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Equal-Rights Site Has Come a Long Way

April 12, 1987|JANICE MALL

In the last 140 years the remains of the old Wesleyan chapel at Seneca Falls, N.Y., have been rebuilt as a public meeting hall, an opera house, a skating rink and an automobile dealership and is now a coin-operated laundry. Some women who have come there loaded with their families' dirty clothes may have had some amusing reactions to the small plaque on the premises identifying the building as "the birthplace of the women's rights movement."

The building is, indeed, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and others called the first formal "convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women" in 1848. Here at this laundromat, then a Methodist Church, 300 women and men passed resolutions calling for the repeal of laws that put women on an unequal status, the advancement of women in the professions, equal standards of moral conduct, and an end to the prohibition against women addressing public meetings. Here, Frederick Douglas persuaded the assembly to also call for women's right to vote. Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed a "declaration of sentiments" modeled on the Declaration of Independence asserting that "all men and women are created equal."

The building is about to be reincarnated as part of the Women's Rights National Historical Park authorized by Congress in 1980. Under a plan developed by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the National Park Service and the National Endowment for the Arts, a design contest has been launched.

Open to U.S. citizens and permanent residents, the contest requires a design for the park, a historical district in downtown Seneca Falls. The designs must preserve the remains of the original Wesleyan church and include a visitors' center and open space. Only two of the walls and three-fourths of the roof of the church are still standing; after the Methodist congregation split over abolition, the building was sold and subsequently rebuilt. According to United Methodist Communications Service, designs submitted for the church building will have to be efforts of creativity rather than reconstruction; there are no photographs or blueprints of the original chapel. No one knows much about what it looked like except that it was simple and made of brick.

The competition has a first prize of $15,000, second prize of $10,000 and 10 honorable mentions for $1,000 each. Those interested in entering must register by July 1. Information is available from the National Endowment for the Arts, 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20506.

One wonders what the activists at Seneca Falls would have made of the announcement nearly a century and a half later by the National Center for Policy Alternatives of the "six basic realities facing women today."

The center, a Washington-based, nonprofit, nonpartisan political communications and research organization, confirmed persistent inequalities for women that would have been recognizable at Seneca Falls. The six "realities" identified by the center are: that there is no job classification in which women and men have equal earnings; homemakers suffer from the lack of marketable skills, inadequate health insurance, pensions and social security; women are living longer but are poorer because of lower salaries resulting in lower pensions and inadequate widows' benefits; women are unequal before the law, with only 10 states providing them constitutional protections; education for girls is poverty prevention for women--40% of girls in school today will be heads of households; setting policy is off-limits to most women because there are so few in elected positions at any level of government.

The center issued almost 250 policy recommendations in areas ranging from affirmative action to health care and aimed these recommendations at the states rather than the federal government on the theory that state politicians are more sensitive to women voters and more amenable to trying out new options where costs are lower and building coalitions easier.

A new USC study adds weight to the hypothesis that cervical cancer may be caused by a sexually transmitted agent. The study, involving 400 women, predicted that almost three-fourths of cervical cancer could be prevented by the use of barrier contraceptives such as condoms, diaphragms and spermicidal preparations.

The study, directed by Ruth G. Peters, assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC Medical School, looked at contraception and a number of other factors in the lives of 200 women who had invasive cervical cancer and 200 who served as a control group. It was originally undertaken to determine why Latino women living in the United States, particularly those born in Central and South America, have been found as much as 500% more likely than other women to contract cervical cancer.

The study did not find the reason for this, but did demonstrate that the same risk factors seem to operate in all groups.

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