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Category: Feminism, Politics

Quiet Push to Recognize Suffrage Sites

| April 9, 2009


Spearheaded by New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, powerful chair of the House Rules Committee, legislation was signed into law at the end of last month that will help celebrate the not-so-ancient history of how women won the vote in the United States.

Virtually unnoticed by the national news media, a Votes for Women History Trail in western New York has been authorized to recognize the suffragists who helped transform this country. The trail will be operated by the National Park Service (NPS) if Congress provides follow-up funding for the bill, which passed Congress in late March and was signed into law by President Obama shortly before his European trip.

A Votes for Women History Trail would create a drivable route that visits up to 20 significant sites in the suffragists’ prolonged battle for the vote, from the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, near Syracuse, to the Waterloo and Seneca Falls sites of the first women’s rights conventions, to the trail’s western anchor in Rochester, the Susan B. Anthony House. Point person for the trail has been Representative Louise Slaughter, D-NY—a former chair of the congressional women’s caucus—who has sponsored the bill since 2002.  

"So many people forget that it was just 89 years ago that women were finally allowed to vote in this country," Slaughter said. She praised Obama for signing the bill “to celebrate the historic events and recognize the important sites that served as the backdrop in the struggle for women's equality.” The Votes for Women trail will let Americans “learn more about the heroines who changed history and opened the doors of opportunity for future generations of women."

Good political strategy helped move the trail into reality. Slaughter’s counterpart in the Senate had been Hillary Clinton, now secretary of State. As a stand-alone bill, the Votes for Women trail had faced one obstacle after another. Slaughter, now the House Rules Committee chair with much clout in the New York delegation, worked with Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, to get the Votes for Women bill included (with 160 other House-passed bills) into the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act.

In addition to the trail, the new law will expand the current National Register travel website, “Places Where Women Made History.” As of now, only 44 percent of the 298 sites relevant to women’s rights are included in this. And only 57 of those listed are national historic landmarks, including the Susan B. Anthony House.

The law also will direct the Department of Interior to establish a public-private National Women’s Rights History Project Partnership, to help develop interpretive and educational programs dramatizing the national women’s rights history. The partnership would be run by a non-governmental entity and would provide grants to state historic preservation offices for up to five years to survey, evaluate and nominate women’s rights history properties to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The National Park Service already operates the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. Its mission would expand to developing brochures, interpretive documents, maps and an official uniform symbol to mark the Votes for Women History Trail.

Deborah L. Hughes, executive director of the Susan B. Anthony House, said that while they probably would get no direct funding under the trail project, she expects national and international visibility to increase dramatically. She is in the midst of a membership and fundraising drive to retrofit the Anthony house and to develop an adjacent carriage house as a place for workshops and programs.

It’s something of a miracle that the house still exists—in much the same configuration as it was when Anthony lived there from 1866 until 1906.  It remained in private hands until 1945.

At that time, Hughes said, the Rochester Federation of Women’s Club approached the owners to see if they could put a sign on the house. That’s how they learned the house was about to be sold again. The federation bought it and preserved it, with volunteers only, until a first staff person was hired in 1992. Hughes came 18 months ago and, in addition to fundraising, is expanding links with scholars to alert them to the five boxes of Anthony’s correspondence, which individuals have donated over the years. Most scholars have no idea these invaluable original sources exist, Hughes said, since Anthony donated her papers to the Library of Congress.

In a feasibility study on the trail, the NPS said that “by any measure, the women’s rights movement is among the fundamental, far-reaching, modern reformist traditions in U.S. history. In its many manifestations, the women’s rights tradition has been characterized by its challenge to women’s subordination to men and its insistence on a standard of equal treatment, opportunity and rights. …

“Far from being confined to a corner of American history as a ‘special interest,’ the battle for women’s rights lies at the center of the public traditions of the nation. The long pursuit of equality between the sexes has had immense consequences in American history.”

In the 19th Century, New York State was at the cutting edge of the women’s rights movement.

On July 19, 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright, Jane Hunt and Mary Ann M’Clintock. The Declaration of Sentiments, calling for a broad range of rights for women including suffrage, was signed by 68 women and 32 men.

Susan B. Anthony later formed the Equal Rights Association which refuted ideas that women were inferior to men and fought for the right of women to vote, own property, keep their own earnings and have custody of their children. She persuaded the University of Rochester in 1900 to admit women.

In 1869, Stanton, Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell and others formed the American Woman Suffrage Association. These two groups merged in 1890 and held mass campaigns to win the vote over the next three decades. That finally occurred with passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, certified on August 26, 1920.

The precise locations to be included in the Votes for Women History Trail will be decided later, but the NPS feasibility study included a map featuring these sites:

1. Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester

2. Antoinette Brown Blackwell childhood home in Henrietta

3. Ontario County Courthouse in Canandaigua (where Anthony was convicted for illegally voting)

4, 5. M’Clintock house and the Jane Hunt house in Waterloo

6, 7, 9. Jacob P. Chamberlain, Lorina Latham and Elizabeth Cady Stanton houses in Seneca Falls

8, 10, 11,12 Wesleyan Chapel, First Presbyterian Church, the Race and Hoskins houses in Seneca Falls

13. Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn

14. Harriet May Mills house in Syracuse

15. Matilda Joslyn Gage house in Fayetteville