VanCleefLake

An Open Letter to the Women’s Travel Auxiliary of Seneca Falls, New York

By

December 4, 2012

Ladies,

I recently found occasion to visit your fair township, and thereafter have remained in a perpetual state of cogitation about the glories that I did there behold. We share a common purpose, you and I, one foretold via biology but of which the commonality is not yet known. Permit me therefore if you will a small frivolity: to endeavor to reveal it, for the greater good of man and woman-kind. All kind, in truth. To accomplish my task I will unfortunately recount my scant knowledge of the contributions of your fine town on offer travelers of the Fingerlakes Region of New York. I am certain I shall overlook a good few; but quiet yourselves please with the knowledge that I provide these only in an effort toward transparency of intent—an attempt to, as the kids like to say these days, all get on the same e-page together.

As you are therefore better aware than I, and as you have been mandated to support by those who saw fit to appoint you officers of the esteemed courts of travel auxiliaries, and certainly as you would prefer others to be made more aware, Seneca Falls sits among those cities staking the grandest claims in the forming of this great nation.

An historical overview of these contributions in brief: white settlers arrived in the 18th century—signs posted publicly about your town state helpfully that indigenous peoples had previously staked residence in the region. Clearly, although your thoughtfulness in acknowledging this matter is noted. These settlers, as you well know, eventually bore children. (To this point we will return momentarily.) Incorporated, then, in 1831, early, white, residents of the village of Seneca Falls soon became uppity with ideas: some fell for abolitionist’s arguments that slaves might be people, known by another name; others for the claims of the temperance movement, that the excessive consumption of alcohol may have a negative impact on society. Most abiding however were the women’s rights advocates, and in 1848 there was even a convention held in Seneca Falls to mark the birth of an entire movement intent on securing women’s human rights. Hundreds of people attended; including men. This marks the second of your town’s most significant claims to fame, the Seneca Falls Convention, but your contributions to art, culture, and society did not end there, no. Nearly one hundred years later, another precipitous event in world history: famed movie director Frank Capra may or may not have driven through town. Or possibly near town, or perhaps met someone who was familiar with the town. It is difficult to say. Nonetheless, your historical record of these facts and the rights to capitalize upon them remain uncontested.

Around this well-serviceable history, therefore, your town-booster club has endeavored to erect—mind you, I choose this word wisely—public sites on three pillars of Seneca Falls’ primary contributions to modern life: There is the Women’s Rights Park, of course, which includes the Wesleyan Chapel, the site of the First Women’s Rights Convention; and the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Home, where your own literature explains the great woman “raised seven children and did extensive networking to create a reform movement.” Confusingly, the remaining two sites of the park’s total four sit in a different town, nearby. But the park has several confusing attributes so let us leave them off for now and continue with our listing. The second pillar on which Seneca Falls hangs its value: The casting of the city as an uncredited Bedford Falls, the town in It’s a Wonderful Life. Conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that Capra’s rumored, one-time, likely proximity could easily have allowed him to base his quaint boulevarded streets on Seneca Falls’ own—they are less quick to admit that, at this time, Seneca Falls has no such boulevards. Well, again: a discussion to which we shall return. Because at this time we must evoke the third pillar of Seneca Fall’s illustrious history: the birth of an important figure, near a lake, commemorated with a plaque, which notes the name of the lake to have been chosen to honor this important figure.

Before I go on, fair friends, allow me to state decidedly that I am aware how much be on your minds. As one who is also in maintenance of a vagina, I submit that its upkeep sometimes leaves me with little time for much else in the way of memorial planning or public participation. Therefore it is with deference to your neglected children, should you have them, and I do not, because I think they are boring and not for any other reason, that I must raise the question of the necessity of your town claiming three such notable events in the history of our national development? It is excessive, no? And showy. Moreover strikes me as a particularly masculine variety of overreaching: to claim a hand in a plethora of occurrences, with near-miraculous attributes all? Few but the Good Lord himself have approached such a state of hubris.

My query stems largely from efficacy, I suppose. Because while I admit that the annual presence of “Zuzu,” or rather, the now-aged woman who played the young girl in Capra’s holiday classic, is a stunning testament to the veracity of the claim that Seneca Falls is Bedford Falls, her annual appearance is in fact the primary, if not the only, correlation between the film and the town. There are, it is true, banks to be found, many such as the local Bank of America branch, that operate unfairly and embody a corporate greed nearly unprecedented in history and shameful to witness. And there do appear bodies of water into which one may consider hurling oneself when one has committed a life only of good but of which naught has seemingly come. Also, of course, the moon: it appears in the film, it appears in real-life Seneca Falls. Finally, one cannot help but see the similarity in the Clarence Hotel, named for the Angel Clarence of the film. In physical presence, it is a sterile, modernist building, with no hint of any history whatsoever, certainly not that of the 1945 film. Yet the modern minds of visitors to Seneca Falls cannot help but make the connection to the original : Why else would it be named the Clarence Hotel were Seneca Falls not where the movie really took place?

