She was bored. She was tired of corralling children, fixing up a run-down house, overseeing housework and meal prep. How many of us as women have been just plain tired? But, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton got bored, instead of throwing herself into family life, reading a romance novel or finding another creative outlet, she started a Women’s Rights movement. I know in some ways, I am simplifying history, but no matter our age, our economic status, our location, all of us at some time or another have seen an injustice, a need, or a lack that we could fill. So, when we do, what is our choice? To launch a movement? Or think that there is nothing we can do.
Those are the questions that my visit to the Women’s Rights National Historic Park left me pondering. Not only, what would I have done in 1848 when Stanton and her friends saw the problem, but what will I do today with the overwhelming problems in our world? What can I do? What will I do?
The park is made of multiple sites over about two miles along the Seneca River in Seneca Falls, New York. The Visitor’s Center is a modern building sandwiched between a historic church and a replica of the Wesleyan Chapel where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held. I loved the museum inside the visitor’s center designed as a timeline of women’s rights and the role of women in our country’s history. But, more importantly than a simple timeline, the museum continually asks questions. What would you do? What do you believe? What myths about women/girls and men/boys have you heard? What needs do you see?
Between the visitor’s center and the chapel is a large green space. On one side are steps arranged for seating to view performances on the lawn. On the other side, is a long waterfall covered wall engraved with the Declaration of Sentiments which declared men and women equal and outlined a list of grievances against women. It demanded equal rights for women in property and custody laws, educational opportunities and in the ability to attend and lead in church, schools, business and politics. The Declaration of Sentiments became the guiding principles of a seventy-two year battle to gain the right to vote for women.
Interestingly, the right to vote almost didn’t make it into the Declaration of Sentiments. Many attendees to the convention felt that it was pushing custom too far and might endanger other necessary points of the declaration. Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the motion to include the right to vote which was seconded by Frederick Douglass and eventually passed.
Yes, the Frederick Douglass who escaped from slavery and wrote about his life as a slave, whose powerful speeches helped to shape the abolition movement. I wondered what Douglass was doing at a Women’s Rights Convention. What did it have to do with abolition and why was he so passionate about giving women the right to vote? Again, simplifying history, Douglass knew that women played a key role in the abolition movement and for them to have voting and political power could only help his cause.
The Chapel where Douglass and others made their speeches and debate was held has been recreated as most of the building had deteriorated over time. It was interesting to wonder how three hundred enthusiastic women and men would have crowded into that small space. Large screens across the front and along the sides depicted the faces of those in attendance. A statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton welcomes visitors to the space. Stanton organized the event in her city of residence creating what she described as “The Center of Rebellion.”
In addition to the Visitors Center and the Chapel, Stanton’s home has been preserved. A ranger told us about the house and how Stanton welcomed visitors from all over the country to talk about Women’s Rights and plan for the convention and for the future. Susan B. Anthony, introduced to Stanton by Amelia Bloomer, was a frequent visitor. As a single woman, Anthony had more freedom than Stanton to travel and speak. She helped to care for Stanton’s family while Stanton wrote speeches and articles. Then, Anthony delivered them to the world. The two remained friends for over fifty years.
As a history nerd, climbing the steps of the Stanton home, walking the streets of Seneca Falls or sitting in the once crowded Wesleyan Chapel gave me a thrill. I placed my hand on the water covered wall inscribed with the words:
“Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation, – in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.
In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and national Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and the press in our behalf. We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.
Firmly relying upon the final triumph of the Right and the True, we do this day affix our signatures to this declaration.”
And knowing that the fight would be hard and the work laborious, I wondered, “Would I have signed my name?”
The women and men who came to Seneca Falls in 1848 had women like me in mind on those hot July days as they debated the wording of the Declaration of Sentiments. While I rest on the freedom their hard work gained for me, over 170 years later, it is my turn to ask, “What will I do?”