In a long black dress with a hoop skirt and a lacy cap, [ Melinda Grube] depicts Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the leaders of the women’s rights movement that shook this part of western New York and eventually the rest of the country in the mid-1800s.
Coline Jenkins has been a feminist since early childhood. In her family, she said, “it comes with mother’s milk.” That made her listeners smile because they knew who she was: Stanton’s great-great-granddaughter.
The one crucial question to ask when visiting a national park: 'What about the women?' »
Both women were talking with visitors in Stanton’s white frame house in Seneca Falls, now part of the national historical park. The occasion was Convention Days, the park’s annual celebration in July of the 1848 convention on women’s rights, the first one held in America.
I’ve struggled to explain to friends how it felt to stand with those women in Stanton’s small parlor and listen to them reminisce. Time bent a little. It was like being with reenactors at Gettysburg or Valley Forge, at those rare moments when living history turns into real life.
That’s what a good national park is supposed to do, of course: make you open your eyes wider, help you see in new ways and, ideally, send you home with new insights and new heroes.
The heroes I took home from Seneca Falls this summer were not only Stanton, but also Quakers Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Jane Hunt and Mary Ann M’Clintock — five women who gathered here for tea one July day in 1848 and plotted revolution.
The five, like all married women across the country then, were, in Stanton’s words, “civilly dead.’’ That meant they had no rights; everything, even their children, belonged to their husbands.
But this park showed me who they really were: Firebrands. Radicals. Activists. Fighters all, as fierce as any of my feminist heroes of the 1960s. And they weren’t just bumping against glass ceilings — they were trying to break out of glass prisons.
On July 19 and 20, 1848, just two weeks after the tea party, more than 300 people— mostly women but some men, including former slave Frederick Douglass — gathered in a plain brick Methodist chapel in downtown Seneca Falls to debate their own version of the Declaration of Independence.
Stanton was the primary author. Called the Declaration of Sentiments, it included this incendiary wording change: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men AND WOMEN are created equal...’’
Today, the Methodist chapel is the centerpiece of the national historical park, sharing a downtown block with the visitor center and a small green space where the Declaration of Sentiments is inscribed on a “waterwall’’ — a long stone fountain with a gentle sheet of water flowing continuously over the words.
I had never read the entire declaration until I stood in front of the waterwall this summer. It was spine-tingling, and its import made me gasp.
These women weren’t merely challenging a king of England: They were challenging the history of humankind — the “absolute tyranny’’ of man over woman through the ages.
What they wanted was nothing less than to be full citizens of the United States, with the right to keep property they inherited, retain custody of their children after divorce, be permitted to attend colleges and universities, hold responsible jobs outside their homes and be fairly paid for their work.
It might not surprise them to know that the fight still continues, though it might disappoint them. After all, they had devoted their lives to it.
Here is Stanton, nearly half a century after the Seneca Falls convention, arguing for women’s rights in front of a congressional committee in Washington. She chose a metaphor dear to my traveler’s heart — a sailing ship:
“To guide our own craft, we must be captain, pilot, engineer; with chart and compass to stand at the wheel; to match the wind and waves and know when to take in the sail, and to read the signs in the firmament over all. It matters not whether the solitary voyager is man or woman.’’
The park is working to increase connections with children, said Kimberly Szewczyk, chief of interpretation and education. “A class from California can’t come to us,” she said, “but now, through Skype, we can go to them.’’
See also: National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, 17 Madison St., Rochester, N.Y.; (585) 235-6124. A fierce campaigner for women’s right to vote, Anthony lived in this red-brick Victorian home from 1866 to her death in 1906.