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Tubman decision is a win for women and upstate New York

Jeanne Giovannini’s life changed through the movement she celebrates each day. The president of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls graduated from high school, she said, at a time when women who sought to work outside the house were tacitly expected to be a “secretary, nurse or a teacher.”

She got married, left Seneca Falls and settled in Florida. She stayed home to raise her children. But Giovannini felt a professional longing. Opportunities were finally opening for women. After her family moved in the 1970s to Monroe County, she enrolled in the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her strength was mathematics. She went on to build a career as an executive in the government division of Eastman Kodak.

One thing, however, seemed destined to stay the same: The cash she earned always carried the image of a man.

Eventually, she and her husband retired to Seneca Falls, a Seneca County town of about 9,000 that’s considered the birthplace of the American women's rights movement. Giovannini became active with the Hall of Fame, whose front door is 115 miles east of Buffalo. More than a year ago, Giovannini was appointed president.

Last summer, U.S. Treasurer Rosie Rios held a “town hall” gathering in Seneca Falls on the possibilities created by the redesign of the $10 bill. A big crowd showed up in the historic Wesleyan Chapel. In the following months, Giovannini kept close watch as the federal government considered a profound change to American paper money.

The result, announced last week, left Giovannini feeling euphoric. It was a victory not only for a movement, but specifically for upstate New York, with its extraordinary heritage as sacred ground for women’s rights. Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who settled in Cayuga County and led many others to freedom, will replace Andrew Jackson as the central figure on the $20 bill.

Concept art of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. (Photo courtesy Women on 20s/TNS)

Concept art of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. (Photo courtesy Women on 20s/TNS)

Images of seven other women, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., will be added to the backs of the $5 and $10 bills.

Many of those selected spent key parts of their lives upstate: Famed orator and human rights champion Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery in Swartekill, in Ulster County. Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in Seneca Falls, became close allies with another legend, Susan B. Anthony of Rochester.  Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, joined Stanton as a central player in the landmark 1848 Seneca Falls convention whose call for equality still resonates in the 21st century.

Alice Paul, another choice and a champion of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, organized the 1923 Equal Rights Conference in Seneca Falls. Eleanor Roosevelt, the great humanitarian, spent much of her life in Hyde Park, near Poughkeepsie. She worked with Marian Anderson, an African-American contralto who is also on the list, in staging a 1939 concert in Washington, D.C., that struck a high-profile blow against racial segregation.

They are all on the wall of the Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. To learn about these women, the little town is the place to go. It is a major stop on an upstate “Women’s Heritage Trail” - organized by the office of state parks – that may get a burst of energy from the currency decision.

“This is paper money. This is huge. This is a big deal,” said Giovannini of the change, expected to happen in 2020. “Think of it: It’s a measure of value in our culture. It’s validation that our contributions are recognized. This isn’t just about women, but about inspiration, about simple downright courage, about all they carried out.”

The hall displays a bench from the Ontario County courtroom where Anthony was fined $100 in 1873 for voting illegally – a fine she refused to pay. Giovannini pointed out another favorite attraction: An enormous $10 bill, with an open oval. It allows visitors to be photographed with their faces in a spot that typically holds the visage of Alexander Hamilton.

Giovannini believes the daily act of seeing women on familiar bills will lead to curiosity about what they did, thus drawing more pilgrims to Seneca Falls and other upstate sites. The feeling is echoed by Kimberly Szewczyk, chief of interpretation at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, a short walk  from the Hall of Fame.

She and Giovannini both spoke of two impending centennials of significance in the quest for women’s rights: New York state allowed women the right to vote in 1917, and the 19th Amendment – giving women across the nation the vote – was ratified three years later.

Stanton, Truth, Anthony, Mott and countless others sought the vote for urgent reasons. “In 1848, a married woman was civilly dead in the eyes of the law,” Szewczyk said. “A husband had the right to beat her (and) the right to all her lands. Any child she carried was his. If he chose to do it, he could take the child away from her and put that child in an orphanage.”

Szewczyk said for women, the only means of wiping out such suffocating cruelty was by changing the law, and that could only happen through the vote. The effort took hold upstate, where Szewczyk said the Erie Canal carried not only goods but restless thinkers with a surge of fresh ideas. While the 1848 convention made Seneca Falls the cradle of the suffrage campaign, it would take another 72 years before women could cast a vote in a national election.

About 30,000 visitors come to the national park every year. They can study a bronze casting of the intertwined hands of Stanton and Anthony, created with such detail “you can see the veins in (Anthony’s) arm,” Szewczyk said. They can stand at what might be the actual podium used in the 1848 convention, or visit the quiet space in Wesleyan Chapel where the great convention was assembled.

“You feel it here, what they accomplished,” Szewczyk said. “It reverberates. This is their park, their history, their legacy.”

Giovannini said the new currency only reinforces her excitement about the future. On May 7, the Hall of Fame will hold its first-ever “Right to Run” road race. Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry, will be handing out medals. It is all part of a drive to move the hall from smaller quarters on Fall Street into a historic knitting mill near the Seneca-Cayuga Canal.

The 19th century owners of that mill were among those who signed “A Declaration of Sentiments” at the 1848 convention. Drafted by Stanton, the statement was modeled on the Declaration of Independence. It declared with striking force that “all men and women are created equal,” a statement to challenge the core of accepted thinking at the time.

In the following decades, advocating for those rights could lead to ridicule, arrest and even violence.

Becky Bly, who owns a shop called WomanMade Products on Fall Street, said the power of that heritage – all the tales of courage and sacrifice - caused her to move her business from Long Island to Seneca Falls. The true importance of the currency, she said, is the probability that it will make millions of Americans more aware of the long struggle for women’s rights.

Her ancient cash register dates to the early 20th century. She likes the idea of using it to hold cash that features women’s faces.

“I’m pleased,” Bly said. “It’s about time our currency doesn’t just reflect old dead white men, some of whom did some terrible things.”

Sheri Barnes of Auburn journeyed to the national park Friday with her daughter and granddaughter, Carol and Frannie Johnson of Barrington, R.I. They made the trip because Frannie, 10, recently did an elementary school report on Susan B. Anthony. Carol Johnson said the child asked to travel to nearby Seneca Falls while visiting her grandmother in Auburn.

“This is the place where it all folded out,” Frannie explained.

The news about the currency gives Barnes a hometown reason to rejoice: Tubman, the new face of a $20 bill, spent much of her life in Auburn. The great abolitionist’s longtime house will soon become a national park. “Putting her on that bill will remind everyone of what she accomplished,” said Barnes, a retired accountant.

As for the upstate legacy of Stanton, Anthony and all the others, Barnes sees a direct connection in her granddaughter’s dreams.

“Because of all this,” said Barnes, raising her hands toward the walls of a shrine to women’s rights, “there’ll be no impediment to anything she wants to do.”

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