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Women's Rights Movement Has a Place to Call Home

September 12, 1993|From Associated Press

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — Over the past 150 years, the former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel--the site of the first Women's Rights Convention--has served as an opera house, a theater, a garage and, in a final ironic incarnation, a coin laundry.

Only a small plaque told passers-by that the red brick building was once the site of the Women's Rights Convention. Under its sloping eaves in July, 1848, 68 women and 32 men signed a revolutionary declaration that "all men and women are created equal."

Now, the chapel has been officially recognized as the birthplace of the women's rights movement. The washers and dryers are gone, the floor ripped up, and the roof restored to its original height.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony recently commemorated the addition of the chapel to the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

Just west of the chapel, is Declaration Park. Beside a grassy slope, a 138-foot fountain runs over a blue stone wall inscribed with the Declaration of Sentiments, listing the rights denied to 19th-Century American women.

"Women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights," the declaration says. "We insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges, which belong to them as citizens of these United States."

Next to the park, a new museum and visitor center features interactive exhibits that explore the issues raised in the declaration--from women's careers and salaries to opportunities in politics and education.

"We could have filled a building three times this size," said park superintendent Linda Canzanelli. "There's so much to say."

The restored chapel building has deliberately been left unfinished. No front or back walls keep out the sun and rain. The interior is empty, giving visitors an unobstructed view of the park beyond.

The decision not to completely rebuild the chapel was made in part because there are no photographs or drawings of the original chapel, and National Park Service policy requires that reconstructions be historically accurate. But the decision was also philosophical.

"Instead of people focusing on what the building was like, they're forced to focus on what the event was about," Canzanelli said.

The park is about more than just the 1848 convention or the five women who organized it, she said. It commemorates the continuing struggle for women's rights and women's equality, and interprets what that struggle means to both women and men.


The Women's Rights National Historical Park visitor center at 136 Fall St. is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the summer, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is free. Information (315) 568-2991.

Also open to visitors is the nearby home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, along with Lucretia Mott, organized the women's rights convention. Tours of the Stanton house are given hourly. The last one begins at 4 p.m. Information (315) 568-2991.

The privately run National Women's Hall of Fame, down the street from the visitor center and museum, honors influential American women from Abigail Adams to Billie Jean King. It is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October. Winter hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Information (315) 568-8060.

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