Going Places, Near & Far… Cycle the Erie: National Women’s Hall of Fame

(Our eight-day, 400-mile Buffalo to Albany Cycle the Erie Bike Tour with Parks & Trails NY  began in 9/11, 9/18, 9/25 columns.)

Seneca Falls is regarded as the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement for having held the first Women’s Rights Convention here in July 1848, but after visiting the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, I felt I learned more about the Women’s Movement from the women themselves in the Women’s National Hall of Fame.

Indeed, as I realized by reviewing the biographies and the timeline, the struggle for women’s rights goes back as long as the founding of the nation. 

The Women’s National Hall of Fame is presently housed in a tiny storefront in a historic bank building on the main street, named in 2005 the Helen Mosher Barben Building, for one of the founders of the Hall. But the Hall of Fame will be moving – appropriately enough – to the Seneca Knitting Mill, across the water in December 2016.

This massive factory, which dates from 1844, was owned by two men, Charles Hoskins and Jacob Chamberlain,  who were among the 32 (out of the 100 people) who signed the Declaration of Sentiments which came out of the Women’s Rights Convention, attended by 300 people (40 of them men) in the Wesleyan Chapel here in 1848. 

“It’s ‘kismet’ that we are buying it now and that it will become the new site for Women’s Hall of Fame,” Pat Alnes, the Hall’s administrator, tells me when I visit on the Cycle the Erie bike tour. “It was a hotbed of progressivism. The mill employed most of the women in the area – no cotton (because the owners, as arch abolitionists refused to use cotton), only wool.” 

The Seneca Knitting Mills operated until 1999 (can you believe it!), where heavy woolen socks were made for 150 years, and then went the way of 50,000 other factories in the US.

The 170-year-old Seneca Knitting Mill will be turned into a hall of fame, research center and museum celebrating women and their accomplishments. The limestone building that will be called the Center for Great Women is on a canal spur in Seneca Falls.

The Women’s Hall of Fame, a nonprofit organization, is spending $25 million to restore, remediate and renovate the sprawling building. Then there will be more space to exhibit, more artifacts to display. The displays – now basically posters of the honorees – will be interactive so they can be updated (many of us are hoping one that will be ‘updated’ is Hillary Clinton, honored here as the first woman Senator from New York State and the first First Lady to be elected to the US Senate; you can take a picture with a life-size cutout of Hillary). And interactive means you can find people based on any number of criteria (like hometown or profession).

It is fascinating to wander around and see the women who have been honored.

When I was in school, I could count on one hand the number of women who were presented as heroic figures – Madame Curie, Molly Pitcher (who I learn may have been fictional but representative of women who took up the guns when their husbands were killed in the Revolutionary War), and the reporter, Nellie Bly.

I am thrilled to find Nellie Bly among the honorees, but also Elizabeth Jane Cochran, 1864-1922 (honored 1998), a trail-blazing journalist considered to be the “best reporter in America” who pioneered investigative journalism; Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis, 1813-1876 (honored 2002), who headed the committee that organized the first National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, MA in 1850, helped found the New England Women’s Suffrage Association and established Una, one of the first women’s rights newspapers; Amelia Bloomer (1818-1894), the first woman to own, operate and edit a newspaper for women, The Lily (first published in 1849 in Seneca Falls) and whose penchant for wearing full-cut pantaloons under a short skirt (as a protest to the way women were expected to dress), gave birth to the term “bloomers”.

It turns out there were dozens and dozens of women, going back to Colonial times, who did really important things. The women who are honored are not necessarily honored as feminists, but for their accomplishments.

“Women’s stories are not told,” the organization notes. “Less than 10% of the content of history books references women. Students cannot name 20 famous American women through history, excluding sports figures, celebrities and First Ladies. Only 20% of news article are about women. A society that values women values all of its members. By telling the stories of great American women through exhibits and educational resources, the Hall will make a future where all members of society are valued a reality.”

Founded in 1969, the Women’s Hall of Fame actually predates the Women’s Rights National Historic Park (one could say it even was at the very cusp of the Women’s Movement which really emerged in the 1970s). And when you contemplate the timeline of the biographies, you get a better understanding of the historical context of the Women’s Rights Movement.

Looking around: Abigail Adams, what a pistol she must have been!  She had such a strong influence on her husband but clearly was frustrated in the lack of opportunities women had to utilize their potential. (“Remember the ladies” in forming the new government,” she admonishes her husband, John Adams, in 1776).

