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Birthplace of Women's Rights is Home to Women's Hall of Fame


March is Women's History Month in the United States. So it's an important month in Seneca Falls, New York, where the women's-rights movement began. And that little village in rural New York State is still a hotbed of feminist ferment.

In this tiny farm town in 1848, 100 people (including 32 men) signed a Declaration of Sentiments demanding full and equal rights for women. The document borrowed heavily from the nation's Declaration of Independence with phrases like this: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and WOMEN are created equal," 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."

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 156 years ago.

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 first female mayor ever in Seneca Falls. In fact, as a girl in school in Seneca Falls, she says she got "not a bit" of 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."

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. "Probably the greatest motivation for social change is dissatisfaction with the way things are," she says. "And I think for several generations there have been families who have been very happy with living here in Seneca Falls."

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 (as) 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. Former 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," she notes. "Except for union activity, they led a very conventional life, where the father was the breadwinner and the women stayed home. And just like the rest of the country, it did take 72 years for women to get the vote."

Still, Ms. Louisi-Potts 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. 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. 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."

While Seneca Falls, New York, gets its feminist pilgrims, the chief tourist attractions are local wineries, a wildlife refuge, and the historic canal.

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