Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for suffragette Amelia Bloomer. This version has been updated.
One hundred sixty-eight years ago, a hastily assembled group of suffragists, abolitionists, Quakers, and Methodists gathered in a sleepy mill town in upstate New York to argue that women should have the right to vote.
It took them another 72 years to win the argument.
And of course, it would take almost another 100 years for a woman to get as far as the final ballot to become president.
It’s a good enough reason to visit Seneca Falls. If Concord, Mass., is the home of the “shot heard round the world” in the American Revolution, and Gettysburg, Pa., was a bloody turning point in the Civil War, then Seneca Falls deserves a more prominent place on the map.
Make no mistake: Seneca Falls today is almost as sleepy as it was 168 years ago. The main attraction is the network of long-established vineyards dotting this Finger Lakes spot. It’s also a handy pit stop for travelers on their way to Niagara Falls, about two hours west.
But it also feels very much like a place to pay homage to the scrappy women who gathered in 1848 to hold the first women’s rights convention and to sign their names to a “Declaration of Sentiments” molded on the Declaration of Independence. It called for voting rights, property rights and equal rights with men in such things as divorce, at a time when men would almost automatically win custody of the children.
The heart of it all is the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and the reconstructed Wesleyan Chapel, where the convention was held. The chapel is a simple, redbrick building that was built by a faction of the Methodist Church that opposed slavery.
The organizers “couldn’t just go anywhere and speak about women’s rights,” explains National Park Service guide Emily Hauck. In general, the mood in the country was scornful of anything hinting at women’s rights. One poster on display in the Park Service’s visitors’ center, printed after women got the right to vote in 1920, reads: “Suffragette / You blow because you now can vote / With men at each election/ But should a strong wind come along / ’Twould blow off your complexion.”
At the bottom of a gently sloping hill next to the chapel, the text of the Declaration of Sentiments is engraved on a bronze wall, over which a gentle cascade of water flows. Signers included 68 women and 32 men, including Frederick Douglass. The abolitionist former slave encouraged the convention to include voting rights in its declaration, even though several of the convention’s organizers felt that asking for voting rights might be too outrageous.
The center welcomes visitors with life-size bronze statues of five of the women organizers, as well as Douglass. Also in the center are a statue of Sojourner Truth and an excerpt from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech; some moving daguerreotypes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton with two of her boys, Henry and Daniel; and a face-in-the-hole stand-up in which schoolchildren could imagine themselves as an astronaut, a doctor — or president of the United States, standing at a podium.
Not far from the park, the modest Elizabeth Cady Stanton house offers a glimpse into the place where she and her husband Henry, a fervent abolitionist, lived for 15 years. Before she got involved in the women’s rights movement, Stanton told friends she suffered from a “mental hunger” living in placid upstate New York. It’s easy to see how the snug three-bedroom home would feel constricting. Even so, Stanton gave birth to five boys and two girls and challenged the conventions of the time by allowing both her boys and girls to play freely in the apple orchards behind the wood-frame house.
Once Stanton met reformer Susan B. Anthony, the two became a formidable team. The road to the Stanton house showcases a trio of statues depicting the moment when Amelia Bloomer (yes, she’s the one who created “bloomers”) introduced the two women.
While Stanton was known for refusing to discipline her children, Anthony would visit the home, “lay down the law” for the Stanton children and send Stanton to her desk to write the speeches Anthony later gave, says guide Hauck. Later, Stanton would remember, “I forged the thunderbolts and Susan fired them.”
Other rabble-rousers at the convention were Thomas and Mary Ann M’Clintock, Quakers in whose home the Declaration of Sentiments was written. The M’Clintock home, a few miles away in Waterloo, N.Y., is also part of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park — and reportedly a station on the Underground Railroad.
The National Women’s Hall of Fame is also in Seneca Falls. Today, it’s a crowded room on the town’s main drag, packed with 266 photos of illustrious women, but the museum will be moving by late 2017 or early 2018 into the enormous Seneca Knitting Mill just across the Cayuga-Seneca Canal from Wesleyan Chapel, says president Jeanne M. Giovannini. The hall’s new home will include interactive exhibits, artifacts, a cafe and a library.
For a small town, Seneca Falls boasts an impressive number of museums, including the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry, which celebrates how the Seneca River and Cayuga-Seneca Canal brought industry, and the world, to the town.
There’s also the Seneca Falls “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum. Many people have said that Seneca Falls was the model for Bedford Falls, the town featured in the 1946 Frank Capra movie.
For instance, a steel-trestle bridge with an uncanny resemblance to the one George Bailey almost jumped off is in Seneca Falls. The museum includes photographs and memorabilia from the collection of actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Bailey daughter Zuzu in the movie. The town plays up the connection, offering an “It’s a Wonderful Run” 5K race in December.
For many others, though, the words “Seneca Falls” mean women’s rights first and foremost. When Hillary Clinton finally clinched the nomination, she told her supporters in Brooklyn that her achievement “belongs to the generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible. In our country, it started right here in New York, a place called Seneca Falls.”
Standing on the steps of Stanton’s home, Park Service guide Hauck says, she often imagines her reaction. “What I like to think,” she said, “is if Elizabeth Cady Stanton was alive today, how ecstatic she would be.”
Bruno is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
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Van Cleef Homestead
86 Cayuga St., Seneca Falls
Within walking distance of many of the town’s spots, this comfortable 1825 home offers hearty breakfasts, a pool and good recommendations for other sights to see. Rooms from $149.
2943 Lower Lake Rd., Seneca Falls
Take advantage of this restaurant’s Cayuga Lake spot and try some seafood as boats sail into the marina. Entrees from $8.99.
2146 River Rd., Seneca Falls
This Mennonite-run grocery store offers a potpourri of deli sandwiches and a cafe, a meat counter, bookstore, handmade bird houses and wooden furniture, jams, quilts and an impressive selection of bibles. Ten large, fresh oatmeal cookies cost $2.99; a heavenly rhubarb-strawberry mini-tart costs $1.99. Closed Sundays.
Women’s Rights National Historical Park and Wesleyan Chapel
136 Fall St., Seneca Falls
The National Park Service site includes the visitors’ center, Wesleyan Chapel, the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton
(32 Washington St.) and the M’Clintock House (14 E. Williams Street, Waterloo, about four miles west of Seneca Falls). Free.
National Women’s Hall of Fame
76 Fall St., Seneca Falls
Besides plaques honoring 266 women, there’s a display case devoted to aviator Amelia Earhart, with her scarf, hat, and shoes, and a large cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, made when she was a senator from New York. Admission, $4; students and seniors, $3. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry
89 Fall St., Seneca Falls
Visitors see how the power of the Seneca River led to water wheels and mills in the town. Displays allow visitors to try out a pulley or see how deep the Cayuga-Seneca Canal needed to be dug. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Closed on Sundays and Mondays from January through March. Free.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum
32 Fall St., Seneca Falls
Seneca Falls might be the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the Frank Capra movie, according to this museum, which is situated in the building that housed the first movie theater in town. Check out photographs and memorabilia donated by the actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey in the film. Free.