Wonder Woman, Joan of Arc, & Suffrage

[SPOILER ALERT–You may not want to read this until you’ve seen the movie.]

“Who will I be if I stay?”

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, asks this question of her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, upon leaving her island in this newest retelling of the superhero in Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins.

While I don’t claim to have a grasp on the full history of the many incarnations and storylines of the comic book character, what I do want to respond to here are the remarkable parallels I found in the latest movie version between the portrayal of Wonder Woman/Diana, and the life of Joan of Arc.

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Both Diana and Joan leave sheltered homes to embark on a mission: Diana to rid the world of war by destroying Ares, the Greek God of War; Joan to rid France of the English, by lifting sieges and crowning Charles VII king.  Both of their missions are pre-ordained: as an Amazon, the mythology of Diana’s people is to protect men from the wrath and influence of the God of War.  As a daughter of Zeus, Diana is a Demi-Goddess, which means Ares’ destruction can only be by her hand.

As for Joan,  she embraces the mythology of the Catholic Church, heeding the guidance of St. Michael, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine, who inform her that she “must leave and go to France.  They said I was to go to the Dauphin, to have him crowned.”  Since the charge came from voices and visions, Joan viewed saving France as her destiny.

“These are not for you, Diana.”

Hippolyta reminds her daughter of this more than once in the early part of the movie, when we see a young Diana aching to be trained in her culture’s art of war.  And it is indeed art: there is a precision, a discipline, and a beauty to the warrior, the controlled confidence and strength of a body pushed to limits of physical awareness and self-protection.  Diana is secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope, who sees more clearly Diana’s future, who understands the necessity of making certain Diana can attack and defend in battles that will not waged with honor, that may not be “fair.”

Joan, as a peasant in Domrémy, a tiny village on the eastern outskirts of France, was raised by her mother Isabelle unquestionably with an understanding that the military and weaponry were not for her, that her role in life would be chaste until wife and mother, subservient to the men in her life, and to the church.  Joan’s father had prophetic dreams that his daughter would run off to join the soldiers like a common prostitute, and as Joan testified, “my parents took great care to keep me safely.”

Yet both women responded to the call of a Deity higher than themselves, needing to sever ties with and endure the disappointment of loved ones to follow what they defined as their destinies.

“To the War!”

Diana swiftly announces this upon her arrival in London, determined to not stray from her course of finding and defeating Ares.  To be honest, it wasn’t until this point in the movie that I began to take notice of the distinct similarities between the presentation of Diana’s mission and the history of Joan’s.  In Wonder Woman we see Diana eager to enter battle, her increasing exasperation with standing on the sidelines while others participate in maneuvering the politics surrounding war, and her single-mindedness to get to the Front.  All of this mirrors the actual life experience of Joan, right down to the fixation of her clothing.

What was a life or death situation for Joan, whose choice of clothing took a place of prominence in her interrogation and trial second only to her voices, was played for comic effect in the movie, as Diana proclaims the uselessness of women’s wardrobe styles for fighting while trying on a series of outfits.  There is a constant emphasis that what a woman wears matters.

Whether a real-life warrior in 15th-century France, a mythological Demi-Goddess from an island paradise, or an American teenager in high school, how a woman chooses to clothe herself is still of primary importance to those in positions of power.  Joan can only access the French army dressed as a man, and Diana can only reach the French trenches in the attire of a 1918 woman.  Joan’s masculine attire, Diana’s superhero outfit, render them both indecent in civil society, but both are necessary to leading their form of military campaign.

While mingling with the upper echelon of politicians and/or court society, Joan proves her divine ability to head Charles’ army by interpreting the Dauphin’s prayers.  Diana, already divine, demonstrates the practical application of her knowledge by interpreting human language, in this case the Ottoman and Sumerian code of a poisoner’s diary.

Both interpretive points illustrate the usefulness of what each woman brings to her respective culture; it’s what solidifies the trust that allows them access to the heart of the war.

“But it’s what am going to do!”

Diana determines, contrary to the warnings of the seasoned soldiers, to enter No Man’s Land, after seeing the human cost of war: men gassed, in pain from torn-off limbs, the confusion of what-was-then-termed “shell shock,” and a displaced mother and child.

