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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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November 2010 Archives

Where It All Started

Seneca Falls, N.Y., was so picturesque that it made me want to scrap my itinerary, change my plane ticket home and just stay on - maybe find a cute bed-and-breakfast, browse the antiques shops and stroll along the sparkling blue canal that runs through the heart of town.

I'd wanted to get there for years, but sightseeing and shopping, though tempting, weren't the reasons I'd come.

The town perches at the top of Seneca Lake, one of the long parallel creases that form the scenic Finger Lakes in upstate New York. I made an impulsive detour there in mid-October, at the end of a business trip.

Because my time was tight, I had to race through the kind of autumn scenery that usually stops me in my tracks - maple-clad hillsides painted red and gold by changing leaves; waterfalls dropping over shale cliffs into pretty valleys, and countless vineyards where heavy clusters of deep-purple grapes were still on the vine, waiting for harvest.

I didn't dare pause. I wanted "to see where it all started,'' as I told friends, and I didn't know when I'd get a better chance.

Now I have to explain what "it'' is, and I know that the moment I do, I risk losing every reader I've got. Which is the whole point of this story.

I don't think anybody on any side in today's political debates can know what a national fight really is unless they understand the one that began with a convention in Seneca Falls in 1848.

This is where American women began the long uphill struggle for equal rights: The right to vote. The right to own property in their own names. The right to keep their children if they had the nerve to get a divorce. The right to their own earnings and inheritances. Even the right to be taken seriously.

The place is important enough that in 1980, the National Park Service created the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. It includes a small museum downtown, a restored Methodist meeting house where the first women's convention took place and a simple white frame house - the home of leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton -- just across the canal.

For people who know what it stands for, visiting this park is akin to visiting the Liberty Bell. But most Americans don't know, and tourist traffic was predictably light on the afternoon I was there. Other visitors were mainly women who already knew about it or women bringing husbands or children or grandchildren so they would know about it.

I've been polling friends about this ever since I got home. Most had never heard of the place or the event.

But why not? The most disturbing response came from the most peaceable man I know.

"Did anybody get killed?'' he asked.

Well, it wasn't the Civil War, I said, feeling indignant, but it was a struggle that affected half the population and went on for 70 years, until women got the right to vote in 1920, and there are still glass ceilings and...

"But nobody got killed,'' he repeated.

I was appalled. Is that really what it takes in this country? Is that what it takes to make an issue interesting?

Well, yeah, he said - "Maybe if Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been assassinated...''

At least he knew her name.

The other organizers of the 1848 "Convention to Discuss the Social, Civil and Religious Rights of Woman'' are even less widely known: Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M'Clintock, Jane Hunt...

The convention - and the hard work that followed - grew out of the fight against slavery. (Some of the women came from Quaker families so opposed to slavery that they boycotted all merchandise - including cotton cloth - produced with slave labor.)

What started in Seneca Falls ultimately made American women full citizens, roughly doubling the number of voters, as well as the number of potential workers, leaders and contributors to society.

It took an amazingly long time, and like other struggles for civil rights in America, it's not over yet.

But it is overlooked - and not because there weren't enough martyrs. I think it may be because it succeeded well enough.

There's a kind of traveler's amnesia that accompanies a genuine transition: Once you embark on real change, momentum kicks in, change speeds up, and when you break through on the other side - no matter how long it takes -- there's no going back.

And maybe no need to look back, either.