seneca Falls. The historic mill, right, will be the new site of the National Women's Hall of Fame. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The park includes the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, where the 1848 women’s rights convention was held. A small green space between the chapel and the visitor center includes a long fountain called the waterwall, inscribed with the text of the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, which — despite its mild name — is as fiery a list of inequities as any document in U.S. history.

The national park also includes the homes of three of the five women who planned the convention. The homes of Lucretia Mott and Mary Ann M’Clintock are in Waterloo, N.Y., about five miles west of Seneca Falls, and are not open to the public. But Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house at 32 Washington St. in Seneca Falls is. Not yet fully restored, it can be toured with a park guide at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., spring through fall.  The house is closed in winter, but the park’s visitor center stays open year-round.