Seneca Falls Blues
Here’s a tale of a feminist mother’s fantasy gone off the rails. Spoiler alert: I am that feminist mother. And the fantasy was the plan to give a talk at an academic conference with my own college-aged daughter and a friend at one of the hallowed sites of herstory – Seneca Falls. All good. In theory.
Why Seneca Falls? You may know that in 1848, this busy little mill town in upstate New York hosted what we now call the First Women’s Rights Convention in the U.S., where almost 300 women and men (including the abolitionist rock star Frederick Douglass) gathered to discuss women’s roles in public and private life. 100 people signed the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a document that boldly asserted that “all men and women are created equal.”
In my fantasy, we’d stroll the same canal paths our feminist foremothers walked in their button-up boots, autumnal sun warming our shoulders and trans-historical sisterhood warming our souls.
That bubble burst upon landing in nearby Rochester –near midnight, facing an hour’s drive in pouring rain, which lasted all weekend. The deluge stripped the last of the fall foliage, and foreshadowed … well, plenty. When we found an afternoon to skip out of the conference to explore, we shared our one sadly bent umbrella, Xeroxed women’s history map in hand. First stop: the reconstructed Wesleyan Chapel, site of the convention. I did get teary seeing my girl smiling at the podium where the prolific writer Elizabeth Cady Stanton once stood, but time was tight and so back into the rain we went, to walk the mile to the historic site of Stanton’s house. That’s where things got weird.
Unbeknownst to me, Seneca Falls has another claim to fame –as the inspiration for Bedford Falls. Local lore has Frank Capra visiting there while writing the screenplay of It’s a Wonderful Life, and, sure, if you squint the town looks a bit like the movie set. I thought: who cares?
But when we paused on the steel truss bridge to study our soggy map, I realized: Holy Zuzu’s petals, we were on the very spot where George Bailey takes his fateful leap! My time-traveler’s clock, set to 1848, was now spinning wildly as we squinted through rain to see a sign to “turn here for the Real Martini’s!” – no, no, no! Desperately seeking sisterhood, we ran smack into that celluloid tale of spinster doom: Let’s recall, shall we, what supposedly happens to a woman who fails to marry: clip from It’s a Wonderful Life.
I realized: Holy Zuzu's petals, we were on the very spot where George Bailey takes his fateful leap!
Yiiiikes! I tried to blot out Clarence’s cautionary wail while we rounded the final corner to the national landmark of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house. Only to find it … empty. Well, practically. Besides a few pieces of furniture in one room “from the period” and a few photos and a shelf with some dishes, the space echoed with what felt to me like a big fat shrug about women’s history. Down the hill, the next landmark with a plaque, the home of women’s rights supporter Joseph Chamberlain, is literally condemned. I gave up on the umbrella by this point, letting the rain course down my cheeks while taking in the flapping blue tarps and yellow caution tape. “Danger,” the sign on the door said. I’ll say.
Our final stop was the modest visitor’s center, and while there were some compelling artifacts, the place felt shabby. Tape was peeling off displays. Exhibit buttons didn’t function. When I lifted a phone to listen to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a woman?” speech, it came loose in my hand. The cord was broken. Let’s face it: What we think about women’s history is a sign of what we think about women.
I say this not to blame the keepers of this national park, but to remind us that we are all keepers of this history. While I want to champion little Seneca Falls, my fantasy weekend turned into a rain-soaked depression over the delay in building a big-time National Women’s History Museum in Washington DC – a museum that could invite any happy traveler to the national mall to think about … the other half of humanity. Imagine. In 1848, they could. 166 years later, their vision remains a fantasy.