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In Honor of Great Women

by Jo Freeman

The contributions of nineteen women to American life over four centuries were highlighted on October 7 when they were inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame.  Among them were Attorney General Janet Reno (1938- ), suffragist and preacher Anna Howard Shaw(1847-1919), civil war surgeon Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919), and two retired Air Force generals -- Jeanne Holm (1921- ) and Wilma Vaught (1930- ).

 They bring to 176 the number of American women so honored "whose contributions to the arts, athletics, business, education, government, the humanities, philanthropy and science, have been the greatest value of the development of their country."

The Hall of Fame was created in 1969 by the citizens of Seneca Falls, New York, home of the 1848 women's rights convention which wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, and of the 1923 National Woman's Party conference where the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced.

For many years the New York Chiropractic College housed the Hall. After purchasing a former bank building in 1979 it moved to Fall street in downtown Seneca Falls.  Inside are photographs of the women it honors and other exhibits on the achievements of American women.

Getting into the Hall of Fame is no mean feat.  Any one can nominate any American woman, but it generally takes multiple nominations by many women and a concerted campaign for a nominee to survive the elimination process.  Nominators often do extensive research to substantiate the claim to fame.  The contributions of the 173 women nominated this year were reviewed by a research committee of 14 before a panel of 15 judges selected 19 women to be in the "class of 2000."

There is a backlog of great women waiting to take their place on the walls of the Hall.  For the time being it helps to have a cheering squad in upper New York State, regardless of where the nominee did most of her work.

For example, Crystal Eastman (1881-1928), pioneering civil liberties and labor attorney, came from Elmira, New York, where her parents were pastors of Park Church.  Two presidents of the Chemung County Council of Women -- Barbara Sechrist and Faith Hallock -- nominated her three times over several years.  The Council co-ordinated an extensive letter writing and lobbying campaign before her acceptance into the class of 2000.

 Local backing insures a good turnout for the induction ceremony.  Seven hundred friends, family and fans of the honorees attended this year's ceremony.  Among them were quite a few women dressed in military uniforms, who came to honor their own.   A dozen came from Chemung County.

This year's ceremony began Friday night with a reception at the main building of the Women's Rights National Park, followed by a candlelight procession, led by Girl Scouts, down the street to the Hall of Fame.  Saturday featured a press conference, luncheon, the induction and ended with another reception at the Chiropractic College.

At the morning press conference, Attorney General Janet Reno was repeatedly asked if women had to work harder, or were treated differently, than men, and repeatedly she said no.  Avoiding any words that might be interpreted as feminist, or even political, she quoted Abraham Lincoln and her mother to the effect that one should do your best and believe in yourself.

Each of the living inductees, and descendants or other representatives of dead ones, addressed the gathering after presentation of a medal by Marilyn P. Bero, President of the Board of Directors.  Their speeches were peppered with personal anecdotes, expressions of gratitude, and words of inspiration.

Also in Seneca Falls is most of the Women's Rights National Historical Park, created by an Act of Congress in 1980.  Its current director is Josie Fernandez, who left Cuba as a refugee while still a child.  She joined the Park Service after a career in the Air Force.

The "Park" consists of several buildings in two towns.  A two story exhibit hall sits next to the shell of the Wesleyan Chapel where the 1848 convention was held.  Other sites include the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who along with Lucretia Mott called the convention.  The Park recently acquired the Hunt and M'Clintock Houses in nearby Waterloo, where much of the convention planning was done by these women plus Martha Wright, Jane Hunt and Mary Ann M'Clintock.

Although run by the National Park Service, it is funded in part through private donations.  The Friends of the Women's Rights National Park collects donations of money and objects commemorating woman suffrage, and also holds its own events.  A "dialog" on women's legal status, then and now, was held the morning of the induction ceremony at the WNRP.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton's birthday is celebrated on November 12.  All of these serve the same purpose: to put women back into history.

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