Imagine for a moment: You are legally your husband's property. You cannot sign a contract or vote in an election. You cannot obtain a divorce and have no legal rights regarding your own children. You spend an alarming portion of your life bound in dangerously constricting corsets and heels, and should you become pregnant, you're housebound for months. The frustrations that seem archaic to us now were all too real some 150 years ago — and the triumph of the women's suffrage movement over them is preserved in upstate New York, particularly in the rich history of the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, the Elizabeth Cady Stanton House in Seneca Falls, and the Matilda Joslyn Gage House in Syracuse.
These three women were far from the only suffragists who fought for women's rights, but they were remarkable in the way that they defined it. Most of us have vague knowledge of the events that punctuated the times — the assembly of the Seneca Falls Convention, Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments, Anthony's arrest in her parlor after exercising her right to vote — but it is almost impossible to get a genuine sense for the odds that were stacked against them and all the other contributing factors that shaped their experiences until you are standing in the very places where that history was made. I had the opportunity to visit these three houses, all within driving distance of each other in New York, and they truly paint a picture of what it was like for these women that you could never fully fathom just by reading it out of a book.
The Susan B. Anthony House
The most famous of the suffragists is by far Susan B. Anthony, whose home in Rochester, New York, has been preserved as a museum and visitor center. It rests on an ordinary, charming block, its conforming exterior not at all indicative of the monumental things that happened inside its walls.
First, a bit about Anthony: a Quaker and a fierce abolitionist, she spent 15 years teaching before ever becoming involved in the women's suffrage movement. She was denied the ability to speak at a temperance conference because she was a woman, and it was through this experience and her friendship with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, author of the Declaration of Sentiments, that Anthony became involved in 1852 — several years after the iconic Seneca Falls Convention.
Touring the house, you get a much better sense of her narrative and the iconic moments that happened there. The house is relatively bare, characteristic of the Quaker values of her family. The first floor holds the very parlor where she was famously arrested for voting in 1872, and the attic the space where she, Stanton, and Gage co-authored the massive four-volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage. You see the room where she worked on her correspondences and the bedroom where she slept. You even see a touching homage to the sunflower, engraved in her fireplace — a symbol that she also put on her letterhead and was representative of her brothers, who lived in Kansas, and of close friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who used "sunflower" as her pseudonym.
The Susan B. Anthony House is open Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit the site here.
The Elizabeth Cady Stanton House
This house, preserved in Seneca Falls by the National Park Service, was one of several homes Elizabeth Cady Stanton inhabited in her adult life, but by far the most imperative to her work in women's suffrage. Dubbed by Stanton the "Center of the Rebellion," it was notorious not just for being Stanton's home, but for the way it was left to her — her father deeded the home specifically to her in his will, despite the fact that women were not allowed to own property at the time.
It was in this house that Stanton first experienced her marked feelings of unrest, finding her life as a wife and mother confining and limiting. She discussed her feelings with friends Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Martha Wright, and Jane Hunt, and it was through that meeting in 1848 that they established the Seneca Falls Convention. She soon developed a close friendship with Susan B. Anthony that would endure 50 years, and spent her time writing, strategizing, and organizing from her home, often taking up these duties while Anthony traveled to the Seneca Falls home to care for her children.
After leaving Seneca Falls for New York City in 1862, Stanton continued to advocate for women's rights, traveling and co-authoring The History Of Woman Suffrage with Anthony and Gage, as well as releasing an autobiography and the controversial Woman's Bible, which challenged the Bible's depiction of women as subservient to men.
As for Seneca Falls, Stanton did not always look on her time there fondly, describing her experience as feeling like a "caged lioness" — the very experience that was essential in inspiring her to become the iconic figure in women's suffrage that she remains today.
To learn more about touring the Elizabeth Cady Stanton house, visit the National Park Service's website here.
The Matilda Joslyn Gage House
If you haven't heard of Matilda Joslyn Gage, it's not because you were negligent in your history classes — it's because to a large degree, Gage's major feats as a suffragist and advocate for equality have been written out of history. A generally soft spoken person, Gage entered the movement in 1852 by traveling to and then giving an unscheduled, spontaneous speech at the National Woman's Rights Convention. She would later go on to co-found the National Woman Suffrage Association, co-author The History Of Woman Suffrage with Anthony and Stanton, and the controversial Woman, Church and State, which called for the separation of church and state.
To some degree, it was that very belief that separated Gage from her peers; she was considered more radical than her contemporaries Stanton and Anthony. She devoted a lot of her life to preserving the legacies of women whose accomplishments were written out of history, and the house that remains in Syracuse, New York, is doing the same for her in 2016.
The house is a far cry from the museum-like houses of Stanton and Anthony — in fact, you're encouraged touch and experience portions of the house. Rather than keeping the entire house preserved the way it was when Gage was alive, it is mostly devoted to her work, each of the rooms representing a part of her life that she was passionate about. The Haudenosaunee Room is dedicated to the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation, who adopted Gage in 1893. The Underground Railroad Room gives insight of how the house was used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, complete with secret passages and a broader history of the slave trade for context. Everywhere there is something to read, to touch, and try — and when you're all finished, you get to head into the cheekiest gift shop of all time.
(The sass is SO REAL, and just the way Gage would have wanted it.)
Within walking distance of her home is her grave, with the stone quoting her prolific words: “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home or Heaven; that word is Liberty.”
The Matilda Joslyn Gage home is open from Tuesday 2pm – 5pm, Wednesday 11am – 4pm, Thursday 11am – 4pm, Friday 11am – 4pm, and for occasional special events on Saturdays. To learn more about the house, visit their website here.
Images: Emma Lord/Bustle