A Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of the Modern Women’s Rights Movement

Just weeks before the dissolution of Roe v. Wade, a writer visits New York’s Finger Lakes to reflect on how far the nation has come—and how far it has to go.

A Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of the Modern Women’s Rights Movement

New York’s Finger Lakes region is the birthplace of the American feminist movement.

Photo by Joseph Palmer

When you travel around New York State’s Finger Lakes region, you are frequently reminded of the area’s foundational role in the history of women’s rights. For every single scenic lakeside vista, there are multiple intellectually scenic places related to secular saints of American activism.

But maybe the thought-consuming nature of the area’s human rights heritage isn’t that surprising. After all, settings are times as well as places, and I’m visiting the Finger Lakes at the time of the Supreme Court’s hearings on the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade. I’m also traveling with two members of my family who are lifelong, steadfast feminists. They come by that designation honestly—both work (and excel) in fields within medicine that were extremely male-dominated when they entered the workforce in the 1960s and ’80s, respectively.

To be fair, the Finger Lakes make an effort to distract us from thoughts of politics. Situated in the western portion of upstate New York, dozens of vineyards stretch down to the shores of the lakes that give the region its name. Members of the Amish community guide horse-drawn buggies through hamlets with classical names like Hector, Ovid, and Romulus. Driving past the many waterside wheatfields feels like immersing oneself in a living, breathing painting from the Hudson River School. And yet, despite everything just mentioned, it’s the region’s rich human rights history that makes it a truly unique destination.

The modern women’s rights movement began humbly in a rather large church in the rather small town of Seneca Falls, New York. Although Seneca Falls was an important(-ish) transport hub in its day, it wasn’t an obvious site for a radical social movement. The town’s eventual importance can ultimately be attributed to the work of activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose frequent hangouts in Seneca Falls now form the core of Women’s Rights National Historic Park. It was here that, in 1848, Stanton and others (most notably, Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass) participated in the Seneca Falls Convention, the first-ever convention for women’s rights.

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Penned by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Declaration of Sentiments demanded the same rights of American citizenship for women that men enjoyed.

Photo by Joseph Palmer

The Wesleyan chapel that housed the convention’s meetings, along with a (wonderful) visitor center, comprise the heart of the national historic park. The daily lectures delivered in the chapel are especially informative—it’s like watching a MasterClass in human rights history. The convention’s most enduring output was its Declaration of Sentiments, a persuasive call to action primarily written by Stanton (and heavily inspired by the Declaration of Independence) and deliberated in the very chapel where visitors learn about it.

What’s most shocking about the Declaration is how relevant its words remain today. Among other observations, Stanton wrote that the ruling class of (almost entirely) men had “created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women.” (Rings true today, eh?)

Stanton is immensely quotable—her Declaration of Sentiments is even etched in its entirety into a fountain on the side of the park’s visitor center. Had she not been an activist, Stanton would likely still be known for her ability as a writer, and not just for her work on the Declaration of Sentiments. She was also the principal author of The Woman’s Bible, for example, which is chock-full of pithy gems like, “Men think that self-sacrifice is the most charming of all the cardinal virtues for women, and in order to keep it in healthy working order, they make opportunities for its illustration as often as possible.”

In an era with more opportunities for women, she may have even been a prominent politician. Actually, in this alternate history, Stanton probably would have been better suited to serving as the most trusted vizier to another icon of American human rights activism, Susan B. Anthony. The two first met in Seneca Falls in 1851 when Anthony was visiting mutual friend and fellow activist Amelia Bloomer (who, among other claims to fame, lent her name to the pioneering trousers known as bloomers).

Stanton’s Seneca Falls home is also housed within the national historic park. The park ranger there encourages visitors to imagine the many influential leaders who met with Stanton there, none more frequently than Anthony. Although Anthony lived in Rochester (also in upstate New York, but not in the Finger Lakes), she was a frequent guest at Stanton’s home.

In the half-century following the Seneca Falls Convention, Stanton and Anthony’s complementary skill sets would propel the women’s rights movement into the 20th century. Their collaborative efforts were most evident in their prose. Stanton would often provide the rhetoric that Anthony would then deliver in speeches across the country. Or, in Stanton’s words, “I forged the thunderbolts, she fired them.”

What is most striking about the Finger Lakes’ human rights heritage is that Elizabeth Cady Stanton isn’t even the most famous human rights activist with ties to the area. Although she was not present at the Seneca Falls Convention, Harriet Tubman spent the latter half of her life living in Auburn, 15 miles east of Seneca Falls at the crown of Cayuga Lake.

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Frederick Douglass and Lucretia Mott both attended the Seneca Falls Convention.

