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Advice to today's women: 'Be more militant'
Convention Days marks fight for equal rights

July 18, 2010


SENECA FALLS - "Be more militant." It may seem a controversial statement, but renowned women's rights activist Karen DeCrow is no stranger to controversy.

DeCrow was the keynote speaker Saturday at the village's annual Convention Days, which this year marked the 162nd anniversary of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention.

She was introduced by Christine Moulton, president of the Convention Days Committee and executive director of the National Women's Hall of Fame, who described her as "one of the most celebrated leaders of the women's movement."

DeCrow, an author and attorney, led the National Organization for Women for several years and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2009.

Opening her speech with a description of another women's rights leader, DeCrow spoke of Alice Paul, whom she met in 1969 in Washington.

In addition to helping secure women the right to vote, Paul had presented a draft of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) at the First Presbyterian Church in Seneca Falls in 1923.

In 1969, Paul appeared "very old and very frail," DeCrow said. But the elderly activist's advice to DeCrow was anything but.

"'You should be more militant,'" DeCrow said, quoting the suffragette.

"I didn't need much prodding," she added.

Speaking to a crowd of some 40 people at the same First Presbyterian Church, DeCrow said she would offer the same advice to the current administration in Washington.

"Now what does that mean?" asked DeCrow, who said that politics have "moved so far to the right that a moderate is now 'a flaming liberal.'" "A lot of feminists now call themselves progressives. I don't even know what that means," DeCrow said. "I think these are names of pride. I am a feminist. I am a liberal. I am an activist."

Audience member Susan Taylor asked about the feminist motivations of today's young women.

"What they tell me is that they don't want to be called feminists because the boys will think they're man-haters," DeCrow said.

Still, she said, all of these young women were pursuing professions "that their mothers couldn't have chosen and their grandmothers couldn't have dreamed of."

"They're living their lives like feminists," she said. "They don't think of that as a feminist statement, but that's their life."

Taylor, who is from Louisville, Ky., expressed a similar sense of optimism after DeCrow's speech. An acquaintance of hers, she noted, works tirelessly in human rights.

"I don't know if she would call herself a feminist," said Taylor, but through working for human rights, she is working for women's rights. "Maybe that's the very answer I was looking for," she said.

Amanda Bishop, deputy director of the National Women's Hall of Fame, is among the new generation of women's rights advocates.

"I wouldn't really define myself as a feminist," she admitted.

Feminists, she said, are people like DeCrow and those that "came before her." "I certainly want to see the ERA get passed," said Bishop, who added she wouldn't label herself a progressive, either.

"I support women's rights," she said. "I just am."

In addition to looking to the upcoming generation of activists, other women attending Convention Days noted the importance of looking back.

"In order to go forward you need to realize where you have been," said Diane Dwire of Camillus.

"There's still more to do for women to be fully accepted in our society," said Stasia Ruskie, who hails from Arizona but is spending the summer in Penn Yan. "We are forgetful of how hard the women before us struggled." Convention Days, which began Friday, wrapped up today.

Reprinted with permission from the Finger Lakes Times.
Original photograph of statues and Trinity Church courtesy of Linda Solan.