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

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.

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.

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.

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.’’

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 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.

WHERE TO EAT AND SLEEP: The Seneca Falls Visitors Center has a long list of local restaurants and places to stay. The restored Gould Hotel (108 Fall St., Seneca Falls; [877] 788-4010) and its innovative restaurant, a short walk from the national park’s visitor center, are interesting.   

TO LEARN MORE

Seneca Falls Visitor Center, 89 Fall St.; (315) 568-1510, www.senecafalls.com/visitor-center.php.  Well-done displays and dioramas explain everything from the glaciers that formed the neighboring Finger Lakes, to water-powered woolen mills and iron foundries that made the town prosperous. Women’s Rights National Historical Park is just across the street.  Open daily in summer, closed Sundays and Mondays in winter. Free.

WHAT ELSE TO SEE IN THE AREA

National Women’s Hall of Fame, 76 Fall St., Seneca Falls; (315) 568-8060, honors the achievements of important American women of all ethnicities in all fields and and all eras, with more being added every year.  (Instructions for nominating a candidate are on the Hall’s website.)

The Hall of Fame isn’t part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, but the two entities complement each other, said Jeanne Giovaninni, president of the board of directors. For example, funding for the restoration of the hall’s new location, an original 1844 knitting mill, included a grant from the National Park Service.

When I visited in July, the most popular displays were life-size cutouts of famous women, including Sacajawea, Harriet Tubman, Annie Oakley and Hillary Clinton, and little girls were choosing their favorite heroines to pose with for parents’ photos.

The home and gravesite of Harriet Tubman, the ex-slave and heroine of the Underground Railroad whose image has been chosen for the $20 bill, are in Auburn, N.Y., about 20 miles east of Seneca Falls. Tubman is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery. Her home at 180 South St.; (315) 252-2081, has hourly tours, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays-Fridays, 10 a.m. 3 p.m. Saturdays; closed November and December. $5 admission for adults.  

National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, 17 Madison St., Rochester, N.Y.;  (585) 235-6124. A fierce campaigner for women’s right to vote, Anthony lived in this red-brick Victorian home from 1866 to her death in 1906. Hour-long tours are offered Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and begin next door in what was Anthony’s  sister’s house, now the Visitors Center. $15 admission for adults. Exhibits include Anthony’s trademark satchel, a heavy alligator purse that came to symbolize women’s need for financial freedom. (The museum shop sells a designer replica for $250.)

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Additional Credits: Produced by: Denise Florez and Sean Greene


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