Frustrated that little is being done to help civilians caught between two opposing armies, Diana responds with the above line, which is followed by the defining scene of the movie–Diana becomes Wonder Woman.  She does so by going “over the top” of the trenches, in a stunning and studied series of movements, that begins with her releasing her hair from the bun it has been swept up in since she garbed herself in “women’s clothes,” and then the shedding of those clothes, so that when we view her, climbing up the ladder to No Man’s Land, she is fully Amazonian, a complete and confident warrior, and she takes on the German army’s bullets alone, pushing forward and shielding machine-gun fire so that others can approach and destroy the enemy.  The nearby village rescued, there is celebration.

Once again, sitting in the dark theater, watching Diana reach up to the back of her head to undo her hair, I could not help but think of Joan, whose own transformation into a warrior also began with her hair.  But for Joan it was the cutting, not the releasing of her locks, that defined her metamorphosis into La Pucelle.  Surrounded by the French army, Joan needed to downplay her womanhood, her sexuality.  Diana, on the other hand, as a Demi-Goddess in fear of no man, owns herself completely, so the style of her hair shouldn’t matter as she raged into battle.  Then why, I wondered, watching Diana charge with a shield across an open decimated field toward enemy fire as Joan once did holding a fleur-de-lys standard, was Diana’s hair unleashed, if the scene wasn’t an acknowledgement in a purposeful contrast, a reverse homage, to Joan?

“The King of Heaven orders you and commands you through me, Joan the Pucelle, the abandon your strongholds and go back to your country.  If not, I will make a war cry that will be remembered forever.”  Joan sent these words to the English sieging the town of Orléans.  Joan was familiar with the human cost of siege.  Starving, townspeople would often resort to eating rats, and banishing the old, ill, and orphans from inside the walls of the town to fend for themselves.  It was a cruel form of torture in warfare, and Joan was determined to lift the Orléans siege.  When she did so, there were celebrations; the English began to fear, and the French to hope.

“Do you believe her?”

After saving the village, Diana heads off on horseback (again, reminiscent of Joan, who rode with the French cavalry) with a small band of spies and smugglers, one of which, upon hearing the amazing story of Diana’s task from her love interest, asks the above question when Diana is out of earshot.  Not a question of trust, not a question of truth, but one of belief.  And once again, in the theater, I can’t help but equate this to Joan, to the small band of soldiers who continued to follow her on campaigns well-after the king she helped to crown abandoned her.  Their loyalty to Joan was based on belief–on the belief that her quest was holy, that she was sent from God, that she was divine.

Joan burned.  Not as a witch (the diabolical connections came after her death, in an attempt to discredit the French king), but as a heretic, who claimed her own sovereign relation to God, who knew a deeper understanding of her deity more than the robed men of the church.  She went to the stake in 1431.

It is now 2017, and women are still punished for claiming the divine within themselves, for taking on the role of destroyer as well as creator, for wanting to end war.  However, it is not Diana herself who is burned, but rather, her love interest.  Steve Trevor makes a choice, embraces a hero’s death, and although one could argue (as many have) that it was a better creative decision to send him off in this fashion, rather than have him age and her not–still, within the context of the story, the powerful woman must endure fire, must endure loss, and it must be painful.

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The suffrage movement embraced Joan of Arc as its patron saint.  Joan represented the “new woman.” She challenged stereotypes and expectations of women, stood up to the most powerful institution of her time, the Catholic Church, and led men into battle. Clearly, she was the perfect symbol for women standing up to the American government, demanding their own voice, their own vote.

 In the 1913 parade organized by Alice Paul, Inez Milholland portrayed a suffrage herald, leading women “out of darkness, forward into light” a role that was openly acknowledged as influenced by Joan of Arc.  Inez wore a tiara, “something suggesting the free woman of the future, crowned by the star of hope…” (Alice Paul in a letter to Inez Milholland, February 12, 1913).  And it was this tiara, suggested by Alice Paul and worn by a suffragist leading a parade that shocked the nation for the way women claimed the streets like they never had before, that inspired the one worn by Wonder Woman.

Setting the 2017 movie in World War I, rather than World War II, when Wonder Woman first appeared on the comic book scene, makes sense in the continuity of women’s history: from the suffrage movement, to Wonder Woman’s creation, through the Second Wave of feminism when Wonder Woman graced the cover of the first Ms. Magazine in 1972, to the She Persisted Resistance now.  It also returns us, as the audience, to the height of the Progressive Era, when suffrage was coming to fruition as the 19th Amendment, and the first World War was raging across Europe.  It was feared that had women been able to vote, they would not have voted to enter the war, as Representative Jeanette Rankin was made painfully aware of when she lost her House seat due to her “no” vote.  Afterwards, Rankin said, in a line that would make Diana Prince proud, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”  Like Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Rankin, a Congresswoman and a suffragist, viewed her role as vital to saying no to war.  Which brings us full circle: bringing Wonder Woman back to suffrage serves to underscore my argument that the 2017 movie is a subtle homage to Joan.

