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Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference

Courtesy NYS Museum

Another conference I attended during the slowdown period of posts was the second Women’s Suffrage Centennial conference hosted by Spike Herzig and the New York Cultural Heritage Tourism Network (NYCHTN). It was held October 7 in Waterloo, next door to Seneca Falls. The inaugural conference in 2015  was quite memorable for all the wrong reasons and was referred to by several participants in a declaration that it was not going to be repeated.

The keynote address was delivered by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul who is chair of the Women’s Centennial, one significant change since the conference last year. She referred to herself as the “Tourist in Chief” who has visited many sites in the state and is a proponent of cultural tourism. My first contact with her was in 2015 on Tourism Advocacy Day in Albany. She had recently joined the state government and took the occasion of the meeting to tout tourism as well. She then mistakenly referred to the Path through History as a positive example of the State support for tourism. I gave her a pass on the claim since she was new and could be excused for not knowing better. Now as we approach 2017, perhaps she is someone the history community should reach out to for support of the Path program. I noticed in the just released REDC grants for 2016 that only one grant mentioned the Path through History and I was the one who initiated it (more on that in future posts).

In her talk, Hochul stressed the need to take the message of the suffrage centennial outside the conference meeting room. She mentioned the over 50,000,000 visitors to New York City and the need to show off other areas in the state to them. In support of cultural heritage tourism, she referred to triggers that spark children and of adult tourists who want to experience something different. She then issued a call to arms to encourage tourists to go to sites such as those dedicated to women’s suffrage. Her call echoed a plea made before her talk about the need for funding for a Living History Trail.

Hochul announced there would be a three-year celebration from 2017 to 2020 which means that Spike may need to have additional NYCHTN conferences. Hochul said her assistant and Spike would be meeting shortly after this conference and I am sure we all look forward to hearing the results of that meeting. The NYCHTN workplan for the coming year released a few months later does show another women’s suffrage centennial conference is planned for 2017 even though the New York State centennial will be drawing to a close. It is reasonable to conclude that the conference will roll into the national celebration through 2020. And now that we have a president from New York with a distinctive approach towards women so there is no telling what might happen.

Hochul also pointed out the civics component of the centennial. She envisioned it as a way of promoting voter turnout. These non-tourist activities are, of course, essential. They really are the core of what the history sites are about: helping Americans to be better Americans by sharing stories.

One interesting item was Hochul’s call to chart the next one hundred years, to imagine what people in 2117 would say when they look back at the centennial celebration and to 1917. One thought that occurred to me is that people in the future may wonder about our fixation on gender. Today we are learning that gender identity is fluid and that people are transcending the rigid binary polarities that divide us. The American Dialect Society at its annual conference declared “They” in the singular to be the word of the year. “They” as a singular word replaces the awkward “he or she” people now use when they don’t want to assign gender but be inclusive. Linguist Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who presided over the vote claimed the win for singular “they” symbolized how mainstream culture has come to recognize and accept transgender and gender fluid people, some of whom reject traditional pronouns. If one extrapolates this trend, a century from now people may be looking back at our gender segregation and definitions as truly backwards and primitive.

With thoughts of gender fluidity in mind, the next speaker was Sally Roesch Wagner, Executive Director Matilda Joslyn Gage Center. Her talk has been posted to New York History Blog and is available there. I want to touch on some points she made about cultural heritage tourism that link the comments of the Lt. Gov who had left to the next presentation by a Tourism Promotion Agent (TPA).

Sally informed us of Senator Betty Little’s call to bring visitors to these tourist sites. Her followup comment asked the Senator what if the lights aren’t on. She was referring to the fact that many sites especially upstate are not open 24/7 365 days/year like the big city museums. This condition is especially true in former homes that have become museums in contrast to more modern facilities built as museums. This topic is one Sally hopes the Women’s Centennial commission which includes the Lt. Gov. and the Senator will address.

In general terms, Sally was advocating for infrastructure development, for women’s and Underground Railroad trails, and for a statewide grassroots history effort. She was critical of the funding for the War of 1812 Bicentennial effort by the State. This time she hopes to see the centennial celebration in every village and to involve teachers and local newspapers. She wants scholars to work with historic sites to develop new exhibits to tell the full story of what happened. And she thanked Judy Wellman for her heroic work in identifying women’s rights related sites in the state. Sally’s wishes are a tall order and will require a substantial and concerted effort to accomplish. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Will the State pick it up?

Sally concluded with a call to develop heritage tourism and asked “Where is I Love NY?” In her inimitable tactful way she gently chided I Love NY for its presentation the previous year as clueless, insulting, and arrogant as least as far as the words that are fit to print here. It is unfortunate that the Lt. Gov. wasn’t still around to hear the truth.

With hindsight, it is fun to see what has happened since the conference. Now I can incorporate developments which I wouldn’t have known about if I reported on it in a timely manner like a newspaper reporter. Sally said to an enthusiastic audience “Let’s stop being well-behaved women!” This declaration was pronounced well before “nasty-women” became part of the political vocabulary. Celebrating the women’s centennial at a time when a president advocates the right to grope by celebrity males adds a whole new dimension to the centennial that no one anticipated back in October, not even Putin.

Rick Newman, Seneca County TPA, had the unenviable task of providing the tourism presentation this year around. Actually it was no problem. He attended the conference last and saw the implosion first-hand. He also reads my posts on the subject and is well-versed on the subject. In his talk, he patiently walked the history community through the tourist process. He distributed contact lists so everyone would know who to contact in his or her (or their) home county about promoting women’s suffrage centennial events (or any other history program). He explained the mantra of heads-to-beds that is the gospel of the tourism people: having tourists stay over and pay occupancy and sales taxes, exactly what the path project doesn’t promote.

