A “PSA” about “SBA” (Susan B. Anthony)

This image is NOT Susan B. Anthony.  This photograph, while poignant, and painful to view, is NOT Susan B. Anthony, it’s NOT a photograph of 1872, and Anthony was NOT beaten for “trying to vote.”  In fact, she succeeded that November morning in casting a ballot, afterwards writing Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Well I have been & gone & done it!”

Every March (Women’s History Month), August (Women’s Equality Day, 8/26) and November (2nd Tuesday in November) a flood of well-meaning folks post this image (and a similar one of Emmeline Pankhurst) purporting the woman in the photo to be Susan B. Anthony, in an effort to encourage women in the United States to vote.  Recently it’s been cropping up in social media due to the string of primaries, but I want to take a brief moment to set the record on this image straight.

This is an image from England, presumed to be Ada Wright, a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the militant faction of the English suffrage moment led by Emmeline Pankhurst (the WSPU was most recently featured in the film Suffragette (2015); see below for my review).  This photo was front page of the British paper the Daily Mirror, with the headline “Violent Scenes at Westminster Where Many Suffragettes Were Arrested While Trying to Force Their Way Into the House of Commons.” Look at the clothing of the woman, the man laughing and watching, and the officer perpetrating the attack.  The clothing worn by the woman on the ground and the male spectator sets the date well-past 1872, and the uniform attire for the officer is English. Also, handheld cameras that could capture images in a moment were a technological advancement that hadn’t yet occurred in 1872, but were available by the early 1900s, and often used by the press.

There are no photographs of Susan B. Anthony at the time she voted on November 5th, 1872.  There are no photographs of her arrest.  She was arrested in her parlor at home, and demanded handcuffs when she learned she would merely be escorted (she wished to be arrested the same way men were arrested at that time).  She was then taken to the Commissioner’s office, and the date for her trial was set.  She was not physically abused, although her rights were trampled upon, as a citizen without a voice.  Illegally voting for publicity and the ensuing court case that followed, Anthony documented her experience in detail for posterity, and it makes for great reading–there are many books on her arrest and trial that describe clearly what occurred.  While a vital piece of women’s history, it is NOT what is shown in this picture.

The English suffragettes were indeed battered publicly by the police in the early 1900s, and militant suffragists in the U.S. around the same time also experienced public abuse at the hands of mobs and later by prison guards.  We should not forget this history, and yes, these images and descriptions of what these courageous women endured should send us to the polls every opportunity we have to vote, no matter what side of the pond we live.

However, to consistently post inaccurate information leaves our history vulnerable; if we don’t value our own past, learn it, study it, understand it, and ultimately respect it, why should anyone else?

Be well.  Be historically correct.  VOTE.  Spill ink.



Text & Talkie: “Sally Heathcote: Suffragette” (2014) & “Suffragette” (2015)

Sometimes my reading selections and film viewing tend to weave together, as if I’m naturally tapping into larger cultural trends.  And when those trends happen to match my long-standing interests, or in this case, my scholarly background–oh, joy!  Such is the case with the 2014 graphic novel, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, and the 2015 film, Suffragette. Both are situated in the militant suffrage movement in England, during the early years of the 20th century leading up to World War I.


In Sally Heathcote: Suffragette (2014) we meet the title character while she is a domestic worker in the home of Emmeline Pankhurst.  Her journey begins on the fringes of the militant suffragettes, but soon she seeks out more dramatic roles, which leads to prison time and hard choices within an increasingly polarized movement, especially as a world war looms on the horizon.

Bookended by an elderly Sally in a nursing home in the late 1960s, it’s through Sally’s eyes in a long dream that we see past events unfold, the responses and decisions of leaders of the militant faction, and her own struggle to make her voice heard both under a government that ignores women and within a movement that ostracizes internal critics.

The characters are well-rounded: Sally struggles to pay bills and loses friendships with those who disagree with her suffrage work, and the Pankhursts are as flawed in fiction as they were in real life.  The lives of male characters are weaved into the women’s; they face similar difficult choices on how to respond to the call for combat in a society that becomes increasingly militant as Europe plunges into war.