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Joan of Arc, miniature, c. 1450-1500. Archives Nationales, France. Unknown.

Women lost Joan of Arc in 1920, the same year women won the right to vote.  This was significant; at the height of women’s political power to date, their strongest role model is deemed no longer human: her larger-than-life accomplishments are no longer attainable to other women to serve as inspiration; rather, they are the obvious result of Joan being Divine.  Joan didn’t break barriers as a woman, claimed the Catholic Church, she fulfilled her destiny as a Saint.  Therefore, the church, by conferring sainthood to La Pucelle, declared that women, meaning mere human women, could not ever be like Joan.

Diana ends a great war due to her divinity, Joan changes the course of a war lasting nearly a century, and is later named divine.  And the church certainly took its time coming around to that determination.  The trial which condemned Joan was nullified in 1456, yet she isn’t canonized until 1920, when her story has not only been revived, but used to illustrate what women can become: they can lead armies, they can send enemies scurrying back to their homelands and produce an armistice–they can crown kings.

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Historian Jill Lepore has argued on NPR that the new Wonder Woman movie renders invisible the fights raised a century ago.  I respectfully disagree.  This movie not only connects to women’s issues from a century ago, but from five centuries ago.  I am struck by the similarities of the movie poster to one of the earliest artistic portrayals of Joan. Just in a cursory comparison one notes the same bold orange-yellow colors, the direction each woman is facing, the armor, and the standard/shield in a secondary position to the sword.  I believe the new Wonder Woman movie returns to women the story of Joan of Arc: a new mythology of Joan as supreme warrior, as both divine AND human, as a success.  Joan without the stake.

Remembering President Obama’s Visit to the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument

He said her name.  In April of 2016, President Barack Obama said “Alice Paul.”  He was probably the first American President to do so publicly since Gerald Ford, and with more respect than Woodrow Wilson ever did.  And it brought tears to my eyes.

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President Obama dedicates the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, April 12, 2016.

During his speeches, President Obama also often listed “Women reaching for the ballot,” as one of the many progressive movements in history that brought equality and justice to half the nation’s citizens.  When the President appeared at the Hillary Clinton rally in New Hampshire , I cheered–the lone voice to do so–when he spoke this line.

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President Obama reads about the English roots of the militant suffrage movement in the United States, as Page Harrington, Director of the National Woman’s Party, looks on.

Tonight, this is how I want to remember his Presidency, as the first President to put  the suffrage movement into the fabric of national history and memory when he said Alice Paul’s name and added the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party to the many sites managed by the National Park Service.  No President before Obama ever toured the museum, or appreciated its value to American women and our cultural identity.

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President Obama touring the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.

This museum both celebrates and honors the hard work of suffragists and feminists to win the vote & to write and fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.  The HERstory within these walls inspires us now to continue to reach for equality, using the tool so dearly won by women nearly a century ago–yet these were women who knew the vote was just a beginning.  Tonight, we remember a President who respected American women enough to honor the struggles of the suffragists.  Tomorrow, we will remember their strategies to actively engage in democracy, to seek justice and equal rights, to march Forward, Into Light.

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Click here to watch President Obama tour the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument.

Even better, the next time you visit Washington, D. C., stop by and take a tour!    Click here or here to learn more about the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument or the National Woman’s Party and plan your visit.

 

Upcoming Appearance: Writers Resist

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Tomorrow I will participate in Writers Resist, joining my voice with other writers making a shared commitment to the spirit of compassion, equality and free speech. As part of more than fifty events across the globe, writers in New London will read historic and contemporary writings on the ideals of democracy and free expression. The event is free and the public is welcome to attend.

My intent is to feature writings related to, and culminating with, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

I am honored to share the microphone with these amazing writers and champions of equality: Charles Fort, Jose Gonzalez, Frederick-Douglass Knowles, Mark Lamoureux, Steve Ostrowski, Lisa Taylor, and Rhonda Ward.  Open-mic to follow if time allows.