Photo by Joseph Palmer

After visiting Tubman’s home at Auburn’s Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, I emerge with the opinion that, if a person doesn’t admire Harriet Tubman, it can only be because they don’t know enough about her. Although most famous for her flawless record as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Tubman was also a women’s rights activist, abolitionist, nurse, and Union spy during the Civil War, among many other roles. In fact, Tubman was the first woman to lead a major U.S. military operation, commanding a unit of 150 troops on a mission that liberated 700 slaves from a South Carolina plantation in 1863. She’s remarkable—I can’t think of another person like her. A visit to Tubman’s gravesite at Fort Hill Cemetery (also in Auburn) feels as sacred as anything I’ve encountered at a religious site.

With the history of women’s rights on our minds as we depart Seneca Falls and Auburn, my family and I discuss our anxieties concerning the Supreme Court’s looming decision (our worst fears would later be realized). While Women’s Rights National Historical Park helps visitors remember that the United States was once on the vanguard of the women’s rights movement, it can be difficult to remember that fact today. We miss Stanton’s eloquence in the modern age. She could probably cut through today’s hateful rhetoric with a suggestion as simple and elegant as, “Truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.”

It’s easy to imagine which side of today’s debate Stanton would’ve landed on–she presciently predicted modern objections to women’s ownership of their own decisions, writing in The Women’s Bible that “men never fail to dwell on maternity as a disqualification for the possession of many civil and political rights.”

It is, however, a small (but vocal) minority of men who feel this way these days—in fact, the majority of American men support legalized abortion. The vast majority of American women polled also believe that “decisions about terminating a pregnancy should be left to a woman and her doctor,” including a majority of women in both major political parties. And, if the anti-abortion wing’s goal really is reducing the total number of abortions, then it’s useful to note that “restricting access to abortion does not reduce the number of abortions.”

Some data even suggest that abortions become slightly more common in areas where the procedure is prohibited (likely owing to the overlap between anti-abortion and anti-contraceptive ideologies). Put succinctly, the Supreme Court’s ruling makes the U.S. a global outlier when it comes to reproductive rights, joining North Korea and Belarus on a short list of countries that have decreased access to abortion in the last 30 years.

My family and I continue discussing these topics in the context of the pending Supreme Court decision with an increasing sense of despondency. Then, with ideal timing, the Finger Lakes’ natural beauty successfully distracts us from our worries, if only temporarily.

At the southern edge of the Finger Lakes region, my mothers and I spontaneously decide to stop at Watkins Glen State Park and are spellbound. The park’s centerpiece is a moss-covered gorge whose already gorgeous vistas are punctuated by 19 (!) waterfalls. The place is an Eden, or a Narnia, or Rivendell, or all three combined, plus it somehow looks even better in the rain. This sliver of placid paradise wrested from mountain (and moral) wilderness makes us feel optimistic.

Perhaps the unrelenting natural beauty of the Finger Lakes refreshed the depleted reserves of hope of activists like Stanton and others when experience pushed them toward hopelessness. Women’s suffrage had far less popular support in Stanton’s time than reproductive rights do today. And yet, women’s suffrage was eventually achieved. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, the history of human rights in the U.S. is mostly a story of increased access to rights, albeit often slow and bittersweet.

Stanton maintained no misconceptions about the difficulties she and her comrades-in-arms would face. “In entering upon the great work before us,” she wrote in the Declaration of Sentiments, “we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.”

At the same time, she also harbored zero doubts about the moral universe’s eventual arc toward justice. “Come, come, my conservative friend,” she wrote. “Wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving.”

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New York’s Finger Lakes present an interesting mix of scenic vistas and poignant American history for the intrepid traveler.

Photo by Joseph Palmer

Trip planner: How to explore the Finger Lakes’ human rights history

Much of the Finger Lakes’ human rights history can be experienced in two days (if you stay busy). Seneca Falls is an hour’s drive from Greater Rochester International Airport, and only two hours from Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Renting a car is the best way to make the trip, as public transportation is limited. If you are starting in Rochester, be sure to stop by the National Susan B. Anthony Museum, located in the civil rights leader’s home.

Home to Women’s Rights National Historical Park, Seneca Falls is certainly a charming town (it was the inspiration for the fictional Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life), but nearby Auburn and Geneva both offer more dining, lodging, and entertainment options (including live theater). Auburn is also home to Harriet Tubman National Historical Park. For a tour of the property, make reservations in advance. I couldn’t recommend the tour more highly.

Tubman’s grave is in the scenic Fort Hill Cemetery, and she isn’t the only famous person interred there—abolitionist (and former Secretary of State) William Seward is also buried on the property. Take the time to visit Seward’s home (also in Auburn). He was friends with Tubman and is a more inspiring figure himself than many people realize—his house was even a station on the Underground Railroad.

>> Next: Driving the South—and Remembering the Legacy of “The Green Book”

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