Seneca Falls: Birthplace of Women's Rights

Article excerpt

MARY GRATTON, operations manager of the National Women's Hall of Fame, grew up in this rural village in upstate New York. She remembers how students learned only about a few women, such as Martha Washington, Betsy Ross and Harriet Tubman.

"If it weren't for the fact that I went to Elizabeth Cady Stanton Elementary School, I wouldn't have known who she was," she says.

"It's just really awesome, when you stop and look back, going to the Hall of Fame and the Women's Rights National Historical Park, how much women's history we did not learn.

"It's nice to see in my children's textbooks things like Seneca Falls, the convention and women's rights. I know for a fact it wasn't in my fourth-grade textbook."

This is the 75th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, and many are making a pilgrimage to Seneca Falls to learn more about the suffragists who made it happen. This village is known as the birthplace of women's rights because in Seneca Falls, in 1848, the first women's rights conference was held. Attended by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the convention unveiled a document called the Declaration of Sentiments that declared, "All men and women are created equal." It also demanded the vote for women.

The idea of women being able to vote was radical. In those days, the list of things women couldn't do was extensive. A woman could not make contracts, sue in court, divorce an abusive husband or gain custody of her children. She couldn't keep her own wages or own property - not even the clothes she wore. Twelve days after the Seneca Falls conference, another one was held in nearby Rochester. Soon, they were happening across the country.

Today, Seneca Falls reflects strong pride in its heritage. Pictures of famous suffragists hang in local coffee shops. Rooms in bed-and-breakfasts are named after historic women such as Clara Barton and Lucretia Mott. Local organizations host countless conferences on women: women in politics, women in baseball, women changing careers, women in religious leadership.

This village of more than 9,000 people often seems untouched by time. There's a large historic district where the homes and shops appear just as they did years ago. Roads, uncluttered by billboards, lead to vistas of rolling pasture land, rust-red barns and grazing cattle.

Like many small towns in upstate New York, Seneca Falls is suffering tough economic times and has seen factories close and industries leave. But this village is blessed with history that sells.

Million-dollar grants, state and federal, feed a rich cultural heritage: the history of women's rights in America.

"Tourism is the fastest-growing industry in the state," says village planner Francis Caraccilo.

"We'd be crazy not to try to hop on the bandwagon and take advantage of it. But beyond just the economic impact of it all, an important aspect is just our own recognition of our heritage and what happened here before us, and being respectful, and wanting maybe to show off a little, take some pride in our past."

Pilgrims now flock to this mecca of women's history. During the first four months of 1995, attendance at the Women's Rights Historical Park shot up by 30 percent. Two years after the park opened in 1980, only 650 people visited. Last year, more than 30,500 tourists came from around the country.

In the past five years, attendance rates have doubled at the National Women's Hall of Fame. Tourism was boosted by a $12 million renewal project that included the restoration of the site of the 1848 convention - the church had become a red-brick laundry - and the creation of a landscaped park with a waterfall flowing over an inscription of the Declaration of Sentiments. …