Prior to April, I’d only been to Seneca Falls once, a few years ago on the way to visit my sister in Michigan. My wife, Andrea, my youngest son, Ari, and I stopped at a wonderful brew pub there, Parker’s Grill and Tap House. We ran into one of my favorite people, then-Deputy Director of the New York State Canal Corp, John Callaghan, and some of his colleagues…small world. But we were only passing through, and I never saw the town in daylight. I wouldn’t call it a real visit at all.
A few months ago, having announced our “American Music Festival-Sing Out, New York,” which celebrates New York State’s leading role in social justice movements “from Seneca Falls to Stonewall, and beyond” as I (Buzz Lightyear-like) like to put it, I began to feel ashamed of never having properly visited Seneca Falls during the day. After all, this is the place where America’s suffrage movement began. Even though our Festival would be taking place in the larger Capital Region, some three hours distant from the cradle of the movement, I felt I needed to understand better what had happened there, and get a personal sense of the history of the place. I had been so struck, reading about the origins of the movement, at how many of its guiding spirits called New York State their home.
So I hopped in my Prius on a crisp Monday morning and headed out. Being a reckless driver, I made it in 2 hours and 24 minutes, door to door. I stopped in at the Women’s Hall of Fame, which, as you may know, is about to move across the river to an incredibly beautiful renovated mill, but is still in a somewhat cramped space right downtown on Fall Street. I was excited to see biographies of all my favorite suffragists on the walls, but was most charmed to hear a mother explaining to her young daughter who all these foundational women were. Also, the little girl and I were equally impressed by Amelia Earhardt’s flight uniform (not her last one…), which was on display. But I had only a few hours on the ground, so I quickly headed over to the Women’s Rights National Historic Park, the center of which is that amazing structure, the Wesleyan Chapel, in which Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and many others held the first-ever Women’s Rights Convention on July 19-20, 1848. I took the excellent ranger tour, in which we literally met many of the folks who attended, immortalized in a charming sculpture at the site. Then I headed across the green and entered the Chapel.
Now, I know that only about a third or a quarter of the current Chapel is original, mainly the roof of the back section and one of the walls. And that through the years, the building served the unholy roles of car dealership and dry-cleaners. In spite of this (and probably as a great tribute to the brilliant restoration work of our National Park Service), I felt an absolutely mystical connection to our founding mothers the moment I walked in. There is something so pure and downright spiritual about the place; one can absolutely imagine a very nervous Elizabeth Stanton getting up to read her “Declaration of Sentiments” (women seldom spoke in public at the time, and even more seldom in “promiscuous gatherings,” which is what they called meetings with men AND women…). And I could almost see the great Frederick Douglass, the only man of color in the gathering, standing up when the Ninth Sentiment, the one demanding the right of women to vote, was about to be removed from the document because so many people thought it just too outrageous a demand. It was Douglass who insisted that that most critical and audacious Sentiment be left in.
I knew, even though it wasn’t part of our plan and thus had no funding attached, that we just had to somehow include a trip to this magical place in our Festival. And that it would have to include some kind of performance in the Wesleyan Chapel. So, I called up our good friends in the “I AM I AM I AM” vocal collective, a group of four brilliant recent grads of Bard College’s famed Vocal Arts Program who perform works about female identity, and asked them to do an a cappella program in the Chapel. Then I called up my old friend (one of my sister’s closest friends from graduate school and practically a family member) Kathryn Sikkink, Distinguished Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School who is one of the world’s leading human rights scholars with a particular interest in woman’s rights, and asked her to join us to talk about the larger topic of the long march toward gender equality. Then our amazing Albany Symphony staff arranged buses, lunch, ranger tours, etc. And away we will go, this Saturday, May 18.
These visionary pioneers of social justice, many of them Quakers, but of other religious denominations as well, fought bravely against many different forms of injustice. They were abolitionists, suffragists, even, I recently read, champions of the rights of the Native Peoples of New York State who were being driven from their ancestral homes. As far back as the 1830s and 40s, these folks were fighting against bias and bigotry as best they could. Like all of us, they were complex and fallible human beings (This would become most evident after the Civil War, when many of them, including Stanton, made sickeningly racist comments during the fight over ratification of the 15th amendment). It took more than 70 years from the Convention of 1848 to passage of the 19th Amendment which finally gave women the right to vote. As far as I know, we STILL haven’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment. What’s up with that?! As Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I must admit I had no idea just how long.
-David Alan Miller