It must be stated plainly. Seneca Falls’ connection to the Frank Capra feelgood is specious, if not spurious, and small exhibits claiming otherwise—notices tacked to things around the town, “Just like in, It’s a Wonderful Life!”—these do nothing for your town’s image but lend it the eery Hollywood aura of inauthenticity. I do not consider myself to be overstepping my feminine bounds when I suggest you consider dropping your attention from the movie-tie-in immediately. Seneca Falls’ provable contributions to history are only damaged by it.

Now, you may be surprised to hear that I wish to turn our collective attention next to the Women’s Rights Park. Surely we can all already enumerate the failures of the women’s rights movement itself: the Equal Rights Amendment, the groundwork for which was laid in your fine community, has never passed. The right to vote was granted, certainly, 72 years following the birth of the movement in Seneca Falls. It then took another 92 years after that date for women to vote in numbers significant enough to sway an election—but not for women candidates, no. Of those there remain only a handful. And these last two years have been stupendous for women’s health, although only in the negative sense: during the 46 weeks Congress was in session from January 2011 through July 2012, 38 of them saw losses to women’s reproductive rights. Culturally, women still make up around 17% of the boards of directors and about 2% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, but remain almost 60% of those living under the poverty line and are the fastest-growing population of homeless in the US.

A significant accomplishment of the women’s rights movement is thought to be the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, and agitprop from the call for its passage is featured prominently in the Women’s Rights Museum display: “We Condemn Child Labor,” proclaims a proud banner hanging above your stairwell. But let us look slightly deeper at the matter and note that upon passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, slightly over 134,000 minors were working in conditions deemed, 18 years hence, unjust and criminal. Laws do now exist to protect against domestic child labor, but two million young people today hold jobs in violation of them, 15 times as many since women gained the right to vote. Certainly Seneca Falls cannot be blind to these continued injustices?

Perhaps, however, you are. These statistics do not appear in your museum, and I understand that for women, math is hard. So allow me to interpret them for you: the women’s rights movement, started in your own Seneca Falls, has proven incapable of stemming the tide of oppression that keeps women from full participation in society.

Again I appeal to your base love of home and ask of you my fine lady-brethrenesses: Is this a failure with which Seneca Falls should seek to associate? I cannot answer for you, of course. Yet although I am not local, and only visited your township on one occasion, and admittedly spent most of my time there appalled by the ridiculous It’s a Wonderful Life paraphernalia, I might hazard the argument that, indeed, it is not. In fact, for Seneca Falls to move forward, I feel strongly that abandoning its association with this movement is advisable. Or, erecting instead a memorial, as is being done at the former site of the World Trade Center. Certainly these attacks on American freedom—one in an instant the other over several generations—are comparable in scope and devastation.

But what, dear ladies, would you then be left with? I beg of you to consider the small plaque I had earlier mentioned. I need not remind you of its significance, nor its impact, but as this is an Open Letter, a conceit that allows me a public forum to proclaim a correspondence with your named and possibly non-existent entity—for I do not know who is actually in charge of the tourism of Seneca Falls nor, indeed, if anyone at all is—I must.

“Van Cleef Lake,” the iron sign perched at the shore reads. “Named for George Cunningham Van Cleef, one of first white children born in Seneca County 1797.” Below that appears the erection date—again, a term I do not use lightly—“State Education Department 1935.”

Now you and I both know what this means, of course: That the renowned George Cunningham Van Cleef, of whom much is rumored but nothing whatsoever known, as he failed in every conceivable way to make a name for himself in the history books, despite having no competition among those who were obsessed with being named in history books—he was born white. That much is known. And that, your esteemed foremothers of the Seneca Falls Travel Auxiliary had the prescience to understand, was enough.

Well—not quite enough. For there is the matter that, of course, George Cunningham Van Cleef clearly had an older sister, alluded to in the nuanced wording of the sign—“one of first white children.” Yet your own town’s birthing of the women’s rights movement in the United States offers you deep insight I am certain why this would be so naturally overlooked, and the statistics I listed for you earlier underscore why it could remain overlookable into the foreseeable future.

In short, ladies, I beg of you to abandon your investment in these Hollywood associations and these silly ladies’ doings of the distant past. A white man was born in your town a long time ago. What other claim to fame does your fair city require?

Sincerely,

Anne Elizabeth Moore

p.s. I am indebted for many of these arguments to my fine friend May Farnsworth, without whom I would never otherwise have visited Seneca Falls’ many confusing attractions.


Anne Elizabeth Moore is a Fulbright scholar, artist, and author of Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (The New Press, 2007), Hey Kidz, Buy This Book (Soft Skull, 2004), and Cambodian Grrrl (Cantankerous Titles, 2011). She is the founding editor of the Best American Comics series from Houghton Mifflin, former editor of The Comics Journal, teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and writes a column for Truthout on gender in comics called "Ladydrawers," here. http://www.anneelizabethmoore.com. More from this author →