Walking with History

Story and photo by Rachel Dickinson

On January 21, 2017, I gave up my ticket on the bus to Washington, D.C., where I’d planned to participate in the Women’s March. Not because I didn’t want to go. I gave up my seat because I knew I had to go to the sister march in Seneca Falls, the little village in the Finger Lakes where the American women’s rights movement began. I had to march with the ghosts of the women and men who would be viewing the day’s actions with a mixture of pride and dismay.
I was no stranger to Seneca Falls – it’s only an hour’s drive from where I live in Central New York. I took my daughter there once to hear Betty Friedan speak at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. It made such an impression on her that when her high school English teacher asked each student for an example of a hero, my daughter wrote “Betty Friedan” on the board, in a sea of superheroes. I listened to Hilary Rodham Clinton speak there when she was running for the U.S. Senate. I’ve been through the exhibits and have read through the binders of the members of the National Women’s Hall of Fame. I was already in touch with my historical feminist roots.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for the jolt I felt on the 21st as I sat on a hillside next to the Wesleyan Chapel. I was listening to speakers invoke the sacredness of this spot – this very spot! – where women (and some men) gathered 169 years ago to ratify the Declaration of Sentiments. The then-radical document dared to suggest that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. “We are here to get a sense, collectively, of how much women have done over the years,” Betty Bayer, one of the march organizers, told me. It was a celebration, a teaching moment, and a call to action.
When I rolled into town early on Saturday morning, the streetlights on the main street had just switched off. I wandered the empty village sidewalks searching for coffee. The day was bright and blue-skied and promised to hit 50 degrees by afternoon – surely a gift. I stood on the bridge and looked down at the Cayuga-Seneca Canal dividing the village in two. Nearby, the huge brick and limestone Seneca Knitting Mill building was being transformed into the Center for Great Women by the National Women’s Hall of Fame. When the mill was founded in 1844, it used only wool – not cotton – so it wouldn’t be contributing to the institution of slavery.
The rallying point between the Wesleyan Chapel and the Women’s Rights Park visitor’s center was filling up by the time I got there. The chapel is the site of two sweltering days in 1848 when 300 people sat in the sanctuary and argued for, and then signed, the Declaration of Sentiments, the founding document of American women’s rights. The chapel had survived after serving time as a roller rink and a Laundromat. I stared at the crumbly pink brick exterior and thought about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott making their case before a sweating audience, which included Frederick Douglass.
A sea of signs – “The Future is Nasty!” “Sad,” “Respect my Existence or Expect my Resistance,” “We’re all Immigrants,” “America Wakes Up Women Rise Up” – bobbed up and down as the speakers called for democratic engagement. It’s our right! It’s our duty! Today is the call to ACTION. There can be no bystanders in this moment in History. We can shape our future or it will be shaped for us!
Mary Simpson Smart was born in 1915 in Lyons, about 30 miles from Seneca Falls. She remembers wearing a white dress and riding in the 19th Amendment Victory Parade in 1920, when she was five. Ms. Smart, who looked like a tiny person in a puff of white hair, stood at the lectern and said, “I’m just here because I’m very old. Keep standing up for women’s equal rights. Carry on the way you’re doing because you’re doing great!”
I was one of 10,000 marchers in Seneca Falls that day, almost twice the population of the hamlet. We were encouraged to feel the pull of history and the deep sense of place as we marched and chanted, and then packed up our signs to head home. I tried to keep the power of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s fight for women’s potential in my head as I drove along Cayuga Lake, but it was hard. Taking the long view and placing it within historical context left me thinking, Why do we have to keep fighting the same fight over and over again?

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