By Edward Shanahan
At trip to the Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N. Y., last
fall nudged back into my mind the figure of Eleanor Flexner, an
authentic eccentric and activist from the 1970s, when we first
Flexner lived on Arlington Street with her partner Helen Terry,
who worked at Smith College. Flexner harbored a somewhat negative
attitude toward the college, which she believed did not acknowledge
or take advantage of her own scholarly work in the field of women's
After all, Flexner was the author of the ground-breaking work
on the women's rights movement, ''Century of Struggle'' published
by the Harvard University Press in 1959 and continuously in print
in English and half a dozen other languages since.
Flexner's second major work, ''Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography''
was published in 1972 and nominated, the following year, for the
National Book Award for biography.
While I recall great activity and turmoil as the feminist movement,
embodied locally by the Valley Women's Center, gained momentum,
Eleanor Flexner's contributions and role were largely ignored.
She was the pioneer who blazes the trail, only to be shouldered
out of the way by the crush of newly-converted or recently come-of-age
The image that sticks in my mind is seeing Flexner driving around
town with only the very tip of her head visible through the driver's
side window. She often popped into the newspaper office to submit
articles or hand in publicity she had prepared about activities
at the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, or to suggest stories concerning
political events in which she was interested.
We developed something of a friendship, not close, but we valued
each other's work.
Sometime after Helen Terry died and Eleanor Flexner's health
declined, she moved away from the area and I lost touch with her.
Later on, I learned she had donated her professional papers
- which must have been a rich archive of feminist material - to
the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, rather than to the Sophia
Smith Collection at Smith, a sad and final severing of her Northampton
ties, but appropriate in light of the way she felt she had been
treated by the country's largest women's college.
She died in 1995 in a nursing home in Westboro, and her passing
went more or less unnoticed in this area.
But her contribution surely lives in Seneca Falls, the home of
suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the site of the first
women's rights convention in 1848. As a result of Flexner's carefully
documented history of the movement and her consistent advocacy
for landmark status for the structure where the first convention
took place, the Seneca Falls National Historic Park was recognized
in 1980. That has since been expanded on and now includes the
Seneca Falls National Park and the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Feelings of being an outsider present at something beyond my
own experience were frequent during a weekend visit to Seneca
Falls last fall.
I had accompanied my wife Ann to Seneca Falls because among those
women to be inducted into the Hall of Fame was Sophia Smith, the
somewhat reclusive Hatfield resident who was founder and benefactor
of Smith College. Ann's work at the college dictated that she
be on hand; I came along for the ride.
There have been similar weekends in Seneca Falls going back to
1969 when the practice of honoring a number of outstanding women,
most of them pioneers, past and present, began. It was in Seneca
Falls that the women's rights movement made history with passage
of a resolution declaring that ... "it is the duty of the women
of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to
the elective franchise." Yet, it took until August, 1920, for
the women's suffrage amendment to receive final state ratification.
Standing on the sidewalk in the gathering darkness on a comfortable
October evening, I was impressed by the energy of the crowd of
200 to 300, as the names of the new inductees into the National
Women's Hall of Fame were called out and a candle was lit in front
of a photographic image of each of 19 women who were being honored.
Equal parts sober vigil and boisterous political convention,
the candle-light gathering seemed so singular in purpose that
all I could do was imagine what depths of feeling must be at its
root. These were feelings that I could not share because I am
not a woman and thus can never fully comprehend why this night
and this weekend were so special for so many women from such varied
backgrounds and regions of the country.
Meanwhile, if I had vague feelings of emotional distance during
the Friday night celebration, my response during the three-hour
program on Saturday was one of gratitude that I could be on hand
to listen to the anecdotal history of the women's struggle as
related by about those who were being honored in absentia and
by those inductees on the front lines still.
In some ways, we have witnessed in the last couple of decades
a rise and fall in public consciousness of what the women's movement
was all about. My sense is that today we are in a slough when
it comes to appreciating what was at stake 150 years ago and how
long it has taken to make tiny gains and win incremental rights.
Most of us - including young women - take their rights for granted
in the same way that most workers believe their employers pay
them generously and provide decent benefits because of their intrinsic
personal merit and the employers inherent decency. Most workers
barely acknowledge there ever was something called the labor movement
or trade unions, which faced great dangers to secure equity and
safe conditions for workers.
I found it invigorating to peel back history with those who spoke
passionately about their own experiences and those of the honored
women, long since dead, like Mary Barret Dyer, who was hung on
Boston Common in 1660 because of her commitment to Quakerism,
which was regarded then as heresy.
The afternoon was a spirited seminar in long-forgotten American
history, both because it underscored the collective social cruelty
to women and the courage that it inspired.
While we were there because of the contributions that the estimable
Sophia Smith made in bringing about the founding of Smith College,
her story in some ways paled in comparison to that of many other
brave pioneers such as Mary Edward Walker, one of the first women
to become a doctor and who was initially prevented from battlefield
service in the Civil War, only to prevail; or Kate Mullany, an
Irish immigrant who founded the Collar Laundry Union in Troy,
N.Y. ,in 1864; or Emma Smith DeVoe, a leading suffragist, or Frances
Willard, best known as founder of the Women's Christian Temperance
Union, but less well appreciated for her fight and that of her
army of followers for such social reforms as the eight-hour day,
protection of abused women and children, and workplace safety.
An interesting thread that runs through the fabric of the women's
rights movement - beyond securing the right to vote - is a overarching
commitment to free speech, social justice, world peace, or what
might generally be called a left, progressive political perspective,
which is sadly out of favor in today's consumer society.
The rhetorical high point came with the comments of Bishop Leontine
Kelly, a black minister who took as her text what had been called
the Negro National Anthem, "Lift Every voice and Sing."
While the program went on longer than most of us had expected,
the stories were so powerful that I felt I was privileged to be
allowed to participate because I possessed none of the requisite
credentials for understanding how significant this afternoon was.
As speaker after speaker was applauded and as feelings of pride
and honor and a sense of achievement washed over the audience,
I tried to think of a comparable experience that I had as a man
and I came up empty. Over the centuries men had fought wars, won
crucial athletic contests, wrested control of enormous economic
and political power, but those achievements could not match the
feelings of unity, solidarity, and togetherness evident on this
day. It was odd to feel so empty, so deprived, when the day had
been so full, so rich. That, of course, was the point, it was
not my day at all.
When I got back to Northampton, it occurred to me that no one
more deserves to join the Hall of Fame than Eleanor Flexner, whose
path-breaking historical work on behalf of women has been slighted
for too long, not only here in Northampton, but on the larger
Interestingly enough, in the wake of the Sophia Smith induction,
Smith's women's history archive, the Sophia Smith Collection,
has sent to the Women's Hall of Fame nomination papers for Eleanor
Perhaps there will occasion for another trip to Seneca Falls.