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NSG Visit April 13, 2002

Women's Rights National Historic Site and

Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry


Donovan A. Shilling

Typical April showers greeted the members of the New Society of the Genesee as they met in historic Seneca Falls on April 13, 2002, to learn more about the extraordinary events that occurred in that village more than 154 years ago. Our meeting place was at 76 Falls Street, the information center built and operated by the National Parks Department adjacent to the semi-shattered remnants of the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, site of the First Women's Rights Convention in 1848.

Here, Jack Shaw, a Park's Department Ranger, met and directed us to the Guntzel Theater, a small auditorium within the information center. After we were comfortably seated, Ranger Shaw provided a highly informative lecture on the historical background of the Woman's Rights Movement, its major organizers and the reasons for the movement's origin in the small community of Seneca Falls which he quipped, "was not the center of the universe." He related that on July 9th, 1848, a conclave of Quakers, suffragettes, abolitionists and other strong-minded men and women came together in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel to discuss women's social condition and demand through their "Declaration of Sentiments,…full and equal rights with men." At the time women had no more rights than "minors, lunatics and idiots." Women could not vote, own property, seldom keep money earned at occupations outside the household and were often penniless when their husbands died or divorced them. Custody of the children, if any, usually went to the husband.

The significant women involved in the six-session, two-day convention, who were to become "bastions of equality" included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M'Clintock, Martha Wright and Lucretia Mott. Their determined actions on those two memorable days were to make Seneca Falls, New York, the "Shrine of Equality in America."

It was Lucretia Coffin Mott's visit to see her Quaker friends near Seneca Falls that became the catalyst for the historic convention. Lucretia, a lifelong pacifist, and often a preacher decrying "poverty and the plight of the poor working people," and who had organized the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society in 1833, was a champion of "full human equality."

As a friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the two kindred spirits, aided by others were able to shake-up the very foundations of their male-dominated society. Word of this "controversial event" was circulated by Frederick Douglass who published the convention's "Declaration of Sentiment" in his Northern Star paper in Rochester. The "radical" message was later picked up and spread through leading newspapers across the nation.

All the scores of women who waged the fight for equality against numerous "injuries and usurpations" found that their efforts were disappointingly slow to come to fruition. Four wars involving our nation had to be fought before the 19th Amendment, nick-named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, was ratified in 1920. It finally gave women their long-sought-after equal rights with men. Even today there is still a disparity but we're sure the ladies will yet prevail.

A brief, but well-done film followed Ranger Shaw's presentation. Combined, the talk and the film made the experience most worthwhile by providing a far deeper understanding of the eighty-year struggle for equality.

Following the film, members of our group studied exhibits outlining the progress of women's rights displayed on the second floor of the information center, then walked through the remaining shell of the Wesleyan Chapel next door and on down the street to the Gould Hotel for lunch.

After eating and conversation, we crossed Falls Street to the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry where we saw examples of hand-operated water pumps manufactured in Seneca Falls. Several companies here made pumps for homes, farms and businesses. When water pumps were used every day by many people Seneca Falls was a well known place name because it was seen prominently embossed on a familiar cast iron pump.

Since before the time of the Women's Rights Convention, water power and canal transportation between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes made Seneca Falls a mill town. The museum has many interesting exhibits and three detailed dioramas showing changes in the canal running through the village. We all felt that the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry is a model for a small local museum.

© 2002, Donovan A. Shilling
A Sentiment on the Women's Right Museum by Martha Treichler
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