Secagewea, Annie Oakley, Harriet Tubman. Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Margaret Bourke-White, Pearl S. Buck, Rachel Carson. Frances Perkins (Labor Secretary under Franklin Roosevelt), Eleanor Roosevelt, Anne Sullivan, Rosa Parks.

Of course, there are the suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony (there is a Susan B Anthony bench from the Ontario County courthouse in Canandaigua), but I also discover women identified as being early feminists (most you never heard of), and you realize that the struggle goes way, way back.

For example, Anne Hutchinson who lived 1591-1643 (honored 1994), was the first woman in the new world to be a religious leader and for it, was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Sarah Grimke, who lived 1792-1873 (honored 1998), who published papers championing abolition and women’s rights, and with her sister Angelina Grimké Weld, 1805 – 1879 (honored 1998), were southerners (born in South Carolina) who became the first female speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society; Fanny Wright, 1795-1852 (honored 1994), the first American woman to speak out against slavery and for the equality of women; Mary Lyon, 1797-1849 (honored 1993), who founded Mount Holyoke in 1837, the first college for women, which became the model for institutions of higher education for women nationwide; and Maria Mitchell, 1818 – 1889 (honored 1994), an astronomer who discovered a new comet in 1847 and the first woman named to membership in the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Except for Anne Hutchinson, most of these women came of age in the 1830s, which was the period of Jacksonian Democracy that extended the vote to white men without property (the Constitution only gave white men with property the right to vote) – and yet, there was no Constitutional amendment that made that happen.

Walking around (and even perusing the website) I am introduced to all sorts of women I had not known, that fill me with pride: women on the front lines of science, civil rights, labor rights, education, human rights.

Mary “Mother” Harris Jones, 1830-1930 (honored 1984), a labor organizer and agitator who worked on behalf of the United Mine Workers and other groups; Sarah Winnemucca, c1844-1891 (honored 1994), Native American leader who dedicated her life to returning land taken by the government back to the tribes, especially the land of her own Paiute Tribe; Susette LaFlesche, 1854-1903 (honored 1994), a member of the Omaha Tribe and a tireless campaigner for native American rights; Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910 (honored 1998), suffragist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” a lecturer on religious subjects, a playwright, an organizer of a women’s peace movement and advocate for women’s equality in public and private life; and Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887 (honored 2009), famous for authoring the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and an important forerunner of the Zionist movement.

There is the famous flyer Amelia Earhart but also Bessie Coleman, an aviatrix of  the1920s, who was the first African American woman to have pilot’s license (at a time when women, let alone a black woman, were not allowed to have a license), but Coleman went to Europe to get her license (what does that tell you?)

I so appreciate the diversity of the women represented, especially in the 20th century, when women do have more educational and professional opportunities: astronaut Sally Ride; Billie Jean King  tennis player who broke through for women’s athletics;, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor. Madeleine Albright, Bella Abzug, Oprah Winfrey, Lucille Ball, Dorothea Lange, Lilly Ledbetter, Margaret Sanger.

By Oct.3 2015, when the latest group is inducted, there will be 266 women inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame (they induct 9 to 13 every other year). Anybody can nominate a woman for the Hall of Fame, but the decisions are made by a panel of judges. (A requirement is that these are American women or naturalized Americans, so Mother Theresa is not included, nor is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher or Marie Curie or Golda Meir).

[Of the 11 Republican Presidential Candidates, they could name only three women to be on the $10 bill: 3 chose Rosa Parks (the only woman’s name they probably could recall), Walker took Clara Barton, one chose Abigail Adams (good choice), but Kasich chose Mother Theresa (figures GOP would choose a penniless nun, and not even American), Jeb Bush picked Margaret Thatcher (the British Prime Minister, what does that say?), Carson chose his Mom, Huckabee  his wife, and Fiorina, most amazing of all chose “none”.  “It was a pretty revealing, and appropriately painful, illustration of the GOP’s serious and persistent difficulty reaching women, and why that problem goes a lot deeper than having polices unfavorable to women’s rights. The candidates praised women as caregivers or supporter,” writes Amanda Taub at box.com (www.vox.com/2015/9/17/9347307/gop-debate-woman-ten-dollar)

The 2015 inductees, on October 3, include:

Tenley Albright (1935 – ) who overcame polio at age 11 to become the first American woman to win a world figure skating championship and the first winner of figure skating’s triple crown; Nancy Brinker (1946 – ) who launched the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer; Martha Graham (1894 – 1991) who transformed dance, revitalized and expanded dance around the world; Marcia Greenberger (1946 – ), the first full-time women’s legal rights advocate, her work  affected virtually every major law of importance to women and girls in the U.S. for more than 40 years, including the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978), the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; Barbara Iglewski (1938 – ) – a Professor of Microbiology and Immunology whose landmark discovery was that pathogenic bacteria communicate with each other.

