In our home, we have a reproduction of the Declaration of Sentiments. It’s framed and mounted to the wall of one of the bathrooms.
Sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the original declaration at a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Among those signers were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the declaration’s primary author, and Frederick Douglass–orator, activist and escaped slave. This declaration, and this gathering of brave souls known as the Seneca Falls Convention, is credited by many for sparking the women’s rights movement in the U.S., with suffrage as a key component.
It takes roughly 45 minutes to drive to Seneca Falls from my home in the Rochester area. If I choose the back roads, it’s a one-hour trip, a lovely journey through towns and countryside dotted with old homes both modest and grand: some well-maintained, some neglected, some no doubt standing at the time the Seneca Falls Convention took place.
[Seneca Falls is also said to be the inspiration (or one of them) for Bedford Falls in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”]
I’ve driven to Seneca Falls on several occasions in the past few years, twice to visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, a museum and historic site, which includes the Wesleyan Chapel where the Seneca Falls Convention was held. The other times, I was in town not because of the museum or the chapel, but because of a building across the street: The Summit Federal Credit Union’s Seneca Falls Branch.
Our branch’s proximity to the historic site is certainly not by design, but it’s a juxtaposition that nonetheless makes sense.
Credit unions are built on a philosophy of access and equality, offering products and services like loans, accounts, debit and credit cards, and financial advice to a range of people including underserved populations. Often, these populations include an outsized proportion of women. Indeed, according to Data USA, of those living in poverty in Seneca Falls, the largest demographics are women age 25 – 34, followed by women age 18 – 24 and women age 55 – 64.
2020, though it hasn’t been exactly generous to anyone, hit women hard. Those who work in service industries like hospitality and travel are more likely to be women, and these industries in particular got the wind stomped out of them by COVID. Then, there are childcare issues exacerbated by the shutdowns and job losses. In 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote across the U.S. Somehow, this anniversary shines an especially glaring spotlight on the women’s rights work still to be done.
Incidentally, It’s become something of a tradition in Rochester for women to adhere their “I Voted” sticker to Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Mt. Hope Cemetery. This practice gained enough steam during the 2016 election that a clear protective cover was placed over Anthony’s gravestone. If you’re wondering, Anthony didn’t attend the Seneca Falls Convention, though her sister and mother did.
It’s like the old homes I pass on the way to Seneca Falls. Some of those 1848 Sentiments have received attention and care. Others are falling in under the weight of neglect. I can imagine a participant of the Seneca Falls Convention standing, back to the Wesleyan Chapel, looking across the street to 2020, equally agog at what’s changed and what hasn’t. (It’s fitting also that our branch, housed in a historic building, just received some upgrades.)
But credit unions are a handy bunch. We come through with programs like emergency loans and payment deferrals. We hold education sessions. We find solutions for everyone on an equal basis. It’s notable too that, according to a 2019 report from the National Credit Union Administration, over half of credit union CEOs nationwide are women, though for credit unions with over $1 billion in assets, that number shrinks to 14.5%. The Summit is one of those, led by President and CEO Laurie Baker. And a full 75% of The Summit’s senior leadership team are women as well, including our CFO.
The road to equality for women hasn’t been a speedy one so far. But credit unions like The Summit are constantly listening, fixing, and caring, working to improve members’ lives. Crossing the street are steps in the right direction.