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Marching In The Spot Where The Women’s Rights Movement Began

History tends to repeat itself when you prefer to only look at the sunnier bullet points of the past

One Saturday morning in Seneca Falls, New York, a white-haired woman in a yellow brimmed hat walked up to a purple sign directing visitors to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park and other notable sites in town. As her family snapped photos, she held a hand-painted cardboard placard up to a blank space at the bottom of the sign, adding the word “RESIST" to the catalogue of Seneca Falls's charms. A litter of women in pink pussyhats followed in her wake, heading up the hill to the site where 300 people gathered to declare that "all men and women are created equal" in 1848. Today was the day after Donald Trump's inauguration, and in solidarity with millions of demonstrators taking to the streets on seven continents, a crowd of more than 7,000 congregated in the spot where the women's rights movement began.

But if there's one thing you learn in this small town in the Finger Lakes where the past lingers like humid air, it's that movements take forever. Only one New Yorker at that 1848 convention was still alive in 1917, when the state gave white women the vote. Three years later, the only attendee to outlive passage of the 19th Amendment was too ill to cast a ballot. The Iroquois women who inspired the suffragettes wouldn't even become citizens until 1924, and most people of color still wouldn't have access to the ballot for decades. A 101-year-old woman who attended the march in Seneca Falls remembered marching with her mom before women got the vote. She still hasn't seen a female president.

"There's two things we gotta remember about a revolution," said Sally Roesch Wagner, a women's studies professor at Syracuse University, at a rally before the march. "One is that we are going to get our asses kicked. And the other is that we’re gonna win. And we’re gonna win big." Hundreds of signs, including one that read "Susan B. Nasty," bobbed in cheery approval.

First comes the ass-kicking. In this year's election, Seneca County went for Donald Trump, a fact that brings the complicated past of women's rights and the uncertain future of our country onto a collision course. Because if there's another thing you remember at Seneca Falls, it's that history tends to repeat itself when you don't bother to confront its ugliest angles, preferring to only look at the sunnier bullet points of the past.

Jaime Fuller

The day before the march, a handful of organizers met to put the finishing touches on an event they had spent weeks planning. It had been only an hour since President Trump had been sworn in, and at the Women's Rights National Historical Park offices in Seneca Falls, Barack Obama's face was still grinning in a frame on the wall. The organizers had originally planned to spend the day somewhere else. Melina Carnicelli, former mayor of nearby Auburn, is the one who came up with the idea of holding a march here, despite already having a hotel booked in D.C. for January 21. Betty Bayer, a women's studies professor from Hobart and William Smith College, had reserved a seat on a bus to the Washington march. But, Bayer realized, "Seneca Falls was the place to be." Others clearly had the same idea; there was still a traffic jam at the nearest Thruway exit when speakers began to address the crowd.

The town is in the middle of a women's rights tourism boom that locals hope will continue through 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Attendance at the park tripled last year, after an election cycle in which the first woman to run on a major presidential ticket sprinkled mentions of Seneca Falls into her speeches. (The suffragette frenzy has not affected attendance at the always popular It's a Wonderful Life Festival, an event cementing the town's place in the past as well as honoring its alleged inspiration for Bedford Falls.)

At the National Women's Hall of Fame, home to 256 inductees including Shirley Chisholm, Margaret Chase Smith, and Emily Dickinson, visitors pose for selfies with a cutout of Hillary Clinton — who appears to be waving to a cardboard Harriet Tubman. A nearby sign noting that the first convention for women's rights was held "ON THIS CORNER" was still coated with "I Voted" stickers, more than two months after the election — a Festivus pole for the franchise. Although, given how 2016 turned out, many of the same locals taking advantage of the rights celebrated here also probably helped elect the guy that forced this march into being. Fifty-three percent of white women across the country voted for Trump. Seneca County, a place where the factories once powered by the nearby Seneca River have been replaced by a casino, wineries, and other efforts to make tourism the region's economic engine, is 92 percent white.

As Amanda Hess noted in The New York Times Magazine, "The idea of a 'women’s vote' is both a lofty American dream and an ugly little myth," allowing for a singsongy database of t-shirt-friendly feminist soundbites — that all deserve footnotes noting that the object they desire, women agreeing on the direction the country should take and acting accordingly, is much further away than appears in the mirror. At least a dozen signs in Seneca Falls featured the quote that jump-started Clinton's own political ambitions, during her speech at the 1995 U.N. Conference on Women: "Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights." The problem is, no one can agree what any of those rights are. As a result, the fight for women's rights — past and present — has always been, in part, a story of women wronged, forgotten, or purposely excluded.

