Accessibility links

'Cradle of Women's Rights' May Not Be Exactly What You'd Expect


July 20th is the anniversary of a historic vote in 1848 that is often cited as the event that launched the women's-rights movement. Women and men who had gathered in the town of Seneca Falls, New York, for the nation's first women's-rights convention approved what they called a "Declaration of Sentiments." It included the radical idea that women should have the right to vote. However, it would be 72 years before women got that right nationwide.

The Declaration of Rights reads, in part: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and WOMEN are created equal." The Declaration borrowed heavily from the nation's Declaration of Independence -- with the emphatic addition of the female gender to those created equal.

The document did not mince words about what it called "the absolute tyranny of man" over woman: "He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns."

Today in little Seneca Falls, on the old Cayuga-Seneca Canal between the cities of Rochester and Syracuse, there's a national park site that marks the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel where women's-rights conventioneers met. Ironically, 2 men chaired the meetings.

You'll find the National Women's Hall of Fame in an old building on Fall Street. And as you might expect, Seneca Falls has a woman mayor. But the village is not exactly overrun with radical feminists. It turns out that Diana Smith is the 1st female mayor ever in Seneca Falls.

As a girl in school in Seneca Falls, Mayor Smith says she got no exposure to the rich women's-history heritage of the village. "Being the birthplace of women's rights was something I really didn't even realize about Seneca Falls until I was in college."

Jack Shea, the chief ranger at the Women's Rights National Historical Park, points out that despite its feminist heritage, Seneca Falls -- population 7,000 -- is a typical rural American town. "This is considered, today, primarily Republican territory," he points out, "a little bit more conservative than you might think, considering the way that Seneca Falls is related through history."

Seneca Falls' mayor says that despite its dramatic legacy, the focus today is more on family life and so-called "traditional values" than on social movements. Diana Smith says she's preoccupied with doing a good job, not playing pioneer woman mayor: "I would like to think that at some point in time, it wouldn't be regarded as a hurdle, or having accomplished something to be a woman in politics, a woman who's a leader."

Since 1969, the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls has honored distinguished American women in many walks of life. Executive Director Billi Louisi-Potts says most Seneca Falls agitators moved to big cities to grow the women's-rights movement. Seneca Falls became an unremarkable mill town, attracting Irish and Italian immigrants.

"These were people who were not part of the reform and what became the Progressive tradition," Ms. Louisi-Potts says. "Except for union activity, they led a very conventional life, where the father was the breadwinner and the women stayed home. And that male breadwinner made the decisions for everyone in the household."

Still, she says, the National Women's Hall of Fame gets many of what she calls "pilgrims," intent upon soaking up information and inspiration. One of those pilgrims was Madeline Hansen, a computer trainer who says Seneca Falls' women's-rights tradition prompted her family to buy a house here in 2002. Her eyes well with tears as she describes visits to the monuments to women's rights. She says she's mindful that not all the goals of the Declaration of Sentiments have been achieved. "I don't make as much money as a man with equal education and equal social standing as myself," Ms. Hansen notes. "If I were a woman of color I would make significantly less. And as a matter of fact, the gap is actually widening for women under 35."

The Declaration of Sentiments concludes: "In view of this entire disfranchisement of ½ the people of this country, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States."

While Seneca Falls, New York, gets its feminist pilgrims, the chief tourist attractions are local wineries, a wildlife refuge, and the historic canal. Movie director Frank Capra once visited his aunt near here, and it's speculated that snowy Seneca Falls was the inspiration for the picturesque little town called "Bedford Falls" in Mr. Capra's classic Christmas movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." You won't find a street named for women's-rights activists in Seneca Falls. But there is a "George Bailey Lane," named after the movie's hero, and a café, named for George's youngest daughter. It's called "ZuZu's".

XS
SM
MD
LG