COURAGE.” –Elizabeth Cady Stanton
It’s the 201st anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, reformer, theologian, and one of the founders of the Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States.
Two days from now, it will be the 99th anniversary of the “Night of Terror,” the night of institutionalized brutalization of National Woman’s Party suffragists in Occoquan prison.
Earlier this week I cast my vote for the first woman nominee of a major party, and I owe these women an immense debt of gratitude for my ability to do so.
Hillary Clinton has lost her Presidential bid to an ultra-conservative candidate, and while I’m saddened, worried, and angry, I’m also too much of a historian to be all that surprised. Clinton was not so much a flawed candidate as a progressive one, and those who tend to be the “first” to break barriers are often the unradical, the moderate, the safe.
Although the history of this nation is a steady march forward for equality, for inclusion, every advancement made causes the pendulum to then swing in the opposite direction, as those who fear positive change for others scramble for some semblance of control in their own small world, which inevitably looks different; the future is always uncharted territory. Still, I’m disappointed in my fellow citizens who voted their fears, their closed minds, their hate.
Today is the 201st anniversary of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the NOW (National Organization for Women) website has crashed due to high traffic. I take solace in that. We have a lot to do–we’ve always had a lot to do–but at present it feels like more than a setback, if feels as it we’ve been pushed back down a mountain we had more than half-way climbed.
I worry now about everything from healthcare to arts and humanities funding, from climate change to reproductive rights. The rights of immigrants, the gains made by the LGBTQ community, protection of Muslims and other religious minorities as well as safety for African Americans and other People of Color: Black Lives Matter. And, of course, equality for women; I feel like the Equal Rights Amendment was within reach, and it will take even more time now to make it a reality. I celebrate and affirm as a historian, a poet, and a feminist all of the places where our humanity meets, and I will continue to strive to achieve my progressive vision of an inclusive, loving, peaceful world.
So the new “C-word” is Courage. And we will need gallons of it. Veins full. And while our spirits are dampened, and the road looks dark, we will continue like the strong, progressive women before us, Forward Into Light.
This past week’s election results and rising hate crimes from the empowered far-right have been compared to that of Brexit, and I want to point out that it’s not the first time such comparisons have been made, as can be seen by this quote from suffragist Rose Winslow, smuggled out of Occoquan Prison during her imprisonment:
“Never was there a sentence like ours for such an offense, even in England. No woman ever got it over there even for tearing down buildings. And during all that agitation we were busy saying that never would such things happen in the United States. The men told us they would not endure such frightfulness. The same doctor feeds both Alice Paul and me. Don’t let them tell you we take this well. Miss Paul vomits much. I do too. It’s the nervous reaction, and I can’t control it much. We think of the coming feeding all day. It is horrible. The doctor thinks I take it well. I hate the thought of Alice Paul and the others if I take it well. All the officers here know we are making this hunger strike so that women fighting for liberty may be considered political prisoners; we have told them. God knows we don’t want other women ever to have to do this over again.”
The “Night of Terror” perpetrated against the suffragists included beatings, broken bones, heads smashed against concrete walls in punishment cells, denial of food, water, use of a proper toilet, and denial of medical treatment, in an effort to destroy the health and spirit of these women. It was administrative terrorism, and it did not work then. I do not believe it will work now.
So I will light a candle and hold vigil for the brutalized suffragists–as I always do each November 14th–and I will also commit myself to the work of improving the future. I will wear my reproduction “Jailed for Freedom” pin, which was presented by Alice Paul to suffragists who served prison time.
I will wear this pin to recognize my own Herstory, to remind myself where my own faith and courage comes from. Because I stand on the shoulders of the women who have gone before me, and that includes the woman who trembled as she dared to raise her voice in a promiscuous public setting back in 1848 to demand the right to vote, who authored the “Declaration of Sentiments,” the woman whose 201st birthday is today.
And like Stanton, I will raise my voice, I will raise my pen. I will not go gentle into that good night, I will not be well-behaved (for history is seldom made by those who are).
Instead I will spill ink. I will be nasty, I will be courageous. I will be her kind.