There's two things we gotta remember about a revolution. One is that we are going to get our asses kicked. And the other is that we’re gonna win.

The march began in the shadow of the Wesleyan Chapel. Sixty-eight women and 32 men met there in 1848 to sign the Declaration of Sentiments, a Jeffersonian statement of independence updated for a new revolution. Storied abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the only person of color to sign the document, which said that men had "compelled [women] to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice." Of course, 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, having no voice in laws was a truth self-evident for black men as well. Douglass didn't see women's suffrage as a barrier to his own enfranchisement, however, and went to Western New York to stand with others fighting for their rights. He would later say of Seneca Falls, "When I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act."

Douglass's found nobility was notably absent in many prominent white suffragists of the era. As the Fifteenth Amendment was being debated two decades later, after the Civil War, famed suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton feared black civil rights would get in the way of the woman’s vote. "If you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people," Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote in 1869, "give it to the most intelligent first." Stanton, perhaps the most famous resident of Seneca Falls, also said, "It is better to be the slave of an educated white man, than of a degraded, ignorant black one!" The line after the "no voice" part of the 1848 Declaration noted that women were denied rights "which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men — both natives and foreigners."

These racist arguments for suffrage were even less subtle in the former Confederacy, where white women also argued, approvingly, that giving them the vote would cancel out the votes of newly enfranchised black men. The first issue of the official magazine for the Southern States Women Suffrage Conference, per Marjorie Spruill Wheeler's book New Women of the New South, featured a cover with the argument, "Make the Southern States White." When women marched on Washington in 1913, black women, who had also been forming their own organizations to fight for the right to vote, were segregated to the end of the line. (Journalist Ida B. Wells refused to submit, and stood with the rest of her white Illinois counterparts.) As Sojourner Truth told the American Equal Rights Association in 1867, "it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up. It cuts like a knife." But, she added, "It will feel all the better when it closes up again."

Jaime Fuller

The organizers of the 2017 Seneca Falls march had this history in mind while planning, and turned the two rallies bookending the event into seminars on how expansive the definition of women's rights should be. Inside the First Presbyterian Church, where National Woman's Party leader Alice Paul first called for an Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, speakers and singers repped Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, local environmental action, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and the influence that the Haudenosaunee women had on suffragists. By the end of the day, the crowd watching the proceedings from outside on a Jumbotron (imported from Pennsylvania for the occasion) had dissipated completely; buses leaving town had clearly been scheduled around a much shorter program. But there were a million reasons why the work of the past century wasn't done — and the speakers wanted everyone attending to know it was their responsibility to fight for gains, regardless of whether it would help them personally.

Our newest president, on the other hand, was mostly an inferred threat, an invisible frame keeping the day's events neatly arrayed. The march planners said repeatedly that their event wasn't designed as a Trump protest. Given the wildly different interpretations of women's rights that had brought everyone that day, however, resistance to Trump may have been the one thing everyone had in common. And even those who had never been to Seneca Falls before, or only had the most cursory understanding of the history of women's rights, still understood Seneca County as a home for progressive political underdogs.

Republican men make up a majority of the local elected representatives, and Republican Tom Reed, who represents the region in Congress, served as a vice-chair of Trump's transition team. Judith Wellman, a historian of Seneca Falls and other movements seemingly irrigated by the nearby lakes during the 19th century, says that the key to understanding Western New York's politics isn't by noting how the region has evolved. "I don't think it's changed demographically since the 19th century," she said from Florida, where she was attending a march in Sarasota. "In fact, that may be one of the reasons why these upstate New York towns are Republican. It's because they've been Republican since 1856. They're Lincoln Republicans. It's stayed the same and the rest of the country has changed." No matter how many times Clinton chanted "Seneca Falls" like a feminist good luck charm, the county that birthed the women's rights movement was unlikely to vote for our country's first female presidential candidate.

Sixty-five-year-old Bob Hayssen is one of those conservatives, although he didn't see the need to officially register as a Republican until 2001. He was born in Seneca Falls, and currently serves on the county board of supervisors. Hayssen has been a Trump fan since the start, wearing his MAGA hat nearly every day, and became a delegate so he could support his candidate at the convention in Cleveland. There, he became a frequent character in articles capturing the frisson Trump was fomenting among his own herd of people in hats. The fact that Hayssen would get to the venue so early that he ended up in the front row all week helped. And if that didn't work, he had his pièce de résistance, a cell phone photo of the wall he had built on his front lawn out of concrete blocks. Guarding the wall, which was painted to look like a flag, was a three-legged plaster of paris mold of a rottweiler named Lyin' Ted. Today, the wall is gone. Hayssen's girlfriend is liberal, and they had stopped talking because of the election. After it ended, she sent him a text about the "damn wall," and came over to help tear it down. While Hayssen was at the inauguration, she was getting ready for the Women's March in D.C. They did not travel together. But, for now, they're still on speaking terms.

