Forgotten Heroes and Incomplete Victories

Forgotten Heroes and Incomplete Victories

– Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1900)

Nancy Pelosi isn’t the only one who’s been visited by the suffragists. In fact, they came to see me first. While I was writing a paper late one night, they appeared in my dining room. Tell our story. Don’t just do an academic exercise, they insisted. “That’s not what the professor assigned,” I argued, rubbing my eyes. But they would not be denied. Night after night, as I tried to write my paper, the suffragists demanded, Tell OUR story!
And so I did. I wrote a play about an imaginary reunion of four founders of the suffragist movement. In my script, they comment on the current political landscape using their own words from the 1800s. Sadly, their perspectives and warnings seem timeless.
My play has been performed five times over nearly 20 years, updated each time to include the latest assault on women’s rights. The script keeps getting longer. And after each sold-out performance, I’m flooded with confessions from the audience that they know very little about our foremothers.
The audience doesn’t know the story because history books don’t elaborate on these crusaders who were shouted down, ridiculed, spat upon, kicked, shoved, jailed, force-fed and even killed. All because they wanted to vote, a right we now take for granted—a dangerous apathy since the Supreme Court recently gutted the Voting Rights Act. We must tell the story of these forgotten heroes who put their lives on the line just to participate in the democratic process. Because it is our story.
And there’s not just one story to be told; the suffrage leaders were all very different, yet came together for a common cause. Susan B. Anthony refused several offers of marriage, declaring that she never wanted to be “a man’s housekeeper.” She taught school, earning four times less than her male colleagues. Her family was Quaker so did not vote, yet suffrage became her lifelong passion.
Lucretia Mott, painting by Joseph Kyle, 1842
Her closest friend and collaborator, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had seven children. She deleted the word “obey” from her marriage vows and refused to be called Mrs. Henry Stanton, saying women deserve names of their own. Her father disowned her for advocating for suffrage; she persisted. Stanton credited Lucretia Mott with teaching her that she had the right to think for herself, to be guided by her own convictions. Mott, called “a brazen infidel,” was a fascinating combination of serene and radical. She was a Quaker minister, yet was not allowed to speak because of her gender when she traveled to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. She then co-authored the Declaration of Sentiments with Stanton, the first salvo for women’s equality in this country.
Sojourner Truth, c. 1870
Sojourner Truth is the fourth woman brought back to life in my play although, in reality, white suffragists were not inclusive of black women. Truth was a slave who saw most of her 13 children sold into slavery. Freed at the age of 46, she traveled the country preaching for the liberation of her people. Yet the passage of the 15th amendment in 1870, granting black men the right to vote first, troubled her: “… If colored men get their rights, and not colored women, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. …” She became a strong advocate for women’s suffrage, as was abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Lucy Stone, who re-wrote her marriage vows in 1855 to protest the civil laws that gave the husband custody of the wife, was the first woman known to have kept her birth name after marriage. But Stanton did not invite her to this theatrical reunion because they disagreed over their primary mission. Stone stuck to voting rights, but Stanton held out for total equality, even writing The Woman’s Bible in 1895. Stanton believed, “… The battle is not wholly fought until we stand equal in the church, the world of work, and have an equal code of morals for both sexes.” She understood that the feminist whole is greater than its parts.
In my re-enactment, Mott counsels women’s groups to be inclusive, keeping our eyes on the prize. Yet Truth expresses concern that some women in politics today do not embrace the feminist message that all people are created equal, and that the law must uphold such equality.
What troubles me even more than the fact that the audience often doesn’t know the story of these women is that most viewers have seemingly not thought about our lack of progress since that time. Almost 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, the suffragists in the play are shocked to learn that less than 20 percent of Congressional seats are held by women, only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups. Theirs was an incomplete victory, they realize with great disappointment.
256px-LucyStone-sigWhen commenting on which political party is more supportive of women’s rights, the suffragist characters make it clear that women’s suffrage was closely aligned with the Republican Party (Democrat Woodrow Wilson was not a fan), but they felt abandoned by that party once abolition was achieved. As they broke away, Stanton stated, “So far from giving us a helping hand, Republicans and Abolitionists, by their false philosophy—that the safety of the nation demands ignorance rather than education at the polls—have paralyzed the women themselves.” The suffrage newspaper The Revolution concluded, “The party out of power is always in a position to carry principles to their logical conclusions, while the party in power thinks only of what it can afford to do.” Perhaps that is the crux of our incomplete victories as feminists today.
My play is titled The Stone that Started the Ripple [PDF], drawn from one of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s last speeches:
Our successors have a big work before them—much bigger, in fact, than they imagine. We were only the stone that started the ripple, but you are the ripple that is spreading and will eventually cover the whole pond.
Echoing her impassioned speech from 1870, Susan B. Anthony declares in the play,
I do pray … for some terrific shock to startle the women of this nation into a self‑respect which will compel them to see the abject degradation of their present position … which will make them proclaim their allegiance to women first. …Oh, to give them the courage and conscience to speak and act for their own freedom, though they face the scorn and contempt of all the world for doing it!
That “terrific shock” has come: Dwindling access to health care and contraception. Transvaginal ultrasounds. Gender slurs by media personalities and politicians. “Legitimate” rape. Pay inequity. Human trafficking. In short, a surge in the War on Women. It’s long-past time to be startled.
None of these suffragists lived to legally cast a ballot. On her deathbed, Susan B. Anthony told a New York Times reporter, “To think I have had more than 60 years of hard struggle for a little liberty, and then to die without it seems so cruel.”
She died 108 years ago today, on March 13. Let’s recommit to changing the narrative so that our descendants will not have to tell yet another story of forgotten heroes and incomplete victories.
All images from Wikimedia Commons

In addition to her play about the early suffragists, The Stone that Started the Ripple, Patricia A. Nugent is also the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of vignettes portraying the stages of caring for and saying goodbye to a loved one.



Imagine you are there, 100 years ago today …
The campaign to win a woman suffrage referendum in the Empire State was kicked off three days ago in Revolutionary style. A wagon, built in 1776 by Ebenezer Conklin and appropriately named the “Spirit of 1776,” left the Manhattan headquarters of the New York State Woman Suffrage Association amid great applause, loaded