Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 200th birthday dawned on November 12, 2015, my birthday. I used the occasion to drive the eight hours round-trip to Seneca Falls, NY to sit among the crowd of about 200 people at Wesleyan Chapel, the restored site of the legendary 1848 women’s rights convention.
The program sponsored by the Women’s Rights National Historic Park on November 14 was one of two programs in New York State designed to bring attention to this historic figure. The large turnout at Cooper Union in New York City for Stanton’s birthday on November 12 was another indication of the increased interest and honor being paid to New York’s historic women in the first wave of the movement that started in the Finger Lakes region.
Wesleyan Chapel was filled to capacity, and I squirmed around in the hardwood pew to survey the crowd. I recognized a few familiar faces, and about half the audience was comprised of students who appeared to be from fourth grade through high school.
Noemi “Ami” Ghazala, the Superintendent of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, was there in uniform. Ami had promised that the birthday card I sent for the occasion would be on display with others in the Chapel. I wondered how that would work, since mine was the kind that bursts into sound when opened with a cacophony of police cars being called to the scene of a “birthday girl on the loose.”
I wasn’t disappointed. Many of the cards displayed on the chapel walls were created by students from Elizabeth Cady Stanton School in Seneca Falls. The birthday cake by the entrance had my card lying face up right next to it, the first indication that the long road trip was worth many hours on the road and my determination to honor a part of state history that’s now coming into its own.
Ghazala introduced the program at exactly 4 pm in the Wesleyan Chapel. Performers in period dress who stood around the periphery of the hall were introduced as “foremothers” and read sample writings of the historical figures they represented.
The lights, dimmed for a stereoscopic slide show, remained low throughout the celebration billed as “A Winter Wheat Gathering: The Women and Men of the 19th Century in Conversation at the Birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement.” The theme was based on the quote from Stanton’s diary, “We are sowing winter wheat, which the coming spring will see sprout and other hands than ours will reap and enjoy.”
The main event featured dramatic reenactments depicting Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Lucretia Mott, Ernestine Rose, Frederick Douglas, and other friends, relatives and admirers of Stanton. The program came alive with the spirit of the past. Alice Paul described the Equal Rights Amendment she championed in the early 20th century and asked why this constitutional protection has still not been ratified.
Susan B. Anthony issued an effective demand for continued action to help women all over the world. “We need equal pay for equal work… Look at how few women are in Congress… Our job is not done. Get on with it!” she ordered.
Sojourner Truth made an appearance. Despite assertions by some scholars that Truth didn’t deliver the exact words of the famous speech attributed to her by the writer Frances Gage, “Ain’t I a woman,” the speech was reenacted.
The intent of the program was to “write activists back into history,” according to the program’s organizers. Matilda Joslyn Gage noted her “bad timing” in dying so soon after offending Susan B. Anthony who wrote a seminal history of the women’s rights movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Before the closing suffrage song was belted out to the tune of Glory Hallelujah, the highlight of the event for me was a reading by Melinda Grube as Elizabeth Cady Stanton about the injustice of being denied control of one’s own money and the destiny of her children. Stanton was one hell of a writer.
At the after-party at the Gould Hotel, I met Michele Jones Galvin, a great-great-great grandniece of Harriet Tubman. With her mother, Joyce Stokes Jones, Galvin wrote a book, Beyond the Underground: Aunt Harriet, Moses of her People. She signed my copy. We exchanged business cards and posed for a photo.
At the elegant Gould Hotel, the costumed Mrs. Stanton danced with Girl Scouts to a terrific rock band, and a young man dressed as a Civil War soldier went around shaking hands and saluting everyone.
With birthday cake and fruit punch under my belt, it was time to head home to Woodstock where the film “Suffragette” is playing, a film now released to theaters throughout the nation. Mrs. Stanton would have approved.
Although “Suffragette” deals only with the English suffrage movement, the women in both countries had close ties. American women worked in the English suffrage movement. They wrote articles for each other’s movement publications and Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst caused controversy when she toured the U.S. and delivered fiery speeches. Meryl Streep is now the face of Mrs. Pankhurst, but for the first time the Pankhurst name is penetrating American shores like never before.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, lived and worked in England and brought some of the spirit back with her to New York at the turn of the 20th century that brought new life to the suffrage movement here. The spirit of Mrs. Stanton was happily standing next to me when I arrived home and bought a ticket to the film “Suffragette,” a production that will be with us for years to come as it joins “Iron Jawed Angels,” the 2004 HBO production that is still in use by women’s groups across the nation for education and fundraising.
Driving to Seneca Falls is but one example of things to come as New York approaches its 100 years of women voting in 2017. Thank you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton for turning 200 years old. I had a wonderful time.
Photos: Above, inside Wesleyan Chapel for the 200th birthday celebration; and below, Melinda Grube as Elizabeth Cady Stanton with Girl Scouts.