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Small New York Town Celebrates Being 'Cradle of Women's Rights' - 2004-08-24


Thursday, August 25 marks Women's Equality Day in the United States. It marks the date 84 years ago when American women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What better day to check out Seneca Falls, New York, where the women's rights movement began? VOA's Ted Landphair went there to see whether that little village in rural New York State is still a hotbed of feminist ferment.

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

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 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 156 years ago. Ironically, two 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 41-year-old Diana Smith is the first female mayor ever in Seneca Falls. In fact, one woman who holds an important job in the village told me this birthplace of women's rights is the most chauvinistic town in all of New York!

Jack Shea, the chief ranger at the Women's Rights National Historical Park, points out that despite its feminist heritage, Seneca Falls, population 7000, is a typical rural American town.

"This is considered, today, primarily Republican territory, a little bit more conservative than you might think, considering the way that Seneca Falls is related through history," Mr. Shea said. "Despite its image, Seneca Falls will reflect the prevailing thoughts in this part of the state."

Mayor Smith is a Democrat, though in her fulltime job she is an administrative assistant to a Republican state senator. As a girl in school in Seneca Falls, she got how much exposure to the rich women's history heritage of the village?

"Not a bit," she explains. "Being the birthplace of women's rights was something I really didn't even realize about Seneca Falls until I was in college."

"He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration."

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, and the thing that really incites activism in people is dissatisfaction with the way things are," she notes. "And I think for several generations there've been families who've been very happy with living here in Seneca Falls."

So is this the most male chauvinistic place in New York State?

"I wouldn't say that," she says. "I wouldn't say that at all. If that were the case, I don't think I would have been elected mayor. So I beg to differ."

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," she adds.

"He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life."

Since 1969, the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls has honored distinguished American women in many walks of life. Some, like Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, both of whom will be inducted next year, are famous. Others toiled outside the limelight.

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 explains. "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 here. I don't know if this is the most chauvinistic town in upstate New York, but it's part of a pattern. That male breadwinner made the decisions for everyone in the household."

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. 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," she says. "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. You know, one of the first questions that a woman who is also a parent is asked if she has a career outside the home is, 'How do you manage to combine a career and family?' Men are never asked that question."

Alison Stokes, who moved to Seneca Falls from another conservative community in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, runs an organization called the Women's Interfaith Institute, with offices next door to the women's rights national park. She says it's tough to bring together old-line families and newcomers including Jews, Muslims, and even lesbian couples. They are seen as interlopers, ruffling the village's serenity.

"Conservative Christians, their only interest in getting together with people of different religions is to convert them," she says.

And as for the emphasis on bringing women together, Reverend Stokes admits she can just hear some folks in town mutter, Women, women, women. Enough of this 'women stuff.'

"We were told by some people that the children of Seneca Falls had been brought over to the national park every year from the time they were in the second grade. And by the time they were seniors in high school, they don't want to hear one more thing about women. They've had it with women! And so, don't do anything 'women-related.' And we're thinking in terms now of peace. We have a big, blank wall downstairs, and we were thinking of having children come in and paint a mural on it. That, they could relate to, but they don't want to hear about women."

"Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half 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.

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