Women's Rights: Past, Present, and Future
Kid Reporter pays a visit to Seneca Falls
Life-size bronze statues in the lobby of the Women’s Museum. (Photo courtesy Alex Lesser)
The date is July 19, 1848. You are on your way to Seneca Falls from your hometown of Syracuse. You sit in the shaded carriage, staring at the small town drawing near as your driver begins to slow down. The horses stop in front of a large chapel known as the Wesleyan Methodist Church. You are at the Seneca Falls Convention.
As we drove into Seneca Falls on February 23, 2007, this is the scene that I imagined. I was on my way to interview Lee Werst, Chief of Interpretation at the Seneca Falls Women’s Museum. The interview was for Women’s History Month and I wondered what it would have been like to live 159 years ago when women couldn’t vote or own property.
At first, Seneca Falls seemed like a typical small town--very homey and welcoming, but nothing special. I soon learned of its important historic significance.
“This was the site where the first Women’s Rights Convention took place in 1848,” said Werst, who is also a park ranger at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. “It took place in the Wesleyan Chapel, right across from the visitor center.”
According to Werst, the Seneca Falls Convention is intertwined with other important movements, such as the abolitionist, or anti-slavery movement in the U.S. and England.
“Elizabeth Cady Stanton, on her honeymoon in 1840, had accompanied her husband, Henry, to London to a world anti-slavery convention,” Werst explained. “While there, she met Lucretia Mott, who was also very much involved in the abolitionist movement.”
Mott, a Quaker minister, believed in equality for all people, including women and slaves. She had become well known in the United States and often spoke in front of large crowds.
While at the abolitionist convention in England, the women were not allowed to sit in the speakers’ room with the men. Both Mott and Stanton were outraged. They vowed to someday prove that women were equal to men.
Stanton and Mott’s paths crossed again, this time in the town of Seneca Falls.
Stanton had lived in Seneca Falls for about a year when she was invited to a small gathering of several women, including Mott, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Martha Wright, and Jane Hunt. That meeting took place on July 9, 1848 at the home of the M’Clintocks in nearby Waterloo, New York.
|Scholastic Kid Reporter Brianna Suslovic, left, interviews Lee Werst, of the Women’s Museum at Seneca Falls. (Photo: Courtesy ALex Lesser)|
“Lucretia Mott actually came through this area of New York for two reasons in 1848,” Werst said. “One was that she was on a speaking tour in various locations. The other one was that her sister, Martha Wright, actually lived in the area as well, and she was pregnant at the time. So Lucretia wanted to stop here.”
The women got together and resolved to fight for women’s rights. They wrote the Declaration of Sentiments and decided to hold the first Women’s Rights Convention immediately in Seneca Falls.
Ten days later, 300 people gathered for the two-day convention that sparked the nationwide fight for women’s right to vote.
Because the convention was put together on such short notice, other well-known suffragettes such as Susan B. Anthony could not attend. They joined in the fight later.
At the Convention, the Declaration of Sentiments was introduced. Based on the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments put a familiar twist on one of the most powerful documents in the United States. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal,” it began.
Activists in support of women’s rights included many men as well. Although 68 of the signers were women, 32 men also signed the document. Some of the men that signed were husbands of suffragettes. Frederick Douglass, the famous abolitionist and former slave, also signed.
The convention eventually led to several Amendments to the Constitution, granting equal rights to African-Americans and women.
It was hard to imagine the chapel as the starting point for a valiant fight for freedom.
“Over the years, it was put to various uses after the Convention,” Werst said. “It was a car dealership, a laundromat, apartments, and an opera house. As a lot of these things were going on and a lot of new additions were being put onto the building, a lot of the historical fabric—the actual wall, and stuff that was there in 1848—started to get lost.”
Now the park service is working to stop the erosion and preserve a piece of history.
“Having ideas presented in a way in which young people can relate, can make all the difference,” Werst said.
Brianna Suslovic is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps.