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Women’s History Month for 2021 at New York State Parks

Women’s history has played a prominent role in the story of New York State, and some of these stories can be told through State Parks and Historic Sites.

In honor of Women’s History Month in March, the falls at Niagara Falls State Park will be illuminated March 7 in the historic suffragist colors of gold, white and purple starting at 6 p.m., and continuing on the hour through 11 p.m. The colors were the symbol of the National Woman’s Party, which advocated for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century.

According to a 1913 statement by the union, “Purple is the color of loyalty, constancy to purpose, unswerving steadfastness to a cause. White, the emblem of purity, symbolizes the quality of our purpose; and gold, the color of light and life, is as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.”

The purple, white and gold flag of the National Woman’s Party. (Photo Credit- National Museum of American History/Behring Center)

Women’s History Month originated as a national celebration in 1981 when Congress requested that President Ronald Reagan proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” In 1987, Congress passed legislation establishing March as “Women’s History Month” and Presidents have issued annual national proclamations on the event since 1995.

Here in New York, State Parks events and programming will bring some of these stories to life include:

  • Jones Beach Energy and Nature Center, Jones Beach State Park:  The center, which explores how energy consumption shapes the natural environment, will feature a series of professional profiles of women involved in the conservation and renewable energy fields entitled “Women & the Green Economy.” Themes including marine conservation, coastal resilience, solar energy and power distribution will illuminate the roles of women in New York State and the nation.
  • Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site, Yonkers: A tour of the Colonial-era mansion will explore the potential relationship between George Washington and Mary Philipse, daughter of the Lord of Philipsburg Manor and a Loyalist during the American Revolution, based on the 2019 novel “Dear George, Dear Mary” by author Mary Calvi. Guided tours start at 1 p.m. March 6, March 13, March 20 and March 27; attendance is limited to COVID-19 safety protocols. The event is free for children and Friends of Philipse Mantor Hall, $3 for seniors and students, and $5 for adults. Advance registration is available by calling (914) 965-4027.
  • Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: A Facebook Live presentation and lecture entitled “Suffrage in the Hudson Valley” will focus on the fight for women’s rights that resulted in the passage of women’s suffrage in 1917 in New York State, and nationally in 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment. Presented by Ashley Hopkins Benton, Senior Historian and Curator of Social History at the New York Museum, the event begins at 2 p.m. March 13. Registration is available here.
  • Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, Newburgh: A presentation on the life of Martha Washington by Parks interpreter Karen Monti will be available on YouTube starting at 2 p.m. March 21. It will be followed by a presentation of the 2021 Martha Washington Woman of History Award to Sue Gardner, a published author, deputy historian for the town of Warwick, and a reference/local history librarian at the Albert Wisner Public Library. The program can be located by searching YouTube for “Palisades Interstate Park Commission Television.” More information is available by calling (845) 562-1195.
  • Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: Interpreters will share a variety of stories on past women and girls in a program outside at the site at 2 p.m. March 20, as well as on Facebook in the event of poor weather. Registration is available here.
  • Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: A free Facebook Live presentation will be made 2 p.m. March 6 on the story of Serena Livingston, which includes her courtship with a famous writer, her unhappy marriage to a famous general, and her adventures in the Old West. Registration is available here.
  • Jay Heritage Center, Rye: A Zoom virtual event will be held 6 p.m. March 8 by award-winning historian and Wall Street Journal columnist Dr. Amanda Foreman for a behind-the-scenes look at her documentary, “The Ascent of Woman” – the inspiration for her forthcoming book,  ‘The World Made by Women: A History of Women from the Apple to the Pill,’ scheduled to be published by Penguin Random House in 2022. Currently, Foreman is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal bi-weekly ‘Historically Speaking’ and an Honorary Research Senior Fellow in the History Department at the University of Liverpool. She is a co-founder of the literary nonprofit, House of SpeakEasy Foundation, a trustee of the Whiting Foundation, and an Honorary Research Senior Fellow in the History Department at the University of Liverpool. Registration is available here.
  • Grafton Lakes State Park, Grafton: A presentation will be made on the story of Helen Ellett, who was the second female fire tower observer in New York State, working at the parks Dickinson Fire Tower between 1943 and 1965. Ellett’s work influenced the creation of the Grafton Fire Department. The March 14 event will be held at 10 a.m. until noon, and again from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Preregistration is required no later than 4 p.m. March 9, and can be made by emailing graftonlakessp@parks.ny.gov. Attendance is limited due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Check out this slideshow of Helen Ellett at work…

And there are numerous State Historic Sites and Parks with links to women’s history that are outlined below.

