Suffragist Cities

From her parlor window, 33-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton looked across the canal to the industrial district of Seneca Falls. In the 1840s, a string of 60 mill and factory buildings stretched from her neighborhood to downtown along the Seneca River. Most prominent was the gray limestone Seneca Woolen Mill. The women who worked for the mill at that time typically received half the pay men did for the same quality and amount of work. Blatant inequality was pressing down on 19th-century American women, right outside Stanton’s home.

At that time, a married woman was only one person away from poverty. A husband was the best protection against the poorhouse. A wife could work outside the home, but her salary was a fraction of a man’s, and the money was not her own. She had to turn it over to her husband, whose rightful property it was.

For the most part, a woman couldn’t inherit or own property, including the clothing she wore; women could not sue in court, serve on juries, vote, or gain custody of her children. Most colleges of the day did not admit women. Worst of all, a woman could not divorce an abusive husband.

My children and I learned all this during a wonderful private guided tour of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home. The tour was free; we just had to make prior arrangements to have the doors unlocked. Our docent, a park service ranger, told us “the rest of the story” gleaned from her own research of Stanton, the woman who drafted the Declaration of Sentiments that defined the first Women’s Rights Convention.

Wife, mother, activist
Before she and her husband moved from Boston to Seneca Falls, Stanton lived in a fine house. In comparison, her Seneca Falls residence was modest, a composite home created from two relocated houses. As a child, Stanton enjoyed the pampering of 19 servants who took care of the family’s home in an affluent Johnstown, New York, neighborhood. In Seneca Falls, Stanton had to care for her 3-year-old, 2-year old and 18-month-old children alone. She found small-town life oppressive and finally came to understand what the female factory workers had been dealing with all along.

“I pace up and down these two chambers of mine like a caged lioness, longing to bring nursing and household chores to a close,” she said. “My duties were too numerous and varied and none sufficiently exhilarating or intellectual to bring into play my higher facilities. I suffered from mental hunger, which like an empty stomach, is very depressing.”

All in all, Stanton bore seven children and spent 15 years in her Seneca Falls home, now restored and managed by the National Park Service. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life purpose was realized right here,” our guide told us. “While staring out of this window, she decided to dedicate her life to women’s rights. She ran her household in relation to reform. She would bring young women here to talk and help them gain the confidence that was needed to hand out fliers and give speeches about women’s rights.”

The first Women’s Rights Convention drew 300 supporters to the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel on Fall Street. The Declaration of Sentiments presented there was patterned after the Declaration of Independence. It boldly proclaimed, “All men and women are created equal.”

Stanton became one of the most important and persistent leaders of human rights in United States history. “I wanted to do and dare anything,” she admitted. It would take 72 years of battles before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, 55 years after slavery was abolished. But in 1848 in central New York, a sweeping reform blazed through villages, towns and cities like a prairie fire.

As we listened to our enthusiastic guide and learned the remarkable beginnings of women’s rights, my heart swelled with gratitude for these women. I knew it was the right decision to undertake this field trip with my 17-year-old daughter, Sierra, and my 15-year-old son, Bryce. As a woman and a mother, I have often contemplated: How can we appreciate what we have today if we are not aware of who fought for it in the past? I wanted to teach my daughter about freedom, her rights and having control over her own life. I wanted her to know the battles her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother waged so she could live a better life. My son needed to learn about those who came before almost as much as Sierra. That’s why we went to Seneca Falls.

Preserving the legacy
Before visiting Stanton’s home, we visited the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor Center on Fall Street. In the lobby, an impressive exhibit called “The First Wave” consumes you. You can walk among the 20 life-size bronze statues depicting the women’s rights activists who participated in the first Women’s Rights Convention.

A very moving and inspirational film entitled, “Dreams of Equality” is a great way to get acquainted with this fascinating interactive museum. The displays prompt the visitor to ask the questions: What are rights? How do we get them? Who decides who gets them? Who defends them?

There are televisions set up where you can listen to young people give their views on these topics. You can watch clips from TV shows and cartoons and read advertisements that helped to create a warped image of women in society. We learn that a 17-inch waist was the ideal in the 19th century. To achieve that ridiculously tiny size, women would wear tight, uncomfortable corsets. Overall, the displays give our young people a sweeping history of the progress of women coming into their own.

From the Visitor Center we walk over to Declaration Park and the stabilized remains of the red brick Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. The entire text of the Declaration of Sentiments and the list of 100 men and women who signed it cascade as inscriptions down a 100-foot granite “waterwall.” I try to imagine being a participant then, and am stirred with emotion on these very grounds.

The first convention was the catalyst for the women’s rights movement, and caused a ripple affect across the nation. Local newspapers that covered the event tried in vain to squelch the movement’s progress. The Syracuse Daily Star referred to the convention as a “mass of corruption, heresies, ridiculous nonsense, and reeking vulgarities which these bad women have vomited forth for the past three days.”

In my free 21st century mind, I can hear the quote and find humor in the words. The convention was threatening the very fabric of the domineering existence of the man who wrote them. I can only imagine the fire that rose in those women’s hearts that day in Wesleyan Chapel.

Another fascinating stop in Seneca Falls is the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which was established 38 years ago to honor contributions of American women. Housed there are photographs, stories and exhibits about the women who have been honored over the years for their contributions to the arts, athletics, business, education, government, humanities, philanthropy and science. We wandered the halls, pausing at some the 217 profiles that personally inspired us, like Eileen Collins, the first American woman to pilot a spacecraft, and Shirley Muldowney, the first woman to win a national hot rod event. Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony and Juliette Gordon Low are honored there, alongside contemporary women including Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton.

Throughout the village of Seneca Falls are bronze statues and monuments that bring the women’s movement to life. One piece in particular on the south side of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal is a car stopper. It portrays the first time Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony met. Amelia Bloomer, in her progressive and controversial pants, is introducing the two.

From Seneca Falls, we traveled to Rochester and the home of Susan B. Anthony, who was co-founder with Stanton, of the American Women’s Suffrage Movement.

An ancient horse-chestnut tree stands guards over her simple red brick home, located on Madison Street. An ornamental entrance on the porch invites you into this museum and historic home, but the third-floor attic had the most impact on me. It served as the workroom for the national headquarters of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

For 40 years of her life, Anthony lived in this home, now a National Historic Landmark. Next door, where her sister Hannah lived, is the museum’s Visitors’ Center. A massive $2.5 million capital campaign to restore Anthony’s house was undertaken nine years ago, making possible all the interior and exterior restoration that has taken place in the last four years. The goal was to return the home to the way it looked the last time Anthony lived there in 1906. Every detail was considered, including the replacement of the asphalt roof with red cedar shingles.

Anthony was well known for her hand-written correspondence and didn’t hire a secretary to type for her until she was older. In the third-floor workroom, the black typewriter and inkwell still sit on Anthony’s desk. Oversized black-and-white photographs of the pioneering women working in their full skirts and white blouses line the dark wood walls. The paneled walls and the shelving remain as shown in the original photographs.

The house was a very active place with volunteers coming and going constantly – writing brochures and letters, campaigning, propelling the country forward into reform. I can imagine the energy and excitement that must have emanated from these rooms.

The house is filled with memorabilia and the early Victorian furniture of its occupants. We learned that Anthony took a cold bath every morning until she was 80, when she was finally convinced to use warm water. Anthony’s original bedroom furniture remains, including the bed in which she died.

“You stir up Susan, you stir up the world.”
Anthony was brought up in a Quaker family known for its activist traditions. Her noble ideas of fairness and moral right came from her father; his mills would only purchase cotton from plantations that did not use slave labor.

Anthony campaigned for the abolition of slavery, along with a woman’s right to own property, control her own earnings and form labor organizations. She knew if women could vote, they could get laws changed and right some of these wrongs.

She watched as the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment set slaves free. The 14th defined citizenship. The 15th allowed former slaves to vote, but not women. She had worked side by side with colleague Frederick Douglass to end slavery, but when she approached him about the gross injustice being done to women, he said, “One step at a time.” She was so frustrated she felt ready to explode. It caused a temporary rift in their long friendship.

A great team
Susan B. Anthony worked with ally and friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton for 50 years. Stanton was the philosopher and writer, Anthony, the researcher and instigator. Together, Stanton and Anthony wrote the speeches that Anthony would deliver as she traveled throughout the country. Stanton had told Anthony, “If you stir the pudding and hold the babies, we can work together.” To Elizabeth’s seven children, she became known as “Aunt Susan.”

In 1872, Anthony encouraged women to go out and vote; she believed they were designated as citizens according to the 14th amendment. When voting day came, she wrote to Stanton telling her, “I’ve done it. I’ve voted. I’m so excited!”

Two weeks later, she was arrested for breaking the 14th and 15th Amendments, but she was not jailed and was furious about it. “I wanted to be treated like any other criminal.” Her act of civil disobedience, however, attracted national attention and support. She stood trial in Canandaigua several months later, and the judge ordered the jury, without deliberating, to find her guilty.

Anthony and Stanton died before they could see their work accomplished. Forty consecutive sessions of Congress shot down the 19th Amendment, but many younger women were inspired and carried the dream forward. At her 86th birthday celebration, one month before her death, Anthony delivered a rousing speech to women in Washington, D.C. She assured these torch carriers that “With women such as these…dedicated to the cause, failure was impossible.”

Fourteen years after Anthony’s death in 1906, their mission was accomplished.

My daughter left the Anthony home and gift shop with a purple T-shirt tucked proudly under her arm. A quotation from Anthony, written in script, adorns the front: “Failure is Impossible.”

Additional Information on Women’s Rights Historical Sites:

Women’s Rights National Historical Park
136 Fall Street
Seneca Falls, NY 13148

Four properties in Seneca Falls and nearby Waterloo comprise the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. Tours of the Wesleyan Chapel and Elizabeth Cady Stanton home are offered daily. Check the park visitor center for other tours and programs. All are free to the public.

A great way to enhance your visit and make sure you don’t miss any stops is to purchase the Women’s Rights Trail booklet from the Women’s Rights National Historical Park for $3.95.

National Women’s Hall of Fame
76 Fall Street
Seneca Falls, NY 13148
Admission: Adults: $3; Students: $1.50; Families: $7

Susan B. Anthony House
17 Madison Street
Rochester, NY 14608
Admission: Adults: $6; Students/children: $3; Seniors: $5

Seneca County Chamber of Commerce

Greater Rochester Visitors Association

by Cindy Ross
Cindy Ross loves to write historical stories like this one to share the world and the past with her homeschooled teens. It helps her learn and understand the world, too.

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