Sunday, January 15th
2-4 pm, Free
Community Room
New London Public Library
Community Room
63 Huntington St, New London, CT

I hope to see you there, as we celebrate the importance of the written word to our democratic ideals.

Happy 132nd Birthday, Alice Paul!

Yesterday was the Centennial Anniversary of the launch of picketing the White House by the Silent Sentinels.  Today is the anniversary of the Birthday of Alice Paul, the suffrage leader and strategist who led the first non-violent civil disobedience in the United States. Today I’m sharing my sermon on Alice Paul to honor the suffragists and these two important dates in suffrage history.

“Nothing Complicated About Ordinary Equality:”
Alice Paul, Leader for Women’s Rights

It is winter.  A cold morning in early January, 1917.  But it’s not only a new day in a new year, it’s the dawning of a new tactical agenda in the fight for woman suffrage, as a line of women, wearing sashes in purple, white, and gold stand outside the White House gates.  They hold silk banners bearing pro-suffrage messages such as “Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” from morning to dusk, in every kind of weather, and by doing so, the political activist landscape is changed forever. 

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The Silent Sentinels, as Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party named them, led one of the most overlooked political protests in American history.  The truly first instance of nonviolent civil disobedience on American soil was the brainchild of a small, frail Quaker woman with a will of iron, and an intellect to match.

Alice Paul was born in Moorestown, New Jersey to a prominent Hicksite Quaker family.  By the time she was born in 1885, the woman suffrage movement was nearly 40 years old.  Paul claimed that she could not remember a time when the suffrage struggle was unknown to her.  She attended suffrage meetings with her mother as a young girl and was raised in the Quaker principle of gender equality. After graduating from Swarthmore College, and earning a master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in economics and sociology,  she won a fellowship to Woodbrooke, a Quaker study center near Birmingham, England.  While in England, she studied the working conditions of women, which led to her attending a lecture by Christabel Pankhurst on voting rights for women.  When Christabel took the stage, the audience shouted and heckled so loudly that she wasn’t able to give her talk, and officials had to cancel the event.  Alice Paul was horrified; she had never experienced such rudeness toward a speaker, being from a sheltered environment where Quaker men and women were able to express their views equally.  Paul’s sense of social responsibility was deeply entrenched in her religious beliefs, and she quickly became involved in a movement that was growing more and more militant. 

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She was aware of this, and as when she was asked to participate in activities that would lead to a jail sentence, she grew concerned over how such actions would be perceived back home.  While Quakers believe in social equality, they are also pacifists, and Paul knew that throwing bricks, smashing windows, and imprisonment would be viewed as violent.  She was right to be worried, and even though by the end of her time with the English suffrage movement she had fought for women’s right to vote in two countries (England and Scotland), which included seven arrests, three imprisonments, and fifty-five forced-feedings–all covered in the American press–when she returned to the United States in 1910 the papers noticed that neither local suffragists nor Quakers from her community greeted Alice Paul on her arrival.  The lack of acknowledgment from her religious community unsettled Paul.  The Quakers didn’t quite know what to make of her behavior, although later they gave her opportunities to share her reasoning.  She never wavered in her support of militancy for suffrage, and even responded with an exasperated “I saw no particular sanctity in a pane of glass,” when asked if such actions were Christian.  Margaret Hope Bacon, an historian who by virtue of being a Quaker has a unique viewpoint of the Society of Friends’ treatment of Paul, states: “She took her place in a tradition of Quaker women who were so far ahead of their time that they lost patience with the Society, and yet had a major influence on later generations of Quaker women.”

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While in England Paul saw that the greatest advantage to militancy in reform movements was that it established the reform as an issue.  The use of militancy granted widespread publicity, kept reform in the public eye and by the very nature of controversy caused the topic at hand to be discussed.  This well-learned lesson was remembered by Paul when she undertook suffrage work in America.

What is key here is that after Paul returned to a flagging suffrage movement in the United States, she blended her beliefs as a Quaker– keeping in mind that Quakerism is a non-Creedal faith that also embraces principles– with how she viewed working toward social reform.  This allowed her to transform civil disobedience from violent to non-violent, and establish her own form of American suffrage militancy, which then drew more press attention to the question of enfranchisement for women.   It is interesting to note that another young student was in England at the same time Paul was, and in his own writings he credited the suffrage movement with how he approached reform.  His name was Mahatma Ghandi.  Two different parts of the world, two different faiths, and two vastly different people coming to the same political conclusions, but in my history text books, and probably yours as well, only the man was mentioned for changing the political reform landscape. 

