SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — There have been 266 women inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame here since the inaugural class of 1973. They range from the former first lady Abigail Adams and the writer Maya Angelou to the multitalented athlete Mildred “Babe” Didrikson Zaharias.
For now, the markers honoring these remarkable women fill a modest display hall — less than 1,000 square feet in total, two small, cramped rooms on the first floor of a former bank on Fall Street, at the center of town in the birthplace of the women’s rights movement. In the years since the Hall’s founding in 1969, the curators have amassed an impressive collection of artifacts related to the inductees, but there is scant space to display them. In fact, said docent Dorothy Lind recently, there’s a vault on the second floor, off limits to the public, that has grown so full, “for a while you literally couldn’t close the door.”
There’s room enough in the museum for a cardboard cutout of one of the Hall’s more popular honorees, Hillary Rodham Clinton. When a group of female officials from Vietnam visited the Hall of Fame last year, they giddily lined up to take selfies with the two-dimensional image of the former senator, secretary of state, and first lady.
“No exaggeration — they were like little children,” said Pat Alnes, the Hall’s administrator.
Though representatives of the Hall take pains to avoid any suggestion of partisanship, in the event that the former first lady is elected the first female president of the United States on Tuesday, there will be plenty of rejoicing in Seneca Falls that another previously closed door has been kicked open for women. (Alnes confided that the Hall of Fame has plans in place for a celebration the day after the election, should there be reason to celebrate.)
On the following morning, two blocks down the road, a group of four women from Atlanta stood outside the visitors’ center at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park, waiting for the rangers to unlock the doors. Three of the four friends are schoolteachers, from kindergarten to an advanced placement high school literature class. They’d planned their vacation in upstate New York to see Niagara Falls, experience the fall foliage, and soak up some knowledge at the area’s women’s rights memorials.
“I teach 11-year-olds,” said Rebecca Rhodes, who was traveling with her sister, Sarah, and their friends Erica Barbakow and Cheryl Lassiter. “We have a lot of conversations about equal rights. We talk about what it means to choose kindness in your words and actions, and part of being able to choose kindness is to understand your history.”
Movie buffs recognize the quaint community of Seneca Falls as the likely inspiration for Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which George Bailey and his hometown choose kindness. But this little village (pop. 9000), nestled in the Finger Lakes region, about midway between Syracuse and Rochester, earned its place on the map a century earlier, over two days in July, 1848, when about 300 women and men attended the first women’s rights convention. (A subsequent series of national women’s rights conventions began in 1850 at Worcester’s Brinley Hall.)
Organized by the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other social reformers following an inspirational visit to Seneca Falls by the Nantucket native Lucretia Mott, an outspoken advocate of women’s rights, the Seneca Falls Convention produced the document known as the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” read the opening paragraphs.
The words of the declaration, and the names of the statement’s 100 signers (including Stanton, Mott, Mott’s sister Martha Coffin Wright — whose neighbors famously called her “a very dangerous woman” — and the seminal human rights figure Frederick Douglass), are etched on an outdoor waterwall. The monument fronts a grassy slope between the visitors’ center and the Wesleyan Chapel, the restored brick meetinghouse where the convention took place.
The simple chapel building went through a long series of reincarnations, including stints as an opera house, a movie theater, a roller rink and a laundromat, before falling into disrepair, crumbling and exposed to the elements. Acquired in 1985 to become part of the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (which was established in 1980), the structure has been overhauled in recent years, with new bricks made of an intentionally different shade than the surviving originals.
Since the restoration, as a park ranger told a group of about 20 visitors on a bright October morning, the former chapel has hosted periodic talks in the vein of the Seneca Falls Convention, among them an LGBT conference and the drafting of a “Declaration of Equalities for Muslim Women.” Chelsea Clinton, pregnant with her second child, campaigned for her mother in the chapel before the New York primaries last spring.
The two-floor visitors’ center, once the site of the town’s municipal offices, now features introductory films, exhibits on the history of women’s issues, and a gift shop selling books, Rosie the Riveter lunchboxes and T-shirts that announce “I would have been a suffragette.” Prominent in the lobby is the “First Wave” statue gallery, which depicts the organizers and supporters of the convention. When I visited, one bronze likeness of a schoolgirl wore a paper hat, presumably left behind by a student on a field trip. The hat had a crayon message: “Girls, Dream Big!”
Besides the visitors’ center and the chapel, the Women’s Rights National Historic Park includes the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House (located a short distance away, in a tidy neighborhood just across the canal that bisects the town), and the M’Clintock House in nearby Waterloo, where the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted. All these points of interest are part of the inelegantly named Votes for Women History Trail, which extends to Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony House. The activist was arrested there after attempting to vote in the 1872 presidential election.
History seekers traveling the “burned-over district,” as western New York State was dubbed for its 19th century commitment to religious revivalism and social reform, might choose to stay at the Gould Hotel in Seneca Falls. The anchor of Fall Street, the nearly 100-year-old inn was revived, boutique-style, in 2009, with a pop art flair that plays off the town’s feminine energy.
Visitors will want to stop by at least one more historic site, the Harriet Tubman Home in Auburn, 15 miles or so to the east. The museum and the preserved house where the abolitionist and former slave ran her Home for the Aged were designated a national historical park in 2014 by President Obama.
Paul Gordon Carter, who manages the Tubman Home and leads its hourly tours, told the group I joined that most people seem to think Tubman — whose likeness will soon replace Andrew Jackson’s on the $20 bill — was a woman of physical stature. In fact, he said, she was tiny. But she was fearless.
“As they’d say in my neighborhood,” he said, “she was ‘a little piece of leather, well put together.’ ”
In her later life, caring for the residents of the Home for the Aged, the “Moses of Her People” liked to bake cookies, as the guide tells his visitors. Twenty-five years ago, he met a man, then in his 90s, who said that as a boy he’d been invited in for cookies.
When Bill Clinton first ran for president in 1992, Hillary Clinton faced some backlash when she made light of the traditionally subservient role of the nation’s first ladies. She could have stayed home and baked cookies, she told the press, but she was too busy building her career as a lawyer.
By early 2018, the National Women’s Hall of Fame hopes to have begun occupying its proposed new space in a historic mill along the canal in Seneca Falls. For more than 150 years, the building was known as the Knitting Mill, employing a predominantly female workforce.
Soon the converted building will showcase all new plaques for the Women’s Hall of Famers, including the former first lady, who by then might be the country’s first female president. If that’s what happens, maybe Bill can bake the cookies.
Email James Sullivan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.