The fight for women's rights — past and present — has always been, in part, a story of women wronged, forgotten, or purposely excluded.

Seneca Falls sticks with us because it illustrates how a day of protest can reverberate for centuries — even if it happens in the smallest of places — if it evolves into the catalyst for a larger movement. It's too soon to know what will happen with the issues held aloft on signs during the Women's March, or whether a tenuous coalition brought together by a common opponent will be able to unite, again and again, for matters where support tends to dissolve. For now, hundreds of thousands across the country are donating to the ACLU, descending on airports en masse to protest the mistreatment of legal Muslim residents and refugees, and calling up their legislators to complain about Cabinet nominees. Sixty percent of Americans supported the aims of the Women's March — whatever they assumed said mission to be — according to a new Washington Post poll.

Many of the people who will need help most over the next four years may have been unable to attend any of the marches. Gabriela Quintanilla was at Seneca Falls that day to talk about people who, like her, came to America as undocumented immigrants. She left El Salvador when she was 13, and since graduating from college has worked as an advocate for undocumented students and farmworkers at the Rural & Migrant Ministry based in Poughkeepsie. "I felt that the immigrant community needed to be represented at this march," she said. Rights for farmworkers are women's rights, she continued, and the movement for these rights wouldn't have gone anywhere without the efforts of women like Dolores Huerta, the former leader of the United Farm Workers. She also hopes that she can just get people to care, even now that the march is over. "I often feel," she said a few days later, "that we get too caught up in the energy that we're feeling around a movement or a march and we go home and we forget what it is we need to do."

Meanwhile, Ami Ghazala, superintendent of the Women's Rights National Historical Park, is going to keep reminding visitors about where this particular movement began (and what it left out), and hope it inspires others to keep exercising their constitutional rights. "One of the things that I've tried to do here as a women of color — I am of Latino descent — is to tell all of the stories," says Ghazala, a New Yorker who started her National Parks career at Ellis Island. "We can't just talk about women's rights, we have to talk about the rights of all. Have to talk about LGBTQ rights, we have to talk about people of color." In the upstairs exhibits at the visitor's center, there is an interactive section on the gender pay gap. It makes clear that you can't stop the discussion about wages with a nod to the fact that women make 82 cents to a man's dollar: Black and Latina women make even less.

Ghazala also thinks a lot about how few of the points laid out in the Declaration of Sentiments have been resolved. Children of color are stuck in segregated schools where they often have access to fewer resources than the students in majority-white schools. There are only four women of color in the Senate. An American Indian woman has never been elected to Congress. "We very much connected what is happening today," she adds. "You get a lot of connections. I almost wish we didn't get as many connections as we do to the present day, honestly."

Near the entrance to the Women's Rights National Historical Park, next to the bronze statues of Seneca Falls attendees like Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Douglass, there’s a window that faces the empty field of grass in front of the Wesleyan Chapel. A sign below the window informs visitors that they’re looking out at the park's “First Amendment area,” a space for protest set aside at every national park site across the country, including the National Mall. On Saturday, the window would provide a view of a sea of protesters; the day before, Ghazala pointed toward the space in her green government-issued uniform, and said the empty grass swath was one of her favorite parts of the park. "The biggest thing that is being shown tomorrow is that Americans can be on federal land, land that is protected by the federal government, and that people may disagree with the federal government," she said. "What an incredible exercise in democracy that is."

But for every moment of progress that ends up in the history books, America always seems determined to question it, selfishly wondering if liberty and justice for all is worth living up to when finding some for yourself seems hard enough. At the end of the 19th century, there was a schism in the women's rights movement that lasted for decades, spurred partly by differing views about the 15th Amendment. "This division in the women's movement and the resultant bad behavior are reactions that are all too typical of groups seeking to achieve larger goals," Sally G. McMillen concludes in Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement. "Often losing sight of what they most desire, they fight with one another rather than work together for a greater good." As history makes clear, there's probably some ass-kicking waiting on the horizon.

Additional reporting by Kasia Mychajlowycz.

Hear more from Jaime and Kasia's trip to Seneca Falls in this episode of "The Stakes."