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After obtaining her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912 she left for Washington, DC as a representative of the foremost national suffrage organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA.  She planned to work on their behalf for a Federal Amendment to the Constitution, which she named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.  Several states out west, such as Wyoming and Colorado, extended voting rights to women, therefore a Federal Amendment became a possibility.  Alice Paul broke with the NAWSA in 1916 and formed the National Woman’s Party.  This was due to disagreements over her increasing use of militancy, which included such shocking tactics as parades, lobbying Congress, and soapbox speeches.  Through Alice’s maneuvers women were publicly and politically owning the streets in a way that they never had previously, and it was not entirely welcome.  But it wasn’t just tactics that the conservative, older, establishment suffrage organization found militant, it was the ideological arguments behind women voting that were radical as well.  Paul believed that women should vote simply because they were citizens, obeyed laws, and paid taxes.  NAWSA argued women should vote because they would “clean up” politics, and make them “better wives and mothers.”  No doubt Alice’s viewpoint clearly stemmed from her Quakerism. 

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These same arguments are mirrored today, too.  When I hear that the reason we should help women in impoverished situations or developing countries is because women will help others, their children, their communities, I want to grit my teeth.  It’s true that they often do, but I help women because I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, not because they’ll save their community.  That’s a lot to put on any one human being’s shoulders, especially someone enduring a crisis situation.  Does our own first principle, then, make us radical?  When it comes to working on rights for women, I like to think that it does. 

So it was considered beyond the pale by many suffrage supporters, let alone anti-suffragists, that a large group of women, NOT well-behaved, were making history by standing with signs outside the White House in January, 1917, and even more so when they continued their vigil in April, as America entered World War I.  The picketing, which was at first seen as “unwomanly,” now became, in wartime, unpatriotic, and even threatening. 

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Soon after declaring war the Wilson administration called a meeting with the leaders of both national suffrage organizations, and asked them to, “Lay aside your own fight and help us crush Germany, and you will find yourselves rewarded with a vote out of the nation’s gratitude.”  While  conservative NAWSA agreed to shift its organizational focus to war efforts, the militant NWP, remembering the same request by the Lincoln administration at the dawn of the Civil War, but a very different outcome at war’s end, as the Reconstruction amendments denied women the vote, patently refused.  “How long must women wait for liberty?”  The banners questioned, and how often throughout history have American women been told politically to stand down, wait your turn, it’s not your time yet, be patient, be a good girl?

The Silent Sentinels viewed Wilson’s willingness to send soldiers to fight for democracy abroad, but not support democracy for women at home, as hypocritical, and the NWP would draw attention to that hypocrisy at the gates of the White House.  The banners began to quote Wilson’s war speeches.  “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts–for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government.”  This led to arrests, jail time, and the brutality of forced-feedings.  We know in the end that in 1920 the 19th Amendment passed, giving women the right to vote. 

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Many women, exhausted from a 72-year-long battle, ended their political activism, but not Alice Paul.  She went on to get three law degrees, wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, founded the Women’s Consultative Committee within the League of Nations, rescued Jews from the Holocaust, and initiated inclusion of sex equality in the United Nations Charter and in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  She worked on getting passage of the ERA until she died in 1977, and her life serves as an inspiration for many women–and men–engaged in political activism.  Indeed, she inspired me when I worked as a volunteer and then paid employee for several years for NOW-NJ. 

Participating in our “Black Lives Matter” witness brings back for me a flood of memories, of reclaiming the streets in a way that the suffragists did originally.  And I can’t help but notice, too, having once been offered the Chair of the NJ Domestic Violence Task Force, that we not only face the street with our banner, but that it’s right across the street, where Safe Futures is located.  I wonder what the women rebuilding their lives there think or feel when they see us with our sign, and I would like for it to be hope. 

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The oppression of both people of color and women stem from the same source, and therefore it’s no accident that a rise in activism for women’s causes follows shortly after barriers for African Americans are broken down.  The first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement occurred during and after Abolition, and the second wave of Feminism after the Civil Rights Movement.  Now, to be clear, I’m not ignoring or glossing over the racism of the suffragists; there was racism in the history of the women’s movement, and there was sexism in the history of liberating African Americans from slavery and Jim Crow laws. That’s how oppression works.  As Tan-Nehisi Coates wrote so eloquently in his memoir-like letter to his son, Between the World and Me, it’s about what, and I’m paraphrasing Coates here, control people have over your own body.  The women who seek succor across the street have fled a threatening situation because they feared for their bodies.  The women who have challenged the Texas abortion clinic laws all the way to the Supreme Court have done so because they are determined to make their own choices for their bodies.   And history shows women of color are disproportionately affected by a lack of control over their bodies, even more so with the intersectionality of homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia.  There is oppression within oppression, and it’s an ever-spinning, bitter spiral.

