This year, NYSCA honors the New York State Women’s Suffrage Centennial. Through our Regional Economic Development Council Program, we have provided FY2017 grants to organizations who are commemorating the occasion through their programs. In addition, on this blog, we will regularly pay tribute to grantees who honor the Centennial and showcase the impact of women in New York State arts and culture.
For our first Women in NY Culture feature, we spoke with Deborah L. Hughes, President & CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester. A National Historic Landmark, the Susan B. Anthony House was the home of the legendary American women’s rights leader during the most politically active period of her life. A group of Rochester women purchased the house in 1945 to be a permanent memorial to Anthony and the cause of women’s rights. NYSCA supports the Susan B. Anthony Museum through our Museum Program. This year, the organization also received funding through our REDC program for VoteTilla, a boat trip down the Erie Canal with scholars, reenactors, and arts organizations in celebration of the New York State Women’s Suffrage Centennial.
NYSCA: As a pioneering women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony’s national impact is well known. What can we learn about her contributions to women’s rights in New York – or her experience as a New York resident – at the Susan B. Anthony House?
DH: She’s much more significant to New York history than a lot of people know.
Susan B. Anthony was born in Massachusetts and moved to Battenville, NY, when she was 6. She lived 80 of 86 years as a New Yorker. She came to Rochester in the 1840s, and she spent 40 of her most politically active years here.
First, she was active in the temperance movement. This was critically important to women who might be trapped in a marriage with a husband who was an alcoholic. Divorce was almost never possible. You could force your children to work in order to pay your husband’s bar bill. She got radicalized through the temperance movement because she went to a convention and was told that women were to be there and listen – not to be heard.
She famously said that every woman should have a purse of her own. That wasn’t a fashion statement. At that time in New York State, a married woman didn’t have property – couldn’t be on a jury, sign a contract, open bank account. Susan B. Anthony became an early advocate for marriage and property laws to enable married and single women to have choices and freedom.
She worked for the American Anti-Slavery Society and spoke in all of New York State’s counties – she did a lot of travel by horse-drawn sleigh. As a single woman in 1850s, to travel alone by sleigh took a tremendous amount of courage.
She always believed in universal suffrage regardless of race or creed or gender or origin. She believed everybody should be at the table. She felt to change society she had to have a voice and a vote. When interviewed about being in the women’s movement, she said that she had always been for the rights of everyone, but if she could improve the rights of half the population, why not start there?
NYSCA: What would you consider some of the most meaningful aspects of visiting the Susan B. Anthony Museum today? Do you have any personal favorite objects in terms of stories they tell and inspiration they provide?
DH: The house is our most important object. The home is in a beautiful, city neighborhood in a National Preservation District – one of the most intact you can visit. When you look out our front door and stand on the porch, you get a great sense and feel for what she saw.
It wasn’t just a home. It was also the headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association when she was president. As visitors walk through the building, a guide explains how she was arrested in the parlor for having voted in 1872. When they get to the second floor, they learn how two bushels of mail would arrive at a time. As you move to her bedroom, where she died in 1906, you hear the amazing story of how she gave her final speech in Baltimore at 86 years of age.
What can you tell us about the upcoming VoteTilla event?
In 2008, a number of us across the state were discussing the 2020 [19th amendment] anniversary. We wanted to find a way to collaborate with organizations of very different scales.
VoteTilla will take place along the Erie Canal from July 17 – 22, 2017. The journey will start in Seneca Falls and conclude in Rochester. Three packet boats – the kind [of small passenger ship] Anthony traveled in – will be filled with about 30 re-enactors. There will be ceremonies and speeches.
Who will be a part of VoteTilla?
There will be scholars on the boat participating in panels looking at important 19th century and contemporary themes, such as racism, education, health, and broader social reform that were motivators to get everyone the right to vote.
Two boats will join us with contingents from the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Friends of the National Women’s Rights Historical Park, and the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester. Partner organizations such as GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Theatre will host events along the way, and there will be side trips available to the Seward House Museum and Ganondagan.
By the time we get to Rochester we hope to pick up lots more boats – people can join us on canoes, kayaks, or motorboats. Then we’ll have a parade from Broad to West Main Street to the Susan B. Anthony House. For that we’d love 4H groups, Girl Scouts, bands – any group that wants to be a part of it.
Why have the event take place along the Erie Canal?
We knew that, particularly in 1915 and 1917, women were drawing attention to the cause through street theatre – they would take a wagon to Long Island and girls and women would get out and make speeches. We realized there was a route that already existed and it was the canal. It was wonderful for this to coincide with the canal’s Bicentennial. Here in New York State, we’re able to celebrate two ways in which we really were changing the world.