Timely lessons from Women’s Rights National Historical Park
Timely lessons from Women’s Rights National Historical Park
By Audrey Peterson
What an incredible time in our history! As an American citizen of African descent, I can hardly believe that in 2013 I am hearing discussion about revisiting the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and watching a Justice of the Supreme Court refer to the hard-won protections as “a racial entitlement.” (http://www.businessinsider.com/scalia-voting-rights-act-racial-entitlement-supreme-court-vra-2013-2) It feels like instead of evolving to be more loving and harmonious, some factions of our culture are regressing, hurtling back to a past of separation and restriction. Fortunately, I have seen the light gleaming off Mount Denali in Alaska, off the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, off Mount Shasta in California, and off Mount Fuji in Japan, so I know that the posturing of mankind is only fleeting and temporary. Something so much bigger, grander and more loving than we are is in charge.
It’s a privilege to kick off this month with a visit to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York where, in 1848, a group of fearless women and the men who supported them laid down the law demanding the right to vote, to hold elected office, and to work outside the home. Being fully cognizant of the fact that millions of Black women in the South did not even have the right to their physical person, the women drew allies such as Frederick Douglass, who put the Abolition Movement front and center. The first Women’s Rights Convention held in the Wesleyan Chapel (which you can tour today!) lit a flame that would blaze through the end of the institution of slavery and culminate in the passing of the 19th Amendment 72 years later, finally allowing women their right to vote. After these victories for which we have striven, shall we turn back?
I haven’t had the luxury of visiting this park yet, but I have the advantage of being friends with beautiful Superintendent Tammy Duchesne at the park. Her passion for the National Park System and for the unit she administers is amply displayed in the story she wrote for us today. I excerpted:
“The First Women’s Rights Convention was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann M’Clintock, and Jane Hunt and took place in the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. . .There they presented a Declaration of Sentiments, based on the language and content of the Declaration of Independence. Stating that “all men and women are created equal,” they demanded equal rights for women, including – a radical idea – the right to vote. An estimated 300 people attended the Convention; the document was ratified and was signed by 68 women and 32 men. . .There is no major part of our lives today which has not been affected by this revolutionary document.
“I was fortunate to be named Superintendent of Women’s Rights National Historical Park in 2011. What an honor! It’s humbling and powerful to stand in the Wesleyan Chapel and know that it was there, that for the first time in history, it was declared “All men and women are created equal.” At the Convention, 100 bold attendees (both men and women) signed their name to the Declaration of Sentiments which was a list of grievances that described how women were “fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights.” Not only did the Convention organizers and attendees detail how they were denied their rights, they then boldly didn’t ask but “insisted that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.” It was here, in the Wesleyan Chapel that the women’s rights movement began.
“While there are countless meaningful and rewarding days working here, some of the particularly powerful experiences I have include a Naturalization Ceremony that we host each year. Annually, about 24 people are naturalized in the ceremony in the Wesleyan Chapel. The citizenship candidates hail from all corners of the globe and typically arrive with their family and friends at the park about an hour before the ceremony begins. Within the chapel there are various organizations present to allow the soon-to-be citizens to take full advantage of their rights once they are naturalized. The League of Women Voters of Geneva, New York is present to help people to register to vote and the U. S. Department of State, Buffalo Passport Agency is there to give people the information they need to apply for a passport. You can just feel the excitement in the air as the ceremony is about to begin.
“A representative from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an elected official, a judge, and me (representing the park and National Park Service) then take the stage and the ceremony is underway. I have twice given a speech at the ceremony and each time I tear up. It’s a privilege to welcome the two dozen citizenship candidates from all around the world and their family and friends into the Wesleyan Chapel. It’s moving to know that they will become citizens in the very building where a long crusade for equality began. It’s quite special to know that new female citizens will benefit from the right to vote that was won as a result of the persistence, tenacity, and dedication of the Convention organizers. Furthermore, it’s a distinct honor to introduce and welcome these new citizens and family to THEIR National Park Service.
‘Another extremely special and rewarding experience is having the park’s Visitor Center serve as a polling station for general, local, and special elections. Last year we hosted three elections. It was really touching to see women, men, and people from diverse backgrounds being able to participate in the electoral process just feet away from where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and 99 other people signed their names to the Declaration of Sentiments demanding this right. Throughout the day the rangers gave interpretive programs to people as they waited in line to vote and told voters about the events that happened right here in 1848.
“The park was open from 6 a.m. – 9 p.m. for voting and all day long we were hearing things like “I live down the street, but I have never come in here before. I will have to come back with my family,” and “this is a NATIONAL PARK?? I never realized that.” It was a wonderful day to feel like we were serving the community by being a polling station while introducing some of our neighbors and community members to the National Park Service. It also made me proud to think that we were, in a way, honoring the Convention organizers and the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments by allowing women to exercise their right to vote in the exact place where the fight began. . .”
So as we think about where we are in our evolution today, I encourage you to make use of our National Park System to learn the lessons of the past, and to inspire yourself, your children, your family and colleagues to stand up and advance the precepts of our democracy, “with liberty and justice for all. . .”
(Audrey Peterman writes about the national parks and our environment. Visit her at www.legacyontheland.com)