Saturday, August 30, 2008

Where Are The Falls?

I don't think I'm projecting. The teen girls on the streets of Seneca Falls, New York, wear the town's history. Young women-to-be in ball uniforms strode comfortably and confidently down Fall Street.

They should. Outside of our Yankeeland havens of progressive self-righteousness, there's a world sewn with pockets of pivotal events and world-changing moments. New England, New York City and D.C. think we own women's rights as well as abolition and more.

This tiny burg (under 7,000 folk) in middle New York State was eight decades ahead of the rest of the socially conservative nation in many ways. Its 1848 convention was the flaring spark to the fire that became universal suffrage.

This trip was not so much a pilgrimage to the women's movement as it was of sacrifice. We were off to nearby Rochester to deliver son number two to the university there. We stayed at a cabin in the state park as our base, going to the Canadian falls, the U of R and Seneca Falls. We would finish the week diminished, a family with two sons shot from the bow and one in the quiver.

If you were to ask our newly 15-year-old his highlight of the week, it would surely not be the Women's Rights National Historical Park. We toured and gawked and listened to watched and even attended the lecture at the adjacent shell of the Methodist chapel where the convention occurred. He would speak of the Zuzu ice cream parlour and burning meat on the cabin's fire pit for dinner. Such are youthful caprice and hormones.

I suspect though that discussions as we visited of the hardships of 18th and 19th Century women will bubble up. Likewise, the foolishness of the delegates to the 1840 London convention of abolitionists will perculate. They raged early and long about whether women deserved to be seated in the convention. Lackaday, they voted that they could — in Quaker fashion, only at the rear and with no voice.

That gross insult direclty led Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and a few of their chums to organize the meeting in the boonies of New York eight years later. May we thank the mechanisms of natural politics for retribution against the asininity of the seated powers!

Were you to drive through Seneca Falls on the main street (also routes 20 and 5), you'd see a moderately shabby mill town of modest means. The Erie Canal passing through is picturesque for sure, but in many ways it wears its history like undergarments. The subtle HISTORIC DISTRICT signs mumble in contrast to the shouts of Boston's Freedom Trail.

While the real work of abolition happened in the east, the sturdy seedlings of women's rights sprouted and flourished in this tiny town.

We have an amazingly full puffery here in Boston in terms of history. We pretend that virtually all the Revolutionary War, abolition movement, Civil War and more occurred right on the Shawmut peninsula. In fact, after the rabble rousing, pamphleteering and pair of skirmishes up here, virtually all the American Revolution was elsewhere. Boston wasn't even the capital of the nation, unlike Philadelphia and New York. Likewise, while many Union troops were from Massachusetts and larger New England, the leaders, the battles and the turning points were well south. Moreover, many locals here were pro-slave trade and hostile to the abolitionist forces.

We should feel a kinship with Seneca Falls, where important ideas stewed and boiled over, affecting the larger culture. There's only honor and glory in being the nursery for the great plants.

Historic Footnote: The Seneca Falls locals love to chuckle at the, "Where's the falls?" query. There were a series of namesake cataracts over the industrial water control. In 1914 and 1915, the state and town reworked the stream to incorporate the canal system. The falls disappeared as a result.

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