Ganondagan State Historic Site 7000 County Rd 41, Victor, NY 14564: The women of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) lived in a society that afforded them a level of equality and freedom centuries before similar rights would be given to other women in the United States. Haudenosaunee women of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Oneida chose their chiefs, owned and managed their own property, and held key political positions. When women in New York State began to organize to demand their rights, the Haudenosaunee provided a model of equality. Learn more here.

Caroline Parker Mount Pleasant, of the Seneca Wolf Clan, shown circa 1850 in an daguerreotype taken for Lewis Henry Morgan. (Photo Credit – New York Heritage Digital Collections)

Clermont State Historic Site1 Clermont Avenue, Germantown, NY 12526: Alida Schuyler Livingston was the matriarch of an influential early American family, but she was also a powerful businessperson in her own right who, along with her second husband, exerted significant political and economic influence in Colonial New York. She was part of a larger tradition of Dutch entrepreneurial women in the early colony that thrived thanks in part to the equal economic rights afforded to men and women under Dutch legal tradition. Learn more about her here and here.

Alida Schuyler Livingston. Photo Credit- Clermont State Historic Site.

Johnson Hall State Historic Site139 Hall Avenue, Johnstown, NY 12095: Known at different times of her life as Konwatsi’tsiaienni and Degonwadonti, Molly Brant was a Mohawk woman likely born sometime around 1736 and grew up near what is now Canajoharie, Montgomery County. By the age of 18, Molly was already beginning to participate in local politics and likely met Sir William Johnson, the royal English representative to the Native People of the Mohawk Valley, as she interacted with leaders in the area. Eventually, she and Johnson would become romantically linked and Molly would have eight children with him while living at his estate, Johnson Hall. She spoke her native Mohawk and dressed in the Mohawk style all her life and, after Johnson’s death, Molly would return to the Mohawk and lead as a Clan Mother during the turbulent Revolutionary War period. Learn more here.

A design for a 1986 Canadian postage stamp featuring an image of Molly Brant. (Photo Credit- National Park Service)

John Brown Farm State Historic Site 115 John Brown Road, Lake Placid, NY 12946: Abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry before the Civil War earned him a prominent place in history books, but the contributions of his daughter, Annie, have been overlooked for more than a century. Committed to the freedom of the enslaved, Annie served as a lookout for the conspirators leading up to the raid on an armory in Virginia, and was vocal in the shaping of her father’s legacy in public memory, speaking stridently against depictions of him as “mad.” Learn more here and here.

Annie Brown, daughter of John Brown. (Photo Credit- U.S. Library of Congress)

John Brown Farm remains as an historic site today in part due to the actions of another New York woman: Kate Field. Field was an American journalist, editor, outdoorswoman, and actress who helped to purchase the farm eleven years after the 1859 raid in order to preserve it “as a public park or reservation forever.” Learn more about her here.

Kate Field (Photo Credit- New York Public Library)

John Jay Homestead State Historic Site400 Jay Street, Katonah, NY 10536:Founding Father John Jay would serve New York as governor and the country as its first Chief Justice, but his daughters had a strong hand in managing his household and estates. Learn more about the Jay women here.

Jay Heritage Center 210 Boston Post Road, Rye, NY 10580: The Jay family also owned an estate in Rye, New York, where young John Jay was raised. The land remained in the family for generations and was vital in inspiring one of America’s first female landscape architects, Mary Rutherford Jay, John’s great-great granddaughter who began her practice at the turn of the 20th century. Learn more here and here.

Mary Rutherford Jay (Photo Credit- Jay Heritage Center Archives)

Lorenzo State Historic Site17 Rippleton Road, Cazenovia, NY 13035: The Federal-style mansion at Lorenzo looks out onto a garden designed in 1914 by Ellen Biddle Shipman, a woman pioneer of landscape design, to enhance her father’s garden layout with more formal perennial beds. In 1983, restoration was begun following that 1914 plan and today the garden and grounds are available to the public and are often used for wedding ceremonies and receptions. The Lorenzo grounds are open year-round. Plan your visit here.