Rick also stressed the importance of the digital world. Marketing plans and public relations have changed from the days of the paper press release sent to the local newspaper. Technology has created a brand new ball game and many sites are not up to speed. At the County Clerk/County Historian conference covered in my previous post, the same topic was raised. Many places have a website of some sort and may use email but beyond the rudimentary techniques, many places flounder. Since I just switched to an enewsletter myself, I am familiar with being backward. Imagine if every NYSOPRH site was tasked with creating its own website on its own and you get some idea of the challenges facing small local history sites and of the need for state leadership. There should be statewide templates local organizations could use for websites, enewsletters, and social media.

In the remaining conference time, a great deal of information and events were presented. To touch on them:

New York State Museum will have a women’s exhibit (Jenifer Lemark, Devin Lander, and Ashley Hopkins-Benton presenting)

New York Council for the Humanities since renamed Humanities New York has various grant programs available. Lauren Kushnick walked the attendees through the process of how to get money.

SUNY New Paltz, the Rockefeller Institute of the State University of New York, the FDR Library and Museum, and the League of Women Voters will hold a two day conference April 21-22 at SUNY New Paltz and the FDR Library on “Commemorating the Centennial of Women Winning the Vote in the New York State (Susan Lewis, SUNY New Paltz).

As you can see, a great deal was accomplished at the conference. While we still have to wait and see about the State Women’s Centennial Commission, it is possible to report on the REDC grants for 2016 which were just awarded relating to the centennial. Below is a list of all the REDC projects with the word “suffrage” in them. All these grants were awarded by the New York State Council on the Arts as part of Culture, Heritage New Initiatives – Implementation (CHPG I).

Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany): On the Go – Touring Educational Theatre

Capital Repertory Theatre’s On-the-Go touring educational theatre series will produce two shows to commemorate landmarks of New York History including They Built America: the Workers of the Erie Canal, and Petticoats of Steel: New York’s Suffragettes. More than 10,000 students will participate. Arts CHPG I $44,000

Center for Traditional Music and Dance (5 Boroughs of NYC): NY Voices/NY Votes

NY Voices/NY Votes celebrates the legacy of the women’s suffrage movement through a series of pop-up festivals that bring the conversation about voting rights to diverse communities in Opportunity Zones by combining voter registration with arts/humanities programming, and employment/social services. Arts CHPG I $75,000

Everson Museum of Art (Onondaga): Seen and Heard

In “Seen and Heard,” New York’s central role in the fight for women’s suffrage serves as a catalyst for contemporary activism. The multi-media exhibition, educational programs, and artist residencies explore the language and tactics of protest through the arts in order to initiate civic engagement. Arts CHPG I $66,000

LeAp (Bronx): LeAp’s Womens Suffrage Commemoration

LeAp will celebrate the NYS Women’s Suffrage Centennial by exploring woman’s suffrage through the lens of the “Struggle within the Struggle,” a dramatization of the historical experience of women of color having to break through systems of oppression to achieve basic human rights. Arts CHPG I $45,000

Museum of the City of New York (Manhattan): Beyond Suffrage: 100 Years of Women’s Activism in New York

In September 2017, the Museum of the City of New York will present Beyond Suffrage: 100 Years of Women’s Activism in New York. The exhibit will trace women’s activism in New York City from the suffrage movement through today and will include a focus on women activists who lived and worked in Harlem. Arts CHPG I $60,000

National Susan B. Anthony Museum House (8 counties): VoteTilla

VoteTilla is a weeklong navigational celebration of New York’s Suffrage Centennial along the Seneca-Cayuga and Erie Canals from July 16-22, 2017. VoteTilla will depart from Seneca Falls and travel to Rochester, concluding at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum House with a parade and celebration. Arts CHPG I $75,000

New-York Historical Society (Manhattan): New York Women’s Suffrage Exhibition

The New York Historical Society will celebrate the centennial of New York State signing women’s suffrage into law through a special satellite exhibition and audience engagement effort on Governors Island, curated by NYHS’s Teen Leaders in collaboration with the new Center for Women’s History. Arts CHPG I $75,000

Shaker Museum (Columbia): Exploring Shaker Ideas and Actions on Women’s Rights: A Celebration of the Centennial of Woman’s Suffrage

The Shaker Museum at Mount Lebanon engages and inspires local, national, and global audiences by telling the story of the Shakers. In 2017 the museum’s programming will celebrate and explore the Shakers’ ideas and actions around women’s rights, and the lives of the women who lived at Mount Lebanon. Arts CHPG I $41,500

Society for New Music (Onondaga, Madison, Oswego): Suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage

The Society for New Music will create an opera about Syracuse native Matilda Joslyn Gage, a key player in the Suffrage Movement in New York State from 1852- 1890. This dramatic retelling of her story will celebrate her life-long battle for equality. Arts CHPG I $29,500

Westchester Arts Council Inc (Westchester): Suffrage Now, A Contemporary Art Exhibition

Suffrage Now is a contemporary art exhibition celebrating New York’s historic role in the path to the 19th Amendment while reinforcing the relevance of Women’s Suffrage today. Artworks consider contemporary events alongside historical to explore what the right to vote means to Americans. Arts CHPG I $75,000

As you can see, all the awards are for local events or activities except for the week-long canal program which has the potential to draw tourists who will need lodging. This list does not include Humanities New York so there may be some statewide initiatives being done elsewhere. No sign of developing the Women’s Trail or weekend/weeklong trips on them. Interestingly the three familiarization tours offered by I Love NY in January in conjunction with the NYT Travel Show don’t indicate any awareness of the Centennial nor do the Tourism Advisory Council reports or agendas that I was able to access. Perhaps there is movement going on behind the scenes.