Since this is a graphic novel, I should mention the illustrations, which were extremely well-done. The book as a whole is in black and white, with subtle use of color throughout, notably Emmeline Pankhurst always appears in pale purple, and Sally’s red hair is portrayed in color throughout the book, so we can always locate our heroine in a parlor, an outdoor rally, or prison.  Sally’s prison scenes are deciphered through thick black strips, as if we’re watching her undergo forced-feeding through the bars of her cell door. One of my favorite scenes was in part III, where the suffragettes are meeting with the politicians to present their arguments, and both sides slowly morph into mice and cats respectively, a visual representation of the looming “Cat & Mouse Act,” which resulted in the random arrest and release of suffragettes by the police and prison guards.  Other stylistic and subtle use of coloring for blood, banners, street lighting, and posters effectively added to a story where visual culture was such a necessary element of the struggle.

Well-researched and documented, the book includes a lengthy annotation, or notes section, in the back of the book; however, the author informs the reader to read the notes after the novel, as the information isn’t necessary to understand the story, and may be distract from it, instead.  There is also a timeline, and a bibliography, for further delving into the history of woman suffrage and life in England in the early 1900s.


Suffragette (2015), directed by Sarah Gavron, also features a woman of the working class as the central character; however, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) works in a laundry, not as a servant.  Unlike Sally Heathcote, who is aware of the key players and concerns in the fight for suffrage for some time before she takes up the cause, Maud is an accidental suffragette, who stumbles into the movement through a militant co-worker, and only fully embraces activism when she discovers the limitations placed upon her life, simply because she’s female.  And poor.

Violence and voice played an important role in the fight for the vote, and Maud develops both simultaneously.  She does so alongside fellow street soldier suffragettes, each representing different struggles women faced at the turn of the 20th-century: Violet (Ann-Marie Duff) is an abused and ever-pregnant wife, and Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) is a physician under surveillance for her suffrage activities.

These three women support each other through serving time in prison, the loneliness of activism as each is ostracized from their community, and the difficult choices made by each woman on whether or not to continue participating in a movement that grows more and more militant.

They are buoyed by a brief appearance of their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, a much-touted cameo by Meryl Streep (and quite possibly the only reason this film saw limited distribution in the United States) and are humbled by the fearlessness of Emily Wilding Davidson (Natalie Press), in what becomes the climax of the film.  Once it is clear to the audience that Maud’s conversion to a suffragette is complete, the film fades into actual period footage, and then to black, where a scroll lists the years each major country granted voting rights to women.  Be prepared to be shocked.  We are not as far away from this history as we think.

It was a risk by the director, script writer, and producer to feature the foot soldiers of the movement, rather than the famous, the leaders, or the wealthy, but I think it was a good choice, as most of the viewers may be unfamiliar with the toll it takes to physically take a cause to the streets year after year, with little success.  The graphic novel also demonstrates Sally’s daily challenges, but with a natural wider scope the medium was able to offer a perspective on the flawed nature of the Pankhurst dominance as well, and doesn’t let Emmeline or Chistabel off lightly for choices they made as England headed toward war.

No country’s history happens in a vacuum, and the cause of suffrage was no different. While clearly set in England, these two art forms carry within their story a glimpse of the American woman suffrage movement, too.  For example, Katherine Houghton Hepburn (yes, the mother of the actress) hosted Emmeline Pankhurst in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913, Harriot Stanton Blatch (yes, the daughter of women’s rights movement founder Elizabeth Cady Stanton) began parades in New York state inspired by those of WSPU as early as 1910, and Alice Paul fully participated in England and Scotland fighting for woman suffrage directly with the Pankhursts before returning in 1909 to take up the suffrage banner as leader of the National Woman’s Party (NWP) on American soil. Such international sharing of language, imagery, and strategy for this political cause deserves more of our time and attention, as it is vital for a deeper understanding and appreciation of women’s struggles in both countries.

And, allowing for some dramatic flair, surely, we could envision the transatlantic influence of the woman suffrage movement looking something like this:


1915 New Jersey suffragists on a tugboat publicity tour.

WomanSpeak: A Journal of Writing and Art by Caribbean Women

I’m beyond honored to have my poem, “For the Young Mothers Who Want To,” included in this fine journal, edited by the remarkable feminist Lynn Sweeting.  My first international publication, I’m fortunate to be included among strong Caribbean women writers, and this issue features the theme, “Letters to the Granddaughters: Conjuring the Women Writers of the Future.”  From fairy tales to poetry and fiction, to essays and art, there is much to love and be moved by in this annual literary and artistic celebration of women.  My poem is based on Marge Piercy’s “For the Young Who Want To,” and my only quibble is that the epigram acknowledging my debt to Piercy was left out, so I feel the need to mention that inspiration here.  This is a gorgeous volume, with much, besides my humble poem, to recommend it.