Exploring Equality at the Women’s Rights National Park

Imagine not being able to vote. Men could commit their perfectly sane wives to mental institutions without their consent or even a public hearing. In most states, women either couldn’t own property — or if they could, couldn’t control it. In fact, in most states, women at the time couldn’t control their own earnings and didn’t have the right to practice a profession such as being a lawyer or a doctor. Or be legal guardians of their own children. Women could lose their U.S. citizenship if they married men who weren’t citizens. They were forced to take their husbands’ last names. And this was white women of European decent. The situation was even worse for women of color, many of whom were still enslaved in the southern states.

Then, in 1848, something remarkable happened — a bunch of women gathered to discuss and formulate a vision that embodied an expansive view of equality that started from the Declaration of Independence, but took the principles noted there several steps further. “All men and women are created equal,” was the core assertion of this vision, documented in the “Declaration of Sentiments.”

This small gathering began a long, world-wide struggle for equal rights for women that still continues. Over the years since, these historic locations in Seneca Falls, NY have served as a place of pilgrimage for people interested in the equal rights movement.

The movement began amid local and national controversy over freedom of speech, the role of women and the morality of slavery (this was pre-Civil War and in the midst of a growing abolitionist movement in northeastern states). Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, held in London. Despite several American women coming as official delegates, they were excluded from the event’s main meetings because of their gender. Angry at the exclusion, the women met amongst themselves, resolving to hold a convention to advocate for the rights of women.

The abolitionist movement became entwined with the women’s rights movement, with exchanges of speakers — Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, among other Black and African American figures of the time, were both deeply involved in the women’s rights movement — and shared rhetoric and strategies. Women who were part of the women’s rights movement pushed equally for the rights of enslaved individuals as well as the rights of women.

Women’s Rights National Historical Park tells the story of the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY on July 19 and 20,1848.  The park details the struggle for civil rights, human rights, and equality, global struggles that continue today.  The efforts of women’s rights leaders, abolitionists, and other 19th century reformers remind us that all people must be accepted as equals.

Women’s Rights National Historical Park is comprised of the visitor center, the historic homes (open seasonally), and the Wesleyan Chapel, spread over two adjacent towns. The grounds of the historic buildings are open every day, although if you wish to see the interiors, then you’ll have to wait for a ranger-led tour. 

The key part of the park is the visitors center and its two floors of exhibits that review the history of the women’s rights movement. As you enter the visitor center, you’re greeted with an expansive sculpture, “The First Wave,” by Lloyd Lillie, Victoria Guerina and Hilary Hutchinson, depicting life-size bronze statues of the five women who organized the First Women’s Rights Convention, and a few of the men who came in support of social, political, and religious equality for women.

The visitor center’s other exhibits also discuss the events leading up to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and the progress the movement has made since. It drew the line between this first convention to issues women are still facing today: working conditions, pay equality, how women are portrayed in culture, equal access to education and employment…

Particularly interesting to me was the exhibit on the images of “true womanhood” — cliched, idealized images of women who belonged “under the protection of their husbands” perpetuated in magazines, religion, fiction and illustrations that ignored the reality of poor, single, enslaved and wage-earning women. Three years after this first Women’s Rights Convention, Sojourner Truth presented her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech to the 1851 convention that explicitly stated that this idealized “true womanhood” denied the experience of most women, but particularly women of color and poor women.

Next to the visitors center is the Wesleyan Chapel, where the First Women’s Rights Convention took place on July 19 and 20, 1848, in which approximately 300 people gathered to attend. It is considered by many historians to be the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement in the United States. After the Civil War, the Wesleyan Chapel passed into private hands. Over the years, it was altered and served as a theater, store, garage and even a laundry. Now the remnants of the original chapel are preserved by the National Park Service.

Between the visitors center and the chapel is a small park featuring a green lawn and a 100-foot long bluestone water feature inscribed with the words of the Declaration of Sentiments. The Waterwall and Declaration Park provides visitors with a space to gather and reflect on these powerful words.

In addition to the visitors center, three nearby buildings also serve as part of the park: the Elizabeth Cady House, located at 32 Washington Street, Seneca Falls; the M’Clintock House, located at 4 Williams Street, Waterloo; and the Jane Hunt House, located 401 East main Street, Waterloo.

The home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the main organizer of the Seneca Falls’ Woman’s Right Convention and primary author of the Declaration of Sentiments, is a key stop. Stanton called her home the “Center of the Rebellion” during her family’s 15 years in Seneca Falls. She moved into the home with her husband and three sons in May 1847.

Nearby, but not part of the national park is the Ludovico Sculpture Trail, a dog-friendly 1.5 mile trail celebrating historic Seneca Falls line a trail along the Seneca-Cayuga Canal. You’ll pass part of it on your way between the Visitor Center and the Elizabeth Cady House.

Know before you go: You can view the park’s educational film, Dreams of Equality, on the Women’s Rights National Historical Park YouTube channel.

Getting there: 136 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, NY
Hours: Grounds open daily, year-round, with reduced programming during the winter months; closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Visitor Center at 136 Fall Street is open Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; the Wesleyan Chapel is open daily from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Women’s Rights National Historic Park