New park focuses on the history of women's rights

August 01, 1993|By Jon Marcus | Jon Marcus,Contributing Writer

SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK — SENECA FALLS, N.Y.-- The newest historical site to be preserved by the National Park Service may shed less light on the past than on the present.

The Women's Rights National Historical Park, most of which opened yesterday at the site of America's first women's rights convention, commemorates a movement still evolving.

"Most historic parks are frozen in time," says park Superintendent Linda Canzanelli. "Valley Forge deals with the 1700s; the Civil War battlefields are about one time period from the 1800s. Here, we're not talking about one time period, but the entire continuum of women's rights."

The $12 million public park immortalizes the 1848 convention that called for equal legal, financial and political rights for women. The centerpiece is the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, where the meeting was convened, in the heart of tiny, Victorian, downtown Seneca Falls.

'Contemplative space'

Reclaimed from its last incarnation as a laundromat, the building is being preserved as a "contemplative space," an empty shell protected from the street by noise-reducing barriers. "It isn't just another cute historic building," Ms. Canzanelli says. "What's important is that this is where the convention was held. You have to reflect more on the events than on the building."

The story begins not in Seneca Falls, but in neighboring Waterloo, where five women met on July 9, 1848, at the home of Jane Hunt. Among them were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who had resolved to fight for women's rights when they and seven other women abolitionists were barred from speaking at an anti-slavery convention eight years earlier.

Stanton had since moved from a comfortable life in Boston to isolated Seneca Falls, where she found herself virtually housebound, confined to the duties of a wife and mother.

"I see her as kind of a Bette Davis in that movie 'All about Eve,' looking around and thinking, 'What a dump,' " says Susan Lowell Butler, national director of the Seneca Falls-based Women's Hall of Fame. "Suddenly, she understood the realities of how hard women's lives were."

Women at the time could not own property, inherit their husband's estates, attend college, enter any profession except teaching, or vote.

Over tea at Hunt's house evolved the concept of a women's rights convention. The house survives, though it is privately owned. Mott, Stanton and their compatriots met the next week at the home of Mary Ann M'Clintock to draft the Declaration of Sentiments, a dense political tractmodeled on the Declaration of Independence. The two-story brick M'Clintock house is part of the historic park, but is under renovation and will open to the public next year.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal," reads the declaration. "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her."

Even today, says National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland, "The writings in so many ways are still applicable. The declaration is, unfortunately, very current, because so many of the principles were about economic and social and political rights."

The women held their conference in the Wesleyan Chapel, built in 1843 and called the "Great Lighthouse" because of its reputation for welcoming radical speakers.

About 300 people showed up. Only a third would sign the declaration. The sticking point was demanding the right to vote, which even Mott feared was ahead of its time.

The chapel building was converted in 1872 into stores, then became a social hall, an opera house, a movie theater and a garage. By 1969, it was a laundromat.

In 1980, Congress authorized the park. Stanton's house was restored in 1983 and, until this summer, was the only historic structure open to the public. It is a white wooden farmhouse with wide plank floors and scattered furniture and tableware that the park has managed to recover from Stanton's descendants.

M'Clintock's home was acquired in 1985. In 1987, the former village hall adjacent to the chapel shell became a visitor center. Its designers like to point out that the men's room has a baby-changing station.

Originally an automobile dealership, the three-story building now encompasses a theater where visitors can watch a 25-minute video about the women's rights convention through the eyes of a fictional participant named Lucy. The life-sized likenesses of 19 of the real conferees, cast in bronze, will be back-lighted after dark so they appear to be standing in the flesh behind the windows.

Definition of a woman

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