Women’s suffrage will celebrate its centennial anniversary Aug. 18, but American women began their effort to win the right to vote long before 1920. Janice Friebaum had the opportunity to teach people that history while she was in college, and it’s something she still feels passionately about today.
In 1982, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park opened in Seneca Falls, New York, the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Stanton and Mott are credited with organizing the first women’s rights convention there in 1848, where voting rights for women was first proposed publicly.
The 72-year-long struggle between the 1848 convention and the ratification in 1920 of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote is a storied but bumpy one. It’s also a history with which Friebaum is very familiar. She was a park ranger for the National Park Service, and her job was to explain the history of the women’s rights movement to visitors.
Now the vice president of the Phoenix Holocaust Association, Friebaum talked to Jewish News about her involvement in women’s history, an “unusual” park and why “it’s incumbent upon us to vote.”
How did you come to be involved in this national historical moment?
I was in college in Seneca Falls, New York at Eisenhower College. I was in my sophomore or junior year, and I proclaimed Women’s Studies as my minor. Because of that I was contacted by the National Park Service and asked if I had an interest in becoming one of the two first park rangers to be hired by the soon-to-be-opened Women’s Rights National Historical Park located in Seneca Falls. It was slated to be opened in the summer of 1982.
It was established by an act of congress in 1980, and the reason for the park was to preserve sites associated with and to commemorate the first women’s rights convention in the U.S., which was quite a momentous thing historically. And it happened in downtown Seneca Falls of all places. There’s a whole cast of characters involved in creating and thinking up that convention and a whole tremendous story about what happened in the aftermath — including women’s right to vote being secured some 70-plus years later.
What was it like to work there?
I was there for the grand opening of the park, and that was a whole experience in and of itself. For a month or so we worked out of a barn — literally worked out of a barn. And it was in the summer, and it wasn’t air conditioned, and it was quite dreadful. We had a park superintendent, a park historian and a few rangers. We had a staff that was associated with the purchase and renovation of the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
We celebrated the completion of purchasing that home so it could become a national park service site and restored with a vintage look. Tours have been conducted there ever since.
What do you remember about the grand opening?
5,000 people attended, and Alan Alda was the keynote speaker in the pouring rain. I was a 20-year-old and a huge fan, and I got to give him a tour of the home. He was invited, because he contributed the last $11,000 that was needed to purchase the home. He had been a very strong proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, and that became a point of controversy about whether he would talk about that in his keynote address. Some people didn’t want him to do that, to turn it into something political. But he did talk about it quite a bit.
What did you make of Seneca Falls being the location for this park?
Downtown in Seneca Falls, the Wesleyan chapel was a popular place for all sorts of social reform movements, like abolition and temperance. Having the women’s rights convention there made sense. Through the years it became many different things and eventually it wound up as a laundromat, and I remember Alan Alda saying that he thought it was absolutely a symbol upon a symbol that the first women’s rights convention is now a laundromat.
After a summer spent teaching this history, did you want to keep doing it?
When the visitor center was completed, I worked again a second summer, after I graduated from college and before I started graduate school, as a ranger for the second season. The park is immensely changed now. Under normal circumstances — if you could go there now — they have a gorgeous visitor center with a beautiful theater.
You know this history so well, it’s clear you could be a ranger there now. What does this place still mean to you?
I’m personally motivated by people who act on their convictions — people who are not just armchair observers of social problems and injustices, but people who get up off the couch and do something about it. That motivates me tremendously. It’s kind of a beacon for me, and when you study history, you realize that the freedoms and the advantages that we enjoy today rest on the shoulders of people who came before us and had the courage and endurance and intelligence to make sacrifices of their own comfort, their own personal life, to benefit a greater number of people to contribute to causes bigger than themselves.
It’s 100 years since women secured the right to vote. It’s very easy for people to glom onto Susan B. Anthony. A lot of people don’t know a whole lot more than her. But there are so many more things that happened before 1920 that enabled us to get to that point.
I still feel passionately about this, because it all really boils down to the courage of these women who sat around at mahogany tables over tea and said, “We need to speak this out loud, and we need to call for these rights.”
I take a lot of inspiration from looking at what people do under the circumstances they did then. It was a two to three day horse and carriage ride for most people to get to the convention. Here in Phoenix, a lot of people don’t attend anything if it’s 15 minutes away or more in a car.
When you look at how low voter turnout is in our country, especially as the November election draws closer, do you want to tell people this history?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned when to save my breath. But I find it exasperating that people literally died to have the right to vote. When people don’t choose to exercise that right, it’s astonishing to me.
When I hear about things going on that diminish people’s ability to vote with the issues around redistricting and voter ID, I pay close attention to that. Our right to vote is a tremendous hallmark of our democracy. We worked so hard in this country to give all citizens the right to participate in that democracy. It came at great cost to people over generations. I think it’s incumbent upon us to vote.
Did your work at the park spark an interest in teaching that eventually led to your work with the Holocaust?
I think what the experience with the National Park Service did for me was show me that I did enjoy being an instructor, an educator. I went on to be a park ranger at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for three seasons right after working at Seneca Falls. I pursued graduate work in plant ecology.
I have a really eclectic educational background. I taught people about flowers and trees and cultural history. I had a career in environmental conservation, and then in my late 30s I did additional work in Holocaust studies.
I guess that teacher educator in me came back around. I started wending my way into Holocaust-related jobs or senior services. There was often an educator angle to them.
What does this upcoming anniversary of the 19th amendment mean to you as someone who worked at this “unusual” park?
Women’s suffrage was part of the feminist movement which still exists today. At its simplest and purest meaning, feminism is a belief that there should be equality for men and women period. Brilliant and simple. As such, Seneca Falls is really considered the birthplace of American feminism in the U.S., and there’s a feather in the cap of a not very well-known place where the women’s rights convention was the official beginning of the womens’ rights movement in this country. So when people say 1920 was when women got the right to vote, that misses the 70-plus years of struggle to get there.
As a 20-year-old, I was immensely privileged to have been part of the opening of that very unusual national historical park. I was blessed to be in the right place at the right time with the right background. I’m grateful for that experience, and the history is still — almost — on the tip of my tongue. JN