Also, Jean Kilbourne (1943 – ) who is internationally recognized for her groundbreaking work on the image of women in advertising and for her critical studies of alcohol and tobacco advertising. Carlotta Walls LaNier (1942 – ), who, in 1957, at age 14, became the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine; nine African-American students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal; Philippa ‘Pippa’ Marrack (1945 – ), one of the world’s leading research scientists investigating T-cells, the family of cells that help the body fight off disease; Mary Harriman Rumsey (1881 – 1934), the founder of The Junior League; and Eleanor Smeal (1939 – ), the Founder of The Feminist Majority, Feminist of the Year Awards, a former president of the National Organization for Women, and publisher of Ms. Magazine.

Indeed, as you go through the timeline, the women honorees are less about struggle and more about achievement in a plethora of professions and activities.

The website offers fascinating biographies of each of the honorees, and the new hall will have interactive biographies (see www.womenofthehall.org/women-of-the-hall).

One of the most interesting aspects of the National Women’s Hall of Fame is the Book of Lives & Legacies, which is a way for anyone to honor a special woman in their lives.The Book is a repository of the stories and images of extraordinary women who have made a difference in someone’s life.  For a $100, a plaque is put up in the Hall, and one is sent to the recipient. There are 1,800 so far.

The National Women’s Hall of Fame advocated to get a woman on the $20 bill (appropriately displacing Andrew Jackson who was a slaver and responsible for the Indian Removal Act that led to the Trail of Tears), then suddenly the US Treasury announced that a woman would “share” a place on the $10 bill with Alexander Hamilton (a Founding Father and the first Treasury Secretary). 

There is a very fine gift shop now, which will be much bigger when they move.

(76 Fall St, Seneca Falls, NY 13148, 315- 568-8060, www.womenofthehall.org)

By now it’s 8 pm and the attractions that have stayed open for the Cycle the Erie riders in Seneca Falls have closed and the rain has resumed.

I miss out on visiting the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum, dedicated to the famous movie, because Seneca Falls is believed to have been the inspiration for Bedford Falls.

The notes say The Seneca Falls It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, which opened in December 2010 is located in a portion of what was the first movie theater in town, the Seneca Theater,  built in 1913 by Charles Fornesi, the first Italian to immigrate to Seneca Falls. The museum displays photographs and memorabilia from the collection of Karolyn Grimes, who played “Zuzu” in the film, and items from other private collections.  

“The Museum illustrates why local residents have long believed that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, including information on Antonio Varacalli, whose true story might well be the inspiration for several important scenes in the film.” The museum has several advisors who acted in the film including: Karolyn Grimes (“Zuzu Bailey”), Carol Coombs (“Janie Bailey”), and Jimmy Hawkins (“Tommy Bailey”). There’s an annual celebration in December. (32 Fall Street, Seneca Falls, New York, free admission, www.wonderfullifemuseum.com).

The 600 of us on our eight-day, 400-mile Buffalo to Albany Cycle the Erie bike tour are on our own for dinner tonight, so I get pizza and hop the shuttle back to the campground at the Myderse Academy. With the possibility of more rain tonight, the gym is filled with people in sleeping bags (including mine).

This is a public high school but it is unbelievably lavish. It turns out it was originally a private academy before being donated to the public school district on condition it keep the name.

At our evening meeting, they give us an orientation for the next day’s ride to Syracuse: we will be passing Montezuma Wildlife Refuge, which is opening especially early (7 am) for us, notable for its eagle’s nest.

The 18th Annual Cycle the Erie Canal ride is scheduled July 10-17, 2016. In the meantime, you can cycle the trail on your own – detailed info is at the ptny.org site, including suggested lodgings.For more information on Cycle the Erie Canal, contact Parks & Trails New York at 518-434-1583 or visit www.ptny.org.

Next: Day 4: Seneca Falls to Syracuse, crossing half-way mark of 400-mile Cycle the Erie bike tour

About the author

Karen Rubin

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