Three Gifts of Light for the Darkest Night of the Year

This will be my last post of 2016, but after a brief hiatus I’ll be back on January 16. If our current state of national uncertainty tips further into crisis and I feel I have something to write of use, hiatus or not, I’ll hit the keyboard running; those of who you subscribe to the blog will receive any such interim posts automatically.

But now, on the Winter Solstice, I didn’t want to revisit the enraging, depressing, alarming realities we face in 2017, here in the Untied States of America (no typo). Instead, I wanted to offer some strengthening words—and I’ve actually found not one but three ways to (at least try to) do that.

The first is a link to a list that will really truly honestly surprise you and make you feel better. Factual information as perspective equals good-news relief. I recommend reading every item on the list: “99 Reasons Why 2016 Has Been A Great Year for Humanity” by Angus Hervey, a political scientist and science communicator.

The second is also a link, to “Indivisible: A Practical Guide to Resisting the Trump Agenda”—a brilliantly conceived set of tips about how to make a meaningful impact on Congress right when we need to. It’s written by former progressive congressional staffers who saw the Tea Party beat back President Obama’s agenda, and who, seeing our enthusiasm to fight the Trump agenda, want to share insider info on how best to influence Congress to do that. They’re assuming that we understand this fight will require more than calls & petitions, and they urge us to use this Guide, share it, amend it, make it our own, and get to work. They’re doing this in their free time without coordination or support from their employers. They’re not starting an organization or selling anything. They’re just offering their acquired experience and expertise, and asking that concerned people use and pass it on. This is practical, superb information—and information is power.

The third—well, we’ve been using the Constitution’s Framers own words as shields against all the incursions already made and further ones being planned. So I thought it time to assemble a (small!) sample of quotes from women we could call the Founding Mothers, to remind us of who we are in this Republic and on just whose shoulders we stand.

If only we had a written record of pronouncements by the Iroquois Mothers, who held the final word on when to make war and when to make peace and when to plant and when reap, in their pre-European-conquest matrilineal culture. If only we had the actual angry words others reported these sachems cried out at the young braves who sold land that was not for sale to the strange European men who offered intoxicants and death—liquor and guns—as payment.

If only we had the words of early “settler” women, most of who came as indentured servants to the American colonies, though we have those of men writing about them: that they “could perform the most manful exercises as well as most men in these parts,” and that one Sarah Taylor testified in court she “had been beaten with a stool when caught reading a book.”

As historical time moved forward—and as women’s history flowered in the past half century—we do now have volumes about (and words of) free African women settlers and enslaved African women, Latinas, Asian women, and many more. To name only a few fine books out of what are now thousands: Gail Collins’ American Women: 400 years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines; Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought; Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands: La Frontera, Helen Zia’s Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, and too many more to list here, though fortunately they’re easily found.

This, after all, is merely a blog-post, not an encyclopedic compilation.

So in a leap of trust while keeping space and time in mind, we might as well start with Abigail Adams, who had shifted from being a European/British American colonial to being a revolutionary. Many people know the beginning of Abigail’s famous warning, “Remember the Ladies,” but are unfamiliar with her husband John Adams’ revealing response. Here is what she wrote in 1776 to Adams, who was abroad:

“In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend.”

And then, as she wryly related in 1776 to her friend Mercy Otis Warren:

“Mr. Adams is very saucy to me, in return for a list of female grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in the petition to Congress. [As] I thought it was very probable our wise statesmen would erect a new government and form a new code of laws, I ventured to speak a word in behalf of our sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the laws of England, which gives such unlimited power to the husband to use his wife ill. I requested that our legislators would consider our case, and as all men of delicacy and sentiment are averse to exercising the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in human nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the arbitrary and tyrannical to injure us with impunity, in establishing some laws in our favor, upon just and liberal principles. I believe I even threatened fomenting a rebellion in case we were not considered, and assured him we would not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we had neither a voice nor representation. In return, he tells me he cannot but laugh at my extraordinary code of laws, that he had heard their [independence] struggle had loosened the bonds of government, that the children and apprentices were disobedient, that schools and colleges were grown turbulent, that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But my letter was the first intimation [to him] that another tribe more numerous and powerful then all the rest had grown discontented.”

In 1832, Maria Miller Stewart, the first American-born female ever to lecture in public, dared do so as an abolitionist, a feminist, and a black woman. From among her lectures and pamphlets, these fiery words:

“This is the land of freedom. The press is at liberty. Every man has a right to express his opinion . . . I am sensible of former prejudices, but it is high time for prejudices and animosities to cease from among us. I am sensible of exposing myself to calumny and reproach; but shall I, for fear of feeble man, who shall die, hold my peace? Shall I, for fear of scoffs and frowns, refrain my tongue? O no! I speak as a dying mortal to dying mortals . . . it is of no use for us to sit with our hands folded, hanging our heads like bulrushes, lamenting our wretched condition; but let us make a mighty effort and arise, and if no one will promote or respect us, let us promote and respect ourselves.”

