Photo by Michael Kooiman (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mkooiman/13677428543/) under a Creative Commons 2.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/). Photo cropped for publication.
The American Historian spoke with Anne M. Derousie, the former Park Historian at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York. We asked Derousie about how the Park commemorates and celebrates anniversaries of key moments in women’s history. Derousie retired from her position in December 2014.
TAH: What kind of anniversary events does the Women’s Rights National Historical Park stage to commemorate the 1848 women’s rights convention?
DEROUSIE: Women’s Rights National Historical Park has celebrated a number of anniversary events since it was established by Congress as a unit of the National Park Service in 1980. Celebrations include the birthdays of key organizers and participants of the 1848 First Woman’s Rights Convention, the 100th anniversary of the publishing of The Woman’s Bible, Susan B. Anthony’s seventeenth birthday, and Woman’s Equality Day.
But most consistently, the Park celebrates the anniversary dates of the convention, July 19 and 20th. This is an open community event involving many local organizations, agencies, and merchants that over the years has drawn large crowds over the three-day weekend closest to the anniversary dates. Community wide, the celebration includes parades, softball tournaments, street dances, concerts, feminist religious services, special tours and exhibits.
The Park’s participation has often included a dramatization of the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention as the highlight event of the weekend, and participation with the community in an Annual Commemorative Procession that starts at the Stanton House, proceeds to the First Presbyterian Church where Alice Paul proposed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and then to the Wesleyan Chapel at the Park, site of the 1848 convention. There are book signings, readings, demonstration events, kayaking, and opportunities for visitors to sign the Declaration of Sentiments and modern addendums, and perhaps visitors’ favorite: “Phrenology—Get Your Head Read,” where volunteers can have their personalities assessed. To link this event historically to the 1848 convention, a copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s phrenology reading is available for viewing.
Perhaps the most important commemoration was the year-long 150th anniversary of the convention. Celebrate ’98 drew national coverage and tens of thousands of people to Seneca Falls. The 150th anniversary was celebrated throughout the country and brought together historians and social activists in a number of events and activities, some related to the celebrations held in Seneca Falls and some not. In Seneca Falls, it was a community-wide event that involved collaboration among many organizations and individuals in Seneca Falls and surrounding area and drew nationally renowned participants including Hillary Rodham Clinton.
TAH: When you put together anniversary commemoration events and materials, what kind of issues do you, as a public historian, need to be aware of and think about?
DEROUSIE: There are pitfalls to commemoration events from a historian’s perspective. By definition, large celebrations draw numbers of people into the historic narrative of the historic events being celebrated. It is not always easy to control the enthusiasm generated and the stories that often garner the most attention are not necessarily the most accurate from a historian’s perspective. The inclusion of historical conferences and other scholarly events helps to balance the commemorative events.
TAH: Is there something about anniversaries that make the public care more about U.S. history generally, and the 1848 Seneca Falls convention specifically?
DEROUSIE: Anniversaries and anniversary celebrations are a great way to introduce the general public to the convention. During Celebrate ’98, visitation was two-and-a-half times higher than 1997 or 2000. Visitation rose from approximately 28,000 visitors in 1997 to over 71,000 during the Celebrate ’98 year. In 1999, visitation was over 36,000, before settling back to a “normal” visitation level in 2000. Clearly the celebration not only brought people to the Park who would not have come otherwise, the effect continued into the following year. Tens of thousands of people were introduced to the Seneca Falls convention, that otherwise would not have been.
Concentrated celebrations also make it possible to introduce the visitor to the convention through multiple avenues of presentation that reinforce the historical themes in a variety of ways. A visitor might attend a first person conversation between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, go to a concert of period reform and protest music, or “have their head read” by a phrenologist, as many people did in the 1840s, or attend a history symposium or other scholarly event. So I think there is an opportunity in celebrations, especially extended ones like Celebrate ’98, to introduce the historical complexity in subtle and entertaining ways that may have the overall effect of sending people away with a more nuanced understanding than they came with.
TAH: Are there any dangers that historians need to think about when using anniversary commemorations to connect the public with the American past and women’s history specifically?
DEROUSIE: Anniversary celebrations, by definition, narrow historical events and movements to one specific point in time. They tend to ignore the flow of history—the build-up to this event and the aftermath. So certain people and distinct events are perhaps exaggerated in their importance in order to focus on this one day, or week or year of a celebratory event. While this is a danger to historical accuracy, it is in my opinion, also an opportunity to introduce a segment of the public to part of their history they may not have considered before. The challenge to public historians and others who are organizing these events is to find ways to introduce some of the complexity of the movement into this focused celebration, so that visitors can enjoy the festivities and also gain a more accurate understanding of the social, cultural, economic, and other forces that made this one historic event possible.