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Around the World: For Women’s History Month, Explore the Feminist Legacy of Lower Manhattan

Jennifer Merin on

Let current headlines about equality and diversity issues lead you to downtown Manhattan, where you’ll find yourself in the very spots where America’s founding feminists took a stand for women’s right to vote and other key issues regarding gender and racial equality. It’s an ideal tour to take during March, otherwise known as Women’s History Month

You can take a self-guided women’s history walk though Lower Manhattan and see many places of particular interest in the district once known as “Newspaper Row,” where Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton Cady and other Suffragettes made headlines with their demands for voting rights for women.
It’s an area that’s filled with historical sites, some associated with famous Suffragettes and others with women who’ve not received widespread notoriety.  But all of these feminist activists – noted or not so much -- contributed significantly and successfully to making women’s voices that express women’s perspectives a part of our ongoing social debate.

The waking tour, covering the area south of New York’s City Hall, includes a number of ‘phantom’ buildings -- edifices that were razed by several major city-wide fires that destroyed hundreds of buildings, notably in 1845 and 1935 -- and were replaced by newer buildings at the same addresses. Many of the replacement buildings have plaques that commemorate the women who worked in the original edifices.

The first stop on the walking tour is at 251 Broadway, where “The Independent,” was once headquartered.  Readers of the daily newspaper were presented with the challenging views of reporters Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), whose “Life In The Iron-Mills” (1861) was a major expose of harsh work conditions, and Mary Clemmer Ames Hudson (1831-1884), whose weekly “A Woman’s Letter From Washington” was one of the most informative and influential of all post-Civil War columns--an assignment for which she was paid an incomparable $5,000 each year, a sum otherwise unheard of for women journalists.

Looking further east, you can see the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, the building of which--little known fact--was overseen by Emily Warren Roebling, who took over the responsibilities of her husband, Washington, who died from decompression sickness which he got while working on the project.  Few people who now cross the bridge see the plaque that the Brooklyn Engineers Club placed on the bridge’s Brooklyn Tower, saying: “Back of every great work we can see the self-sacrificing devotion of a women.”  That was their tribute to Emily Roebling.

On the corner of Beekman and Park Row, you’ll find the official New York City street sign honoring suffragist Susan B. Anthony. The sign, attached to City Hall Park, is across the street from 37 Park Row, where a newer building stands in the place once occupied by the building where Anthony and fellow suffragist Elizabeth Stanton Cady once helmed their journal, “Revolution,” advocating women’s right to vote.

Nearby, the building at 41 Park Row was once the headquarters of the “New York Times,” before New York’s newspaper of record moved to Times Square.  On staff, covering the stockyards, horse shows and racing, was the formidable Midy Morgan, a woman journalist whose advice was sought by millionaires and princes when they were buying horses. The building is now occupied by Pace University. 

The place at which Park Row intersects with Spruce and Beekman Streets is called Elizabeth Jennings Place, so named for the first African-American woman to successfully challenged racial discrimination on public transportation -- in 1854.  Jennings, an upstanding citizen who worked as a church organist, was put off the Third Avenue Railway because she was riding in a ‘white’ car.  Jennings father hired a white lawyer -- Chester A. Arthur, who was later to become the 21st president of the United States -- to handle the case. 

Everyone knows of Nellie Bly, the nom de plume given to Elizabeth Cochrane by the editor of “The World,” when she began to write for the newspaper in 1887.  Bly is best known for beating Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg in traveling around the world in less than 80 days, but her first freelance assignment for “The World” was equally daring: she pretended to be crazy so she could go undercover at Blackwell’s Island insane asylum to do an expose that lead to major improvements at the institution. “The World” was located at 32 Park Row.

At Duane and Elk Streets, you’ll find the African Burial Ground, an area which is the grave site for 15,000 African men, women and children--either enslaved or free--who helped to build New York City. The long forgotten grave site (now a National Monument which has a fascinating interpretive center at 290 Broadway) was discovered in 1991, when construction was being done on a Federal building. Some 400 skeletons were discovered, and then work was halted, and the site was land marked and protected.  In one of the opened graves, the remains of a women with a baby cradled in her arms is a most moving reminder of women’s hardships of yore.

At 44 John Street, the Old John Street Chapel is actually the third Methodist Church to be constructed on this very site.  The first was founded in 1768 by Barbara Ruckle Heck in 1768, who has been nicknamed ‘the mother of New World Methodism.’  The current chapel contains stones and timbers from the original building.

Louise Nevelson Plaza, bounded by Liberty Street, William Street and Maiden Lane, is an outdoor gallery of the modern sculptor’s work, displaying seven steel pieces that were given to the city by Nevelson in 1977.  The actual address of the Plaza is 33 Liberty Street.

At 26 Wall Street, Federal Hall Memorial stands in the place of an earlier construction, the colonial City Hall and Jail.  It is at this site that John Peter Zenger, publisher of the New-York Weekly Journal, was tried and imprisoned for seditious libel, a criminal offense, for printing anti-British editorials. Zenger’s wife, Anna, ran the publication during his eight-month incarceration--after which, he was found not guilty and went back to publishing the journal.  The Zenger case is thought to be one of the precursors to the inclusion of the guarantee of freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights.

Other sites on this wonderful tour include Battery Park, where singer Jenny Lind’s two concerts for charity raised the huge sum of $24,000, as well as the Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine at 7 State Street, and the first offices of the NAACP were at 20 Vesey Street.

At 111 Nassau Street were the offices of  Woodhull & Clafin’s Weekly, founded by the two outspoken sisters, Victoria Clafin Wodhull and Tennie C. Clafin, who opened a brokerage house and began their publication – which thrived on its coverage of the Henry Ward Beecher adultery scandal. In 1842, Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president of the United States, on the Equal Rights Party’s platform.

The full walking tour can take an hour or more.  Wear comfortable shoes and, if possible, carry with you a mobile device with Internet access – so you can search for details about the women whose legacies you’re exploring.

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Copyright 2018 Jennifer Merin


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