Sunday, October 6, 2013

Students Make Pilgrimage to Seneca Falls

          On Saturday, September 14, the Center for Women's Studies hosted a trip to Seneca Falls, NY and nearby sites to visit iconic monuments of the early Women's Rights Movement in the US and other socially significant sites from the time period.  The trip was divided between a morning visit to Seneca Falls, NY and Auburn, NY in the afternoon.  
          Seneca Falls is home to the Wesleyan Chapel, which was the site of the first Women's Rights Convention in July 1848, as well as Elizabeth Cady Stanton's family home during the crucial years of 1847 to 1862.  These sites have been gathered under the Women's Rights National Historic Park, which was established by Congress in 1980 with the goal of preserving these sights and opening them to the public.  The park now includes a visitors' center that pays tribute to First Wave feminists whose contribution to the women's rights movement is perhaps best signified by the achievements of the first Women's Rights Convention.  
          Auburn, NY is home to Harriet Tubman who is known for her courageous efforts to liberate slaves in the South through the Underground Railroad.  In Auburn, we also visited the house of William Seward, the illustrious Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.  Seward obtained Tubman's home where she spent the rest of her life after the Civil War.  The Tubman and Seward homes are both on South Street in Auburn, and these two homes stand as a testament to a friendship that exemplifies the era's spirit of cooperation.
          This trip organized by the Center for Women's Studies gave students interested in women's issues a chance to explore these historic sites and pay their respects to these iconic forebearers in the cause of women's rights.  Students participated in guided tours provided by the National Park Service and the organizations that maintain the Harriet Tubman House and William Seward House.  The accompanying Colgate faculty and staff members facilitated a scavenger hunt of the visitor's center of the Women's Rights National Historic Park and further discussion of the sites on the bus as the group traveled between sites. 
          The first stop was Elizabeth Cady Stanton's home in Seneca Falls where she lived when the first Women's Rights Convention took place in 1848.  The Stantons named the house "Grassmere" after the Romantic poet William Wordsworth's home that inspired his "poetical dreams."  The tour guide also informed the group that the house was known as the "center of the rebellion" and was the place where Stanton held her "war councils."  Here she met with leaders in the women's movement, especially her close friend Susan B. Anthony and together they planned strategy.  The house also featured the desk where she penned her landmark 1892 speech "The Solitude of the Self" and her autobiography, Eighty Years & More: Reminiscences 1815-1897 While the house paid tribute to her accomplishments, it also stood as a symbol of some of the restrictions placed on her activist by the duties of motherhood.  A placard in the house quoted her as saying, "I am bound hand and foot...with a baby in my arms and four boys revolving round me as a common centre...Woman must ever be sacrificed in the isolate household."
          The tour then continued to the site of the Wesleyan Chapel and the adjacent visitors' center of the Women's Rights National Historic Park.  The Wesleyan Chapel was a powerful monument to the achievements of women at the first convention there 165 years earlier even if it was sparse in accouterments of the actual event.  All that remained from the Wesleyan Chapel was some of the original brick and plaster from the first structure that had "witnessed" the first convention and was now exposed for viewing.  New brick was put in to create a structure around this material that matched the chapel's design.  Before the National Park Service obtained the building in 1980, it had been a car dealership and laundromat among other things, and the specifications of the original configuration of the building had been lost to history.  The empty brick structure approximating the original thus stood as the best place to envision and feel the energy of that early and exciting moment in American women's history.
         When we walked into the adjacent visitors' center, we were immediately greeted by a bronze sculpture of life-size First Wave Feminists. Figures of the movement including Elisabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass appear as they would have looked during that revolutionary period in their full stature.  A scavenger hunt encouraged the students to explore the exhibits on display.  Students discovered which individuals were responsible for organizing the National Park and learned that Hilary Rodham Clinton was highly involved. Furthermore, they also learned how religious revivals in New York State or the "burned-over district" helped to inspire the women's movement.
          The final destination was to Auburn where the group visited the homes of Harriet Tubman and William Seward.  The tour of Harriet Tubman's house gave her extraordinary biography as a freedom fighter working to free slaves.  We toured past the original house and barn where she once hid slaves on the Underground Railroad and took them into the second house where she later lived and operated a home for the aged.  The tour then traveled down the street which led to Seward's house.  The museum at his house emphasized his achievements as a prominent statesman and a man of culture and learning. Overall, students returned back to campus inspired by their journey through history.

-Tom Wiley, Graduate Student

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