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This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on August 19, 1998. All rights reserved.
For Women's Rights, a Party at Paulsdale
Paulsdale: birthplace of Alice Paul, militant suffragist and drafter of the ERA; Paulsdale: the only public national historic landmark in New Jersey associated with women's achievements. Either fact alone is reason enough to visit this site.
Now add a party of food, music, and women's history that marks the 150th anniversary of the world's first women's rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York -- a historic event to be celebrated on Wednesday, August 26, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at historic Paulsdale in Mount Laurel.
Flashback to July 19, 1848: A few hundred people met in a Wesleyan chapel to consider the "social, civil and religious rights of women," who at that time could not vote, were often isolated and enmeshed in household duties, and were in effect the property of their husbands. Called by a few women who had renewed acquaintance -- and exchanged grievances -- a couple weeks earlier, the convention started a movement that is still in progress.
Then a resident of Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a wife and mother of three children (the total eventually reached seven), was a convention leader. She had attended the 1840 Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where she and other women were denied participation because of their sex. While there, however, she had met Lucretia Mott, an anti-slavery Quaker from Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, who visited Seneca Falls at this propitious time and joined the preparations for the Women's Rights Convention.
The planning group's first task had been to rewrite the Declaration of Independence in feminist terms; to them, it was "self-evident that all men and women are created equal." They listed "the repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman," including divorce law that favored the man. Enumerating 15 inequities, this Declaration of Sentiments was accompanied by a Declaration of (12) Resolutions that included the shocking notion of women's suffrage.
On the convention's second day, the combined Declaration of Principles was adopted unanimously by some 100 women and men -- except for Stanton's suffrage resolution, which barely squeaked through.
Flash forward to January 11, 1885: Almost 40 years later, Alice Paul was born in a farmhouse in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. The child of Quaker parents who espoused the principles of equality, she soon learned that these principles were not a fact of life in the world beyond her family. She determined to change all that.
A social worker and lawyer by training, Paul founded the National Women's Party, then regarded as the militant arm of the suffrage movement. She marshaled her prodigious organizational skills to pull off the 10,000-woman-strong suffrage demonstration in Washington, D.C., one day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, in 1913, and followed that with an 18-month-long series of "silent sentinels" spent in front of the White House, with banners unfurled. With ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, women finally got the vote.
In 1923, 75 years after the first Seneca Falls Convention, Paul's National Women's Party convened there. As a completion of women's constitutional equality, Paul proposed a federal amendment, ultimately called the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She had written the original draft of this document -- at Paulsdale. "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It remained unratified at her death in 1977.
The house of this formidable woman, fittingly, will be the site of next week's "Women's Equality Day" celebration to mark the anniversary of the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. The event benefits the Alice Paul Centennial Foundation, an organization that since 1988 has been committed to purchasing and preserving Paulsdale, and making it a leadership center for women and girls.
The buffet supper fete features Taylor Williams, a Philadelphia attorney, who opens the program with a first-person impersonation of Alice Paul, and Josie Fernandez, newly appointed superintendent of the National Park at Seneca Falls. Also appearing are Margaret Crocco of Columbia University, who talks about the meaning and impact of Seneca Falls; actor Fred Morsell portrays Frederick Douglass in "Why I Became a Women's Rights Man"; and Coline Jenkins-Sahlin and Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin, the great-great and great-great-great granddaughters, respectively, of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Reflecting on all that went into getting women the vote, Linda Bowker, director of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs' Division on Women -- a co-sponsor of the Paulsdale celebration -- urges keeping up the pressure for the next stage. This includes more women winning office ("We'll get real changes made only when women are at the conference table.") and passage of the ERA ("If we're ever going to get economic equality, we need the ERA"). The event is also sponsored by the NJ Advisory Commission on the Status of Women, the Alice Paul Centennial Foundation, and Saint Barnabas Health Care System.
-- Pat Summers
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