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Alice Paul tried to embody the best of Quakerism, and when she repeatedly found her efforts to recruit African American suffragists to march in the 1913 parade thwarted, she wrote a frustrated letter to Alice Stone Blackwell, stating, “I belong to a Quaker family which has always taken a stand for the rights of the negro and all the traditions of my family and the influence of my home are such to make me predisposed to side with, and not against, the negro in any question of race.”  Historians are now aware that it was not Alice Paul who attempted to prevent reformer Ida B. Wells-Barnett from marching with the Illinois delegates in the parade; rather, the wife of an Illinois congressman was the instrument of that hateful episode.  This isn’t to say that Alice was exempt from all the prejudices of her time, no one ever is, but she did hold herself accountable to the ideals of her faith, and more often than not she succeeded. 

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Alice Paul never saw the passage of the ERA, the amendment she spent the majority of her life working to achieve, but it has seen a recent revival with the rise of the Equal Means Equal campaign.  Alice once said that to her “the women’s movement was like a mosaic, each of us puts in their own stone, and you get a great mosaic at the end.”  I would go further and say that this quote not only represents the women’s movement, but the whole of the social justice position of Unitarian Universalism, because I believe a living religious tradition that is weaved from a tapestry of many faiths is ideally positioned to lead the causes of reform into the 21st century.  Each of us adds our own piece to a cause that is vital to us, or to our historic moment in time, in some way: ending racism, aid to refugees and immigrants, marriage and economic equality for LBGTQ persons, saving the earth and environment, animal rights, reproductive rights and feminism, and through our work, we have made, and continue to make, a more equitable life for all people struggling now, and for all who follow us in the future.  What can be a more beautiful mosaic then that?    

For myself, I continue to honor Alice’s legacy and the rights she fought for me by continuing the work of feminism, and I hope to see the ERA in my own lifetime, since she didn’t see it become in reality in hers.  As she once reflected, 

“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction.  Most reforms, most problems are complicated.  But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”   So mote it be.

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Happy Birthday, Alice Paul!

Shared from the Pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, New London, CT, Sunday, March 13, 2016.

“The best protection a woman can have is…

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.

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Elizabeth Cady Stanton

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.”

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Helena Hill Weed in prison

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.

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“Jailed for Freedom” pin

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.

“antarctica, occluded” receives Honorable Mention

I’m pleased to announce that my poem, “antarctica, occluded” was listed as an Honorable Mention in the Louisville Literary Arts 2016 Poetry Competition.

Judge Kathleen Driskell shared her reasons for this selection:

“I felt a shiver as I read through the beginning of this poem so palpable is the poet’s ability to catch this cold setting–and then as water and whales emerge, the poem begins to wash and rock in its rhythm.  It’s difficult to tell a historical story in a poem and it’s difficult to write protest poems: this poet merges both impulses beautifully.  The ending, ‘there are more words for ice / than god,’ surprises me and at the same time is a masterful conclusion.”

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The poem “antarctica, occluded” is from my manuscript “Wood to Skin,” a collection of whaling poetry.

Louisville Literary Arts is hosting their Writer’s Block Festival today and tomorrow (November 4-5, 2016) click here for more information.

Upcoming Appearance: Talk and Poetry on Early Circus Women at the East Lyme Public Library

Strange Girls:
Perspectives and Poems on the Lives of Early-1900s
Circus Women 

Join historian and poet Joanie DiMartino for a fascinating look at women who worked in the circus and sideshow at the turn of the 20th-century. Based on the research completed for her poetry collection of the same title, DiMartino will share both historical vignettes and poems inspired by these self-styled “strange girls”–women who chose to eschew the rigid social roles of their day and instead travelled throughout the country performing under the Big Top.  On with the Show!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016
7 PM, Free
East Lyme Public Library
39 Society Rd, Niantic, CT

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Tiger Trainer Mabel Stark & Rajah, c. 1930.