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Women’s Suffrage(s): Part Three (for Kaitlin)

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This is the third and last installment of a three-part meditation on women’s suffrages—plural. Parts One and Two examined the tortured twisting path of suffrage in this country, which always prioritized white, Christian, land-holding, property-owning males. Contrary to all the national mythography, the record shows historical hostility toward women and toward those men who were poorer, or “foreign.” That is, unless they were useful: Native Americans whose land and lives were for the taking, Africans abducted and forced here into enslavement, Chinese “imported” to build railroads and infrastructure and then no longer welcome, and so on. Women? Servants of the indentured, slaves of the slaves.

In Parts One and Two, I tried to offer consciousness-changers that have meant much to me and that I recommend as sources for self-education about a legacy with which we are both burdened and privileged. The burdened part—well, see above. The privilege comes in, for every American, because the Framers (white, propertied, highly flawed males) nonetheless shared an impossibly impractical, aspirational vision that had not been put to the test of practice anywhere, ever. They knew that realizing that vision in reality would be a continuous, arduous task. The phrase “To form a more perfect union” in the Preamble to the Constitution reveals a diplomatically cautious James Madison trying to affirm the vision and not insult the original 13 states yet acknowledge the endless road ahead.

So that was the goal of Parts One and Two. Now it’s time to get personal.

I had been wanting to write about the history of women’s suffrages for some time in leading up to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. But my plans to do so accelerated because of women’s movement internecine struggles. Dear friends for decades who are longtime feminist, social justice, and antiracist activists have been quarreling, sometimes publicly, over a long-planned, yet to be formally unveiled monument to the women’s suffrage movement, depicting Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, in New York’s Central Park. It’s depressing to realize that we are still having such tiresome repetition of these same disagreements, especially in public. But women are human, and humans who have little nonetheless will be perceived as oppressors by those who have even less. (Attention is thus successfully diverted from exposing those who have most.)

Nevertheless, suffrage tributes will bravely be springing up around the country during the centennial. As only one example: Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSM) is building a national memorial to women suffragists, highlighting African American women leaders, with a special focus on those imprisoned at Occoquan, VA, who endured harsh conditions and abuse to win voting rights for American women (suffragistmemorial.org).

But wherever women’s suffragists are being honored, those who are not cast in stone or bronze will be understandably pained at their erasure and righteously furious, and those who labored long to build the memorials will become understandably defensive—and then also hurt and furious about feeling defensive, and then they’ll question what’s wrong with feeling defensive aren’t some things worth defending?

This is feminist hell, nor are we out of it.

To my knowledge, the Central Park monument has garnered the most criticism and the most defense—possibly because it’s in New York, a media center. It depicts Anthony and Stanton reading from a scroll with many more names on it, names of diverse women’s suffrage activists. Look, women toil for years to raise funds for such memorials, and I respect them, and also those who contributed. For years, women also battled bureaucracies defending public places from such dastardly insurgents as, well, us. For instance, Central Park can boast 22 statues of historical figures–all male. There is only one statue of a female, a fictional female, Alice in Wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser! Yet an 8-foot-tall statue of black-male-suffrage leader Frederick Douglass has stood in the Park since 2011 and the Frederick Douglass Circle at the 110th St. park entrance was established almost 70 years ago.

I wonder if anyone’s ever asked why it isn’t a statue of Harriet Tubman or Ida B. Wells or Anna Julia Cooper instead.

Me, I’m not such a big fan of honorific statues and monuments. They elicit a wry smile from me, because they remind me of Shelley’s sonnet, “Ozymandias.” Worse, in these days of coarsened discourse and cruel acts that churn violence through our Republic, I fear that even the best-intentioned monuments might be regarded by some as a provocation to be defaced or leveled. Then again, little girls should have a chance to know that women have made history and deserve society’s recognition, despite what mistakes they may have made in making it.

It’s a contradiction. Life is full of them. Deal with it.

The point is, it mustn’t stop there.

