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The first wave confronts you, walking into the visitor's center at Women's Rights National Historical Park. Statues sculpted in clay and cast in bronze.

"They represent the first wave of the women's rights movement," says Lee Werst, the park's chief of interpretations. Frederick Douglass is depicted. So is Martha Wright, along with Lucretia Mott and her husband, James. And, of course, Seneca Falls' leading lady, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Werst goes on: "People who consider women's rights important see the 1848 Women's Rights Convention as the starting point, and equate its impact to be as significant as Philadelphia's Continental Congress," which resulted in the Declaration of Independence.

There's no denying the 1848 convention's impact on Seneca Falls. You can feel it all over, walking around this quaint, lovely town. From the waterside statue of "When Anthony Met Stanton," to the 2002 decision by the Idea Center for the Voices of Humanity to move its headquarters here, to the new Happy Family restaurant's choice of decorating its entrance with a 4-by-8 foot photo of the First Presbyterian Church assembly proposing the first Equal Rights Amendment in 1923.

The momentum doesn't stop there. After the Civil War, the Wesleyan Chapel, site of the 1848 convention, passed into private hands, and eventually fell into disrepair. Yet it continued to function as a magnet, as Americans returned to it to mark the anniversary of the first Women's Rights Convention.

"For some women," Werst says, "it's almost a pilgrimage to come here," citing former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as recent visitors.

The chapel, known as "the great lighthouse," was home to progressive thinkers and welcomed reformist speakers. It is now property of the National Park Service, and is undergoing a complete restoration, with plans calling for its reopening later this summer.

Interspersed in "Dreams of Equality," the 25-minute introductory film that plays in the visitor center's Guntzel Theater, young men and women debate the movement's merits. A collage of photos and posters leads toward the stairway to the center's museum.

The gallery is a timeline portraying women's status through American history. We're brought back to the "Birth of an Idea," in 1840 at London's Anti-Slavery Convention, where Stanton and Lucretia Mott were forbidden to speak.

There are interactive displays, including one on Stanton and her cousin Elizabeth Smith Miller's rebellion against women's fashion of the day, as the two began wearing loose fitting, short dresses over pantaloons, a style they imported from Europe. They introduced the outfit to Amelia Bloomer, who publicized it in her newspaper, "The Lily," America's first women's newspaper. Hence the bloomers were born. The design caused so much outrage and ridicule, Stanton eventually gave up wearing them, so as not to divert attention from her crusade for equality.

The national park also includes the M'Clintock House in nearby Waterloo, where the Declaration of Sentiments was drafted. The document, bearing signatures from 100 men and women at the 1848 convention's close, presented grievances based on the Declaration of Independence. Declaration Park lies outside the visitors center, and in its granite water wall, the sentiments are engraved.

>Winning over father

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton House, originally named "Grassmere" after poet William Wordsworth's English home, is at 32 Washington St., a short drive from the visitors center. It overlooks Van Cleef Lake. Judge Daniel Cady at one time told daughter, Elizabeth, after she won an award for excellence in Greek, "Ah, you should have been a boy." Slights such as these caused Elizabeth to question supposed male superiority, eventually leading her to strive for an ideal, equal society.

The judge relented somewhat later, when he transferred ownership of the Washington Street house to his daughter. "My father gave me a check and said with a smile, 'You believe in a woman's capacity to do and dare; now go ahead and put your place in order.'" That she did, hiring carpenters, painters, paperhanger and gardeners, adding a new kitchen and woodhouse.

Today the kitchen is gone. Remaining sections include the front parlor, with some Stanton furniture, but from later homes in New Jersey and New York City. The family piano, the only remaining original piece, is in the back parlor.

Guests there included Frederick Douglass, Mott and "Aunt Susan," as Susan B. Anthony was called by the children.

>More to see

Other sites also mark the inception of the movement. The Seneca Falls Historical Society is housed in a Queen Anne mansion at 55 Cayuga St., and contains a research library on local history, women's rights and women's studies. Here, too, are letters of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony, and articles from "The Lily."

The Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry features exhibits on Seneca Falls prominence in manufacturing pumps, fire engines and televisions by Sylvania. Youngsters can learn to use pulleys, an inclined plane, a lever and a wedge. Alongside the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, boaters will find facilities for showers, restrooms, laundry, electrical and water outlets.

The town is also home to the National Women's Hall of Fame, founded in 1969. The hall's inaugural induction occurred in 1973, and honors women for contributions in the arts, education, humanities, science and government. Notable inductees include Beverly Sills, Lucille Ball, Sandra Day O'Connor, Hillary Clinton and Maya Y. Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.

Seneca Falls annually holds Convention Days, celebrating the Women's Rights Convention. This year's theme is "Vote for Women: 90 Years Later," and marks the 162nd anniversary of the 1848 convention. The gathering is scheduled for July 16-18. For information, go to www.conventiondays.com or call (315) 568-8060.

>It's 'wonderful'

Seneca Falls also makes a compelling case as having inspired the setting for Frank Capra's film "It's a Wonderful Life," as Capra is known to have stopped in Seneca Falls when visiting family in nearby Auburn.

Seneca Falls celebrates the film with an annual "It's a Wonderful Life" festival, this year Dec. 10-12. Scenes are re-enacted from the movie and buildings are temporarily renamed for those in the film. At Hotel Clarence, "It's a Wonderful Life" plays around the clock on its lobby wall.

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If You Go:

Women's Rights National Historical Park, 136 Fall St., Seneca Falls; www.nps.gov/ wori; (315) 568-2991; admission is free; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Stanton House, 32 Washington St., Seneca Falls; ranger guided tours daily.

M'Clintock House, 14 East Williams, Waterloo; open Friday-Monday, 1 to 4 p.m.

To get there, take the Thruway (I-90) to Exit 41; turn right onto Route 414 South, then left at the intersection of Route 414 and Route 5 & 20. The Visitor Center is at 136 Fall St.

Seneca Falls Historical Society, 55 Cayuga St.; (315) 568-8412; www.sfhistoricalsociety.org; $3 for adults; $1.50 for students.

Seneca Museum of Waterways & Industry, 89 Fall St.; (315) 568-1510; www.senecamuseum.com; admission is $2; families, $5.

National Women's Hall of Fame, 76 Fall St.; (315) 568-8060; www.greatwomen.org