Ellen Biddle Shipman in her home circa 1920. (Photo Credit- Wikipedia Commons)

Oriskany Battlefield State Historic Site7801 New York 69, Oriskany, NY 13424: During the Battle of Oriskany in the Revolutionary War, Oneida womanTyonajanegen (Two Kettles) accompanied her husband Han Yerry Tewahangarahken into battle, reloading his musket for him after he was wounded. She was known for her valor and her skills as a horsewoman, riding quickly to Fort Schuyler to warn of a coming attack. Learn more here.

National Purple Heart Hall of Honor – 374 Temple Hill Road Route 300, New Windsor, NY 12584: The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor has a mission to collect, preserve and share the stories of Purple Heart recipients from all branches of service and across all conflicts for which the award has been available. While there is no comprehensive list of Purple Heart recipients maintained by the government, the Hall maintains a Roll of Honor of recipients submitted by friends, family, and the recipients themselves. For the month of March, the Hall will feature 20 women recipients and additional women recipients on the site’s Facebook page.

Here is one such story, of U.S. Army Sgt. Cari Anne Gasiewicz, a native of Depew, Erie County. Sgt. Gasiewicz served two tours in Korea, where her aptitude for languages prompted her superiors to send to study Arabic at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, she served Iraq as an Arab language linguist with a military intelligence unit.

When her unit was being redeployed from Iraq to Kuwait, she volunteered to drive a supply truck rather than leave via aircraft. On the drive, her vehicle was hit by two I.E.D.s. (improvised explosive device) killing the 28-year-old  on 4 December 2004. In her honor, the Defense Language Institute, located at the Presidio of Monterey in California dedicated Gasiewicz Hall in her name. It is the first building there named for a woman.

Sgt. Carrie Ann Gasiewicz (Photo Credit- National Purple Heart Hall of Honor)

Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site32 Catherine Street, Albany, NY 12202: The success of the Hamilton musical has generated quite a bit of public interest in the Schuyler family history. Learn about Angelica Schuyler’s contributions to military intelligence on the patriot side during the Revolutionary War here. Learn about the stories of enslaved women at the mansion here. Tours of the restored mansion can be reserved in advance here.

Portrait of Mrs. John Barker Church (Angelica Schuyler), her son Philip, and a servant. (Photo Credit- Wikimedia Commons)

Bear Mountain State ParkPalisades Parkway or Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, NY 10911: Considered Colonial America’s first female botanist, Jane Colden (1724-1760) grew up on her family’s farm west of Newburgh. Orange County. After showing an early interest in plants, she went on to write her own Botanical Manuscript describing over 300 native flora. At the end of March, the park will unveil a hand-painted sign detailing Colden’s contribution to botany in the Hudson Valley. It will be located at the Jane Colden Garden at the park’s Trailside Museums and Zoo.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site – 75 Mills Mansion Drive, Road #1, Staatsburg, NY 12580: Ruth Livingston Mills, scion of the wealthy Hudson Valley Livingston family, was a dominating presence in the upper class social circles of the Gilded Age, entertaining from her grand Staatsburg mansion on the Hudson River in Dutchess County. Learn more here about a mysterious artist who painted the portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills and its connection to the suffrage movement for women’s rights.

The portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills. (Photo Credit- Staatsburgh State Historic Site)

Letchworth State Park Castile, NY, 14427: While preservation of the park’s scenic beauty and historic assets is the work of William Pryor Letchworth, his right hand in preserving “The Grand Canyon of the East” was his indispensable secretary, Caroline Bishop. She worked with Letchworth for 27 years, living at the Glen Iris estate with him and the rest of his staff and, after his passing, became the park’s first superintendent and Librarian/Curator of the park’s museum.

Letchworth also was the setting for the story of Mary Jemison, a Scotch-Irish colonial woman adopted by the Seneca during the French and Indian War. She later gained notoriety after writing a memoir of her life. After her death, her body was reinterred near the historic site of a Seneca council house, now within Letchworth State Park.

Statute of Mary Jemison at Letchworth State Park (Photo Credit- Letchworth State Park)

Saratoga Spa State Park – 19 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866: Grace Maguire Swanner graduated from Albany Medical College in 1933 and devoted much of her life outside of private practice to helping to preserve the park’s Lincoln and Washington baths. Dr. Swanner was named acting medical director of the spa in 1953, began a school of massage as a training facility for the spa, and  later wrote  a book detailing the geologic and sociologic history of the park called “Saratoga Queen of Spas”.  

Dr. Grace Maguire Swanner.

