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A new national park honors birthplace of US feminism

With the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution on Aug. 26 , 1920, women were, according to some history books, given the right to vote. Actually, it was the culmination of a 72-year-long struggle to win the right to vote for women. This is the day now celebrated as Women's Equality Day.

In July, the National Park Service officially opened the Women's Rights National Historical Park, honoring the birthplace of the struggle for woman suffrage in Seneca Falls, N.Y. It was here that homemakers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held the first women's rights convention, in 1848.

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''It was the first time women and men sat down formally to discuss the rights of women,'' says park superintendent Judy Hart. ''And it was the first public call for the right to vote.''

The park itself has only two buildings: a small visitor center on the main street of Seneca Falls, and the modest, mint-colored frame home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton several blocks away. But the 475-acre historic district encompasses most of the village's neat, unpretentious homes and businesses that line the banks of the Barge Canal and the adjoining Van Cleef Lake. The Park Service has also designated several more sites within and near the historic district for preservation and interpretation, including the home of newspaper editor Amelia Bloomer, convention organizers Jane Hunt and Mary Ann McClintock, and Wesleyan Chapel, site of the women's rights convention.

The park was authorized and dedicated during a period of tight budgets, political uncertainties, and seemingly little enthusiasm on the part of the new administration for new national parks. But an uncommon partnership between private citizens and officials on a local, state, and national level made the Women's Rights National Park a reality.

Until recently, no one envisioned a national park in Seneca Falls, and the rich history of the area seemed in danger of disappearing. Wesleyan Chapel had been turned into a laundromat. And the Elizabeth Cady Stanton home was for sale.

But all that changed in 1978, when Ralph Peters and Marjorie Smith, a Seattle couple, visited Seneca Falls. Before they left town, 72-year-old Ralph Peters had bought the Stanton house. That purchase allowed time for a local citizens group, the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Foundation, to raise the necessary funds to buy back the Stanton home. With local and state help, they would turn it over to the Park Service.

Just over $60,000 has been allocated for park operations. When funds become available, the Park Service will begin restoration of the Stanton home. There are also plans to acquire more sites - beginning with Wesleyan Chapel - through public and private efforts.

Most national parks take years to go through the legislative process. Not this one. Within a year after the Park Service recommended the area for inclusion in the national park system, Congress passed the legislation in December 1980.

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''It was a series of serendipitous events,'' explained the current Stanton Foundation president, Corinne Guntzel. ''It's as though the ghost of Elizabeth Cady Stanton roams the land and makes things happen,'' she added with a mischievous smile.

During the opening ceremonies, actor Alan Alda, a Stanton Foundation trustee, said, ''These modest buildings of Seneca Falls that we dedicate . . . are as much a part of the soul of our democracy as those revered halls in which white, propertied men granted themselves freedom, liberty, and democracy. . . . We must never let (these women) fade from our memory.''

The Women's Hall of Fame, which now occupies permanent quarters in Seneca Falls, added two honorees to its list of 29 members: suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt and Frances Perkins, who was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of labor and the first female member of any US President's cabinet.

At the Presbyterian Church on a sweltering evening, local citizens participated in a dramatization of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's life and the Seneca Falls convention. The play's author, Betsy Shultis of Ithaca, N.Y., explained, ''I attempted to portray these women of heroic stature as ordinary people without diminishing them.''

''Seneca Falls 1848: All Men and Women Are Created Equal'' dramatized the first meeting of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in London at the world antislavery convention. There, the two women were barred from participation in the convention.

''Oh, who are the slaves of this world?'' asked Mrs. Stanton at the reunion of the two women eight years later in Seneca Falls, where they planned the first convention to discuss the rights of their sex.

At that convention, the women and men present drew up a list of grievances and resolutions, drawing on the original Declaration of Independence for inspiration. ''We hold these truths to be self-evident,'' they declared, ''that all men and women are created equal. . . .''

The demand for voting rights for women was so controversial then that the resolution won approval by only a bare majority at the Seneca Falls convention. But the right to vote was not the main issue, according to Dr. Gerda Lerner, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. ''The demand for women's citizenship was the basic demand. . . . They were equally as concerned about educational and employment opportunity . . . economic interests . . . and the right to gain control over their bodies and their reproductive function. . . . They saw the redefinition of sex roles as a fundamental basis for advancing the emancipation of women.''

Those at the convention also called for women's property rights, the right to custody of their own children, and participation in church leadership.Those were radical ideas for the 19th century. But then Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a radical woman. Although she married and had children - she eventually bore seven - she dared to question traditional values in all aspects of women's lives.

At a time when convention dictated ''bundling'' or wrapping infants to restrict their movement, Mrs. Stanton allowed her babies to move freely. Instead of wearing the flowing skirts and restrictive corsets of her day, for several years she wore bloomers (so named after Amelia Bloomer, who advocated them), which allowed her to move freely and to carry her children up and down stairs without the worry of tripping on her skirts.

The words spoken and demands made in Seneca Falls in 1848 and during the ensuing struggle have a contemporary ring. That's the main lesson to be learned from women's history, according to Lucille Povero, founder and first president of the Stanton Foundation. ''We are discussing the same topics now that they discussed 134 years ago.''

Or, for that matter, the topics they discussed here on the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls convention: the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA was conceived and written during the National Women's Party convention there in 1923 .

Park superintendent Hart was concerned that the ERA would overshadow the history of the Seneca Falls convention. ''This park is not political,'' she stated. ''Although people automatically make the connection (between ERA and the women's rights convention), it is not a part of the story we'll be telling.''

Yet the connection between the two was difficult, if not impossible, to avoid during the park's opening festivities. Antipathy toward President Reagan's opposition to the ERA and the administration's perceived antiwoman policies were apparent in picket signs at the dedication, and in the loud boos that greeted presidential assistant Wendy Borcherdt when she read a statement declaring the administration's dedication to equality for women.

At the 1923 Women's Party convention, Alice Paul, who had been jailed and force-fed during the suffrage campaign, asked members what they should do next. The response was, ''Give us bread.''

As reported in the New York Times in 1923, Alice Paul then wrote the following: ''Whereas, only one point in the equal rights program of 1848, that of equal suffrage, has been completely attained . . . the National Women's Party . . . is dedicated to the same equal rights program as that adopted on this spot 75 years ago,'' and resolved ''the securing of an amendment to the United States Constitution stating men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.''

During its history, the village of Seneca Falls has seen the burgeoning of many other social and religious movements, including abolitionism, temperance, Mormonism, Millerites, and a Utopian community in nearby Oneida. Local officials and townspeople worked hard for the park legislation, and the village seems to welcome its newfound fame as the country's newest national park.

Yet there are indications that 134 years after the first call for equality for women, there is still an uneasy truce between history and tradition in the town that gave the movement its birth.

A remark by a local chamber of commerce director has been recorded in village lore: 'This is a gimmick we ought to milk for all it's worth.''

''The park means a lot to this town,'' said construction worker Nick Kuempel, who relished his role as James Mott in the dramatization. ''But some of the guys still make jokes about women's lib.''

The night after the park dedication, someone broke the front window of the visitor center. Park personnel hoped it was ''just some mischievous kids.''

Perhaps it will be here in the village that saw the beginnings of women's demands for full citizenship, for the right to vote, and for equal rights under the Constitution that the lessons of the past will serve as a guide to begin to resolve issues of the present and the future.

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