August 26, 2020, the publication date of this week’s Ithaca Times, marks the hundredth anniversary of women winning the right to vote in the United States with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
The amendment took decades to create and enact. It became law in 1920 once it was ratified by two-thirds of the states.
Historically, the Finger Lakes region features prominently in the fight for gender equality in this country. In July, 1848 the first national convention for women’s rights was held in Seneca Falls. The convention was an important development in the campaign for women’s rights. For years women’s groups were active on local levels; the Seneca Falls conference was a pioneering attempt at national planning and organization.
Seneca Falls was a logical location for the convention. Many of its major organizers lived in the area. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had given her first public speech in Seneca Falls years earlier and subsequently moved there from Boston. Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, 50 miles away. Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who introduced them, was born In Homer, New York and moved to Seneca Falls, where she married the owner of the local newspaper and wrote of activist politics. Within a few years she started a newspaper of her own expressly for women.
Central New York was an area of social and political radicalism. It was close enough to New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia to be influenced by their resources and culture, but remote enough to foster new thinking and action in significant ways. With the development of the Erie Canal, the area became less a frontier and more a forefront of ideas and influence.
Many women’s rights campaigners were also active abolitionists. Central New York was an important area in this movement, too, and there were many political and personal links. Two of the most renowned abolitionists, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, lived in the area: Tubman in Auburn, 20 miles from Seneca Falls, and Douglass in Rochester.
Both Tubman and Douglass escaped slavery in Maryland and came via the Underground Railroad to upstate New York, where the network for freedom was highly active, and where both became crucial leaders. Tubman repeatedly risked her freedom and life by personally guiding subjects of slavery from southern states. Douglass harbored hundreds of refugees in his home.
A noted writer and orator, Douglass founded an anti-slavery newspaper, the North Star, in Rochester. He was a speaker at the Seneca Falls convention. He was an influential proponent, there and elsewhere, of its strongest positions, such as universal suffrage, which was seen as extreme and controversial even by many convention participants.
Even prior to this history, this region had a proclivity for equal rights among its population. Its native people were the Haudenosaunee, inhabitants of much of what became upstate New York, all throughout its central, western, and northern sections.
The economic, social, and political structures of the Haudenosaunee were a model of political cohesion at a time when the fledgling settlements of European incursions were contentious and tenuous. Many historians cite the ideas and practices of the Haudenosaunee as inspirations for U.S. political development in general and the Constitution in particular.
One important aspect of Haudenosaunee life that was shunned rather than emulated by the Europeans was the leadership role of women. The Haudenosaunee were a matrilineal and matriarchal society. Women controlled economic resources and governance in practice and codification.
The rules of gender equality the Haudenosaunee created and held as good sense and sound structure were dismissed by the Europeans for their sharing of rights and power. European warmaking killed off the Haudenosaunee and obliterated their society. But even after their destruction, the legacies of the Haudenosaunee lived on in their lost lands, at least in enough capacity to teach others to aspire to live freely.
History’s lessons are available for our benefit. The abolitionists, suffragists, and other activists from this region learned these lessons, adopted and adapted them, and brought them hence.
The remnants, repercussions, and reasons for struggle are still with us. They remain particularly visible here in upstate New York, although the latter are quite obvious everywhere.