The State Parks Blog also has recent posts on women in New York State history, including Beatrice Mary MacDonald,  a World War I nurse who became the first woman to be awarded the Purple Heart; Annie Edson Taylor, a Finger Lakes native who became the first person to survive a plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel; noted African American abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth; and even anti-suffragists in New York who allied with efforts to deny them from obtaining the vote.


Cover Shot- NYS logo in the colors of the National Woman’s Party. (Photo Credit- National Park Service)


Post by Mary Patton, Historic Preservation Program Analyst, Division of Historic Preservation.

A Century Run for Women’s Suffrage

In 2017, New York State had the honor of celebrating the centennial of women winning the legal right to vote, and it was my job to think of a way to take that celebration out to New York State’s parks and historic sites. Now there are lots of ways to commemorate such a momentous occasion, but what came to my mind first was bicycles, believe it or not. Susan B. Anthony once said “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and matching one of today’s most popular physical activities with one of the most important developments in American democracy just seemed too perfect for words.

It might come as a surprise, but a woman on a bicycle was once a threatening sight—a harbinger of social upheaval that was going to change American life forever. Beginning in the 1860s, women on bicycles were depicted as displacing and overshadowing men. They were ridiculed for their mannish muscles and unusual clothing. They were even accused of neglecting their family responsibilities. Nevertheless, they persisted, and by the mid 1890s, women joined a nation-wide bicycling craze, and—after all that worry—they succeeded in changing what it meant to be a woman after all. Even women who did not ride bikes felt the impact of the changes it wrought.

Women in an early velocipede rac, portrayed as masculine-looking, Harpers 1869
Women in an early velocipede race, portrayed as masculine-looking. Harper’s, 1869.

Bicycles went through a variety of forms before coming around to the chain-driven, diamond-shaped frame we are familiar with now. Even though the new design was being marketed in the 1880s, few women attempted to ride the contraption. Cumbersome skirts, and more cumbersome social constructs about women’s frailty, kept them away. But it was only a few years later in the middle of the decade that the drop-frame bicycle (now commonly referred to as “a girl’s bike”) made way for women’s skirts. To make it easier, they followed advice once distributed by radical dress reformers, reducing the layers of petticoats and hemming their skirts above the ankle to make riding easier and safer. Some daring women even adopted the controversial “Bloomer Suit.” Armed with their bicycles, everyday women were now ready to change the world.

The Bicycle--the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs
Detail: The Bicycle–the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Fashion plates called Gibson Girls became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson
Fashion plates called “Gibson Girls” became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Taking to the roads challenged pre-conceptions about women in the 1890s. The cost of bicycles fell from as much as $150 to as little as $17.50, making them available to not just middle-class women, but also to some in the working poor. Their speed and efficiency eased jobs for some women like laundresses or even vegetable sellers who vended from clever devices built onto their bicycles. Middle class women benefited from the increased social connection, joining clubs—including suffrage organizations—with greater freedom than ever before. They also proved their physical capability, competing alongside men in “Century Runs,” or one hundred mile races. The ideal of the dependent, fragile woman of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually replaced by the more robust image of the active Gibson Girl in the 1890s.

With all this history in mind, I hastily blurted out, “So I’ll make a biking costume, and buy a vintage bike, and ride around at our historic sites telling people about the history of bicycling women!” Never mind that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade, and I didn’t have a bike, and I still had to make the biking costume—this idea seemed easy in the dead of winter with three months to go.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself freshly in possession of a vintage 1963 Raleigh bicycle (a surprisingly-close substitute for an 1895 model) and deeply engrossed in sewing a bicycling costume—complete with a steel-boned corset and reproduction high-heeled shoes. If I was going to go for a historic bike ride, I was going to do it in style!

It took some physical conditioning. I’m not going to say how long ago I had been in junior high, but it was long enough that I needed a little practice.  But just like the women of the 1890s, I found it refreshing to get outside and feel my own legs powering me through rural New York State, and pretty soon it also came with a sense of pride.

When summer was in full bloom, I found myself driving all across New York State with a bicycle and a big smile, explaining to everyone I encountered why going for a bike ride was, in fact, a celebration of women’s independence. I visited seven historic sites from Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua to the Old Croton Aqueduct in Dobbs Ferry during the summer and fall of 2017, and I rode about 40 miles along with men, women, and children who got some exercise and celebrated some history all at the same time.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum.

Kjirsten Gustavson is the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Peebles Island Resource Center. This specialized office helps New York State historic sites preserve and share their history with the public through conservation, exhibits, research, and a broad variety of additional assistance.

Featured image: Grems-Doolittle Library: The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910