From The Declaration Of Sentiments And Resolutions at the First Women’s Rights Convention, Seneca Falls, New York, July 1848, itself based on the Declaration of Independence, these excerpts:

“We hold these truths to be self evident—that all men and women are created equal;… whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of those who suffer from it to refuse allegiance to it and to insist upon the institution of a new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

The great Harriet Tubman, nicknamed Moses, whom Lincoln ultimately commissioned a Union general, was a nurse, a spy, a scout, and a commander of troops during the Civil War. She had escaped from slavery herself and, although disabled, created the route that got named “the underground railroad” to rescue 756 enslaved people from the South. She made 19 rescue trips to the North, with a $40,000 award on her head. Among her pulse-quickening comments are these words, circa 1869:

“There was one of two things I had a right to, Liberty, or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other, for no man should take me alive, I should fight for my liberty as long as my strength lasted.”

Elizabeth Oakes Smith, suffragist, speaking at the Syracuse National Convention in 1852:

“Do we fully understand that we aim at nothing less then it an entire subversion of the present order of society, A dissolution of this whole existing social compact?”

Dr. Harriet K. Hunt, physician, 1853:

“I planted myself on the basis of the Declaration of Independence and insist, with our revolutionary sires, that taxation without representation is tyranny. Well here am I, an independent American woman educated for and living by the practice of medicine. I pay taxes and I demand of the government that taxes me that it allow me an equal voice with the other taxpayers in the disposal of the public money.”

Lucy Stone, abolitionist and suffragist, 1867:

“The only name given, by which the country can be saved, is that of woman.”

Victoria Woodhull, suffragist and defiant presidential candidate, 1871:

“We mean treason; we mean secession, and on a thousand times grander scale than was that of the South. We are plotting revolution; we will overthrow this bogus Republic and plant a government of righteousness in its stead.”

Belva A. Lockwood, attorney and suffragist, 1878:

“The only way for women to get their rights is to take them. If necessary let there be a domestic insurrection.”

Ida B. Wells, whose life spanned 1862 to 1931, was a journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist, sociologist, feminist, and one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909. Here she is referring to the South, but in words that ring nationally, and still true, today:

“The country is brutalized to a degree not realized by its own inhabitants, and the very foundation of government, law and order, are imperiled.” And, because as a journalist, she knew the value of a free press and fought for it:

“The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

These are only a handful of quotes exemplary of our foremothers. Patriarchal history erased most of them, but feminist historians brought these women back alive for you and me, although some of us still regard them as not-relevant-to-today fusty ladies in period costumes with ringletted hair—instead of as the silver-tongued, righteously furious, radical women they were. They were fomenting you’re-goddamned-right revolution.

We need to live up to their standards. We are the daughters of their revolution.

But we also need to learn how they weathered attacks and dealt with failure. It’s not enough to focus on militant words or even on triumphant exhalations of those who fought this fight before us. Sometimes—like now—it’s useful to dwell for a moment on how they handled times of despair.

So we’ll give Susan Brownell Anthony the last word. Kathleen Barry, in her excellent biography of Susan B. Anthony, notes that in the spring of 1870, the newspaper that Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had co-founded, actually named The Revolution, was going under. Anthony had sustained the paper for 29 months, mostly on subscription, but the paper and its editors were steeped in controversy and relentlessly the subject of vociferous attack, so even women’s rights supporters wouldn’t invest or contribute to keep it going. Stanton took no salary, Anthony was paid only her expenses, the staff all made heavy sacrifices. Anthony was anguished at the prospect of losing the paper, writing, “My paper must not, shall not go down.” The crisis increased, and so did her despondence: “I would say amen, but to live and fail—it would be too terrible to bear.” Finally, On May 22, 1870, ownership of The Revolution passed from her hands–although she was left with the newspaper’s $10,000 debt, by today’s standards in the hundreds of thousands. She was determined to work off the debt lecture by lecture, hundred dollars by hundred. But it was intolerably painful for her to see the paper altered—transformed into a society journal—and she grieved, “It’s like signing my own death warrant.” Even the revolutionary motto, “Men their rights and nothing more, women their rights and nothing less,” was changed by the new owners into “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” The new editors refused to have anything to do with the old radicals, and Anthony wrote, “Publishers and editors must be thrown overboard, so overboard we went.” Still, hear Susan B. Anthony, even in her despair:

“I am not complaining, for mine is the fate of almost every originator, pioneer, who has ever opened up the way. I have the joy of knowing that I showed the thing possible—to publish a live, out and out woman’s paper, taught other women to invest, to enter in and reap when I had sown.”

This is the woman whose last public words were, “Failure is impossible.”

I’ll second that. All in favor?