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Scores of Sites Extol Achievements by American Women

Memorials and museums, many in N.Y., honor such luminaries as Susan B. Anthony.

September 19, 2004|Ben Dobbin | Associated Press Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In the parlor of the red-brick house where Susan B. Anthony was arrested for daring to vote in 1872, an ankle-high petticoat mirror draws puzzled looks from visitors.

On cue, docent Eileen King delivers a wry primer on Victorian decorum.

"In those days, when you went out, you would stand in front of the mirror and make sure your ankles didn't show, because ankles are the portholes to desire," said King, a volunteer at the museum that chronicles the no-nonsense suffragist.

It's a come-a-long-way crack that draws laughs and shakes of the head. The 20th Amendment granting women the right to vote became law in 1920, 100 years after Anthony's birth.

The house at 17 Madison St. is a highlight in a trail of memorials and museums from New England to Washington that extols women's achievements in molding the nation. Scores of sites are concentrated in Upstate New York's old industrial cities and mill towns.

The pilgrimage springs to life in central New York, where the first women's rights convention was held in 1848. Along the way from Niagara Falls to Long Island are statues, gravesites and landmarks dedicated to a female who's who, from abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth to aviator Amelia Earhart and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Half a dozen homesteads of luminaries in the women's rights movement have been restored and opened to the public around the Finger Lakes wine country, from Matilda Joslyn Gage's in Fayetteville to Elizabeth Cady Stanton's in Seneca Falls.

In that village's Wesleyan Chapel in July 1848, 100 women and men led by Stanton -- who later became Anthony's philosophical muse -- signed a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence that proclaimed "all men and women are created equal."

They asserted the right of women to attend college, address public meetings, enter all manner of jobs and, most radical of all, vote. Although ridiculed in the press, the movement caught the public's imagination and eventually brought change.

"For a very long time, there's been an awareness that this was a pretty significant event not only in women's history but in American history, so things associated with that obviously get recognition," said Barbara Irvine, a crusader in the preservation of historic women's sites. "Regrettably, the recognition of these kinds of sites beyond northern New York are rather few and far between."

Many New York sites are privately run, from the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, which has inducted 207 acclaimed women since 1969, to Tubman's home in nearby Auburn.

Others are managed by the National Park Service, notably the Waterloo homes of Jane Hunt and Mary Ann M'Clintock, where the pivotal women's rights convention was planned, and the symbolic meeting place in Seneca Falls, a country mile away.

Only the side walls and roof of the former Wesleyan Chapel still stand, the exposed interior a reflective realm of sunlight and shade next to a garden that slopes down to a water-wall memorial.

"We were here when the building was a Laundromat," said Nancy Sweetman, a retired principal visiting from Mason City, Iowa, with husband, Chuck. The chapel was a self-service laundry from 1961 to 1984.

In the adjoining museum, an interactive exhibit asks visitors: "What will it be like when men and women are truly equal?" Among the scribbled answers: "When men can give birth!"

Sweetman and a friend, Coni Samsel, who campaigned together for an Equal Rights Amendment a generation ago, took in Roosevelt's Val-Kill Cottage retreat in the Hudson Valley town of Hyde Park, then Stanton's home on the edge of Seneca Falls, before heading to Rochester.

Anthony's home contains her typewriter, a cherished black silk dress, her photographs, the trademark bag she carried on her frequent travels and the bed she died in weeks after delivering her famous "Failure Is Impossible" speech in Washington in 1906.

The eventual success in winning the vote "was such a means for women to gain all the other rights that were needed," from gathering up economic and political clout to deciding how to dress, said the museum's executive director, Lorie Barnum.

After Anthony cast her ballot in a state election, she whipped off a note to Stanton, saying "I've positively gone and done it."

A few days later, said King, the museum guide, "a federal marshal comes to the door, and I guess he's stammering and stuttering and he says, 'I have a warrant; you have to go down to the commissioner of election.' Her response was, 'I hope you don't talk this way to everybody.'

"He says, 'No, no, no, you just come down whenever you want to.' She says, 'I insist on going with you.' At the corner, a trolley comes by and the trolley man says, 'That will be 10 cents.' And she says as loudly as she can, 'The marshal will pay my way; I am traveling as his guest.' So now everybody knows she's been arrested for voting."

At her trial, the judge ordered the all-male jury to find her guilty and fined her $100. Anthony refused to pay -- "resistance to tyranny is obedience to God," she said -- but the judge denied her chance to appeal by choosing not to imprison her.

More than 130 years later, fewer than 4% of the 2,300-plus national historic landmarks focus on women's contributions to American history, Irvine said.

"Many of the places associated with significant women or women's movements have been razed for urban renewal or whatever," she said. "It has only been literally since the 1970s that women's contributions to history have been given any recognition whatsoever.

"Many places are parking lots or shopping malls. There's no substitute for the power of place. To actually be in the room where Susan B. Anthony was arrested, you can't reproduce that."

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