by Laurel C. Wemett
The year 2020 was one of major change for the National Women’s Hall of Fame (NWHF) in Seneca Falls. After years of planning and fundraising, the NWHF moved from its downtown location to the rehabilitated 1844 Seneca Knitting Mill, a striking landmark overlooking the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. For the first time, the NWHF also introduced a virtual induction, which posthumously recognized six prominent Black women.
As the nation’s oldest membership organization dedicated to honoring and celebrating distinguished American women, the NWHF was founded in Seneca Falls in 1969. It was housed since 1977 in a former bank on Fall Street. When the not-for-profit organization outgrew that space, it purchased the shuttered mill in 2006 to house its exhibits, archives, and offices.
“The National Women’s Hall of Fame has a fabulous new look,” says 2007 NWHF Inductee Dr. Judith Pipher, an astronomer who worked on experiments leading to the design of a camera in the Spitzer Space Telescope. Pipher is one of 293 American women who have been inducted into the NWHF since 1973, fulfilling the mission of “Showcasing great women … Inspiring all!”
“Before the process began, the mill showed not only the need for renovation, but reconstruction to make it a safe and welcoming structure,” says Pipher, a resident of Seneca Falls and former NWHF board member, now an emerita board member. “I love the fact that the original floors have been kept and refurbished, and that the new windows are true to the original design.” Pipher calls the reconstruction a tribute to former NWHF Board President Jeanne Giovannini, who engineered the entire process.
The four-story mill, listed on the National Register of Historic Properties, encompasses 36,000 square feet and has links to the American women’s rights and abolitionist movements. In 1848, two mill trustees signed the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which was passed at the historic Seneca Falls Convention. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, the document demanded the right to vote for women. Because the mill trustees supported abolition, the mill processed wool, not cotton, which was harvested by slave labor. A large bell, formerly in the rooftop bell tower, is now displayed as a reminder of when it alerted mill workers of start, lunch, and quitting times.
“The most difficult thing for the staff was to move during the COVID-19 pandemic while working from home,” recalls Rebecca Petropoulos, the operations manager at NWHF. The museum professional directed the move and set up the new office, and was also a member of the committee that created the new exhibits. With the first phase completed, NWHF now seeks funds for a new elevator and staircase, plus renovation of the second, third, and fourth floors. “We would love contributions,” says Petropoulos.
In August 2020, volunteers and staff welcomed visitors to the spacious NWHF headquarters with introductory displays previewing the exhibits to be developed for the upper floors. The “Why Here?” section explains why Seneca Falls was chosen as the location of the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. An invitation stenciled on the floor reads “Stand Among Great Women” and includes long white scrolls listing inductees’ names.
People unfamiliar with the old NWHF site were prompted to visit during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Those who remembered the Seneca Knitting Mill came to see the transformation. “Someone even came in to buy socks once sold here,” Petropoulos recalls.
“I believe that the hall will draw many visitors to Seneca Falls, where the fight for women’s rights in the U.S. began,” says Pipher, who worked on the reception for the 2019 induction. In-person inductions are held every other year and require living inductees to attend. Pipher recently chaired the committee to find judges to review several hundred nominees for the October 2021 induction, when 10-12 women will be added to the list of distinguished inductees.
While nominations can be made by anyone, inductees are selected by an external panel that includes male and female members. As many as 200 to 400 nominations are received per cycle. Some women may be nominated multiple times before being selected. “We encourage people to nominate someone more than once,” says Petropoulos.
In December 2020, NWHF began a new innovative series of virtual inductions, prompted by COVID-19 and the summer of protests. Six women of color were honored posthumously, addressing a lack of diversity within the nomination pool. They had died prior to the establishment of the NWHF, were overlooked in their lifetimes, or passed away before they were able to be inducted. This format is expected to alternate with the in-person inductions.
To download a nomination form for the 2023 induction or register for a tour, visit womenofthehall.org. Read more about the mill’s renovation in the January/February 2017 issue of Life in the Finger Lakes.