The point is that we should also be celebrating the anniversary of the 15th Amendment (1870), the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), the Magnuson Act (1943), and comparable others, even if only as a way of educating the public via holidays. Perhaps if 1965 had been publicly acclaimed as The Year of the Voting Rights Act, it would not have been so easy for the Supreme Court to eviscerate it. Perhaps in understanding the jerkily progressive journey of the vote in America, we might even learn that it wasn’t until 1961 with the 23rd Amendment that Washington DC gained suffrage—for the presidential vote. To this day, the District of Columbia still has no voting congressional representatives: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton represents it and serves on House committees, and she can caucus and lobby (for a DC vote)—but she cannot vote on legislation. If we had more historic holidays—people do love holidays!—then we might actually grasp what it means that Puerto Rico, still teetering between statehood, independence, and being a colony, won citizenship for its residents in 1917, but still lacks the right for their representatives in Congress to vote on legislation. Guam, another Territory, is entitled to a delegate, but s/he is not allowed to vote on the floor of the House, and can vote only on procedural matters and when serving on House committees.

God, the devil, and genius are all in the details. If we cared enough to know these things. If we cared enough to demand to know these things. If we cared enough.

I didn’t know any of this when I cut my political eye-teeth in the Civil Rights Movement with CORE and SNCC. I didn’t know why the white and black guys treated women abysmally, patronizing the black women while pursuing the white women (who responded either from feeling flattered or in fear), while the black women watched this double betrayal and tried to look away. (Fortunately, no one came on to me because I was married at the time, that is, belonging to another man.) I didn’t know all this back then because I was in my twenties and certain I was a revolutionary who knew everything—and the germinal anthology All the Women Were White, All the Blacks Were Men, But Some of Us Are Brave hadn’t been compiled yet by Barbara Smith, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Akasha Hull. I didn’t know any of this when I became angrier and angrier at the wedges men drove between us women, who always blamed each other yet never blamed the men. It’s taken 50 years of feminism, 50 years of listening to women, for me to learn some of these things and I’m too old now to shut up about them ever again.

I know at least this much. I know that women have become experts at blaming ourselves and each other, and at believing perfection exists: that’s what we’re taught. So we don’t notice the genius in details like “more perfect Union.” I know that if we could stop inflicting guilt on each other and try to encourage anyone who tries however awkwardly to shoulder responsibility and change things, that might help. I know that if all European-American feminists would read African American Women in The Struggle for The Vote 1850–1920 by the late Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and if all feminists of color would read Kathleen Barry’s Susan B. Anthony: The Biography of A Singular Feminist or some of the impassioned writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and then they could switch books, that might be a start.

I know that if women cannot forgive ourselves and each other; if we can’t try to do better; if we can’t locate the tears that boil inside each of us beneath the scalding anger; if we can’t let those tears flow, if we can’t conquer the patriarchy in ourselves, our species is doomed.

Look. If you’re into statuary tributes, then for godsake please somebody focus on adding, not subtracting. And what about language? Language is not fixed in stone, it’s both dynamic and revealing. So let’s not call the 19th Amendment the anniversary of winning the vote for women. Let’s call it a landmark victory in the struggle for women’s enfranchisement; let’s call it a watershed for women and democracy; let’s call it a giant step forward and a great day for many women—but let’s not call the franchise a victory for all women because that is simply inaccurate. Let’s hope that the valiant women who worked so diligently to build the Central Park monument will roll up their sleeves again and be joined by more women in building other monuments to accompany Stanton and Anthony, who will get lonely!

Let’s build a Central Park statue honoring Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and another of Mable Ping-Hua Lee and for that matter the women who never even gained the stature or education to become suffragists because they were the women behind the “great men”: Anna Murray Douglass and Sally Hemmings Jefferson. Let there be funded research into who the nameless Haudenosaunee women sachems were who modeled the idea of democracy for the Europeans in the first place, and let there be representations to praise them.

Let little girls (and boys) read the pedestals and look at the images and be enriched early on with knowledge we adults were bitterly denied for most of our lives. History is ours to make, because history is a renewable resource.

Let there be outdoor galleries, bronze forests gleaming in the sunlight with thousands of palpable images making women visible, rescuing them from the shadows of this Republic’s history. And let Stanton and Anthony, who spent their lives in the battles to abolish all slavery and enfranchise all women, have a monument. They’ve earned it.

This blog will return on March 18.

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