It's a Wonderful Life
When you're on equal footing
by M.L. Faunce
Last fall, I drove up to the Finger Lakes area of New York for the wedding of Amy and Brian. This smart, attractive young pair was about to begin their new life together like most couples do today, on equal footing.
As part of the wedding weekend, the couple wanted their guests to see the famous college town where they both grew up and to learn more about the area they adore. This region of long, deep finger-shaped lakes is known for its scenery and wine. But the history of the nearby town of Seneca Falls has its own special vintage, too.
Back in 1946, film director Frank Capra recreated this upstate mill town as the fictional Bedford Falls for the movie classic, Its a Wonderful Life. Filmed not in New York but on a California studio ranch, the heartwarming Christmas story tells how George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, saved a town by keeping his savings and loan association open.
But a hundred years before George Bailey would jump off Bridge Street bridge to save the guardian angel who saved him -- and then watch how life would have been in Bedford Falls without him -- another drama had played out in the real town of Seneca Falls.
One hundred and fifty years ago, a brigade of 300 women and 40 men traveled by horse-drawn wagons to Seneca Falls to begin what women now characterize as our Berlin Wall, our Battle of Hastings. At the 1848 Womens Rights Convention in that idyllic small town, women began the long struggle for equal rights.
The convention was planned by a handful of feisty females -- most notably the brilliant housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton and teacher Susan B. Anthony. No less clever than George Baileys wife, Mary (youll remember Donna Reed), Stanton played her part for history, leading the protest against the legal bondage of American women and demanding full equality.
At this first Womens Rights Convention held in the United States, the attendees took an audacious move by rewriting the Declaration of Independence -- along feminist lines. Their Declaration of Sentiments combined well-worn words with two new words: all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.
The women followed the preamble with these facts: women were compelled to submit to laws they had no voice in formulating; could not attend college; had no right to property, even to wages earned -- but did have to pay taxes. The declaration concluded with this last daring demand: women should be given the right to vote.
Hollywood can create a town, a cast of characters and a heartwarming story almost over night. But it took from 1848 until 1920 for American women to gain the right that warmed their hearts -- the right to vote. Today, historic Seneca Falls is a mecca for all who honor the pioneers who began the crusade for women's rights -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. Authorized by Congress in 1980, the Women's Rights National Historical Park sits in the middle of town, not far from the Bridge Street bridge, under which a lot of water has flowed in the last 150 years.
Women from all over the world now come to a spot of quiet contemplation in Declaration Park: their wall, where water flows over the list of Sentiments presented in 1848. Within the park is the building that housed the convention, transformed from a laundry when the womens monument was dedicated. Now, only the preserved architectural fragments remain, perhaps to remind us that womens work is never done.
In Its a Wonderful Life, George Baileys daughter says, whenever you hear a bell ring, an angel gets its wings.
In their time, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia
Mott were not commonly thought of as guardian angels. Now we know they earned
their wings the old-fashioned way -- and were light years ahead of their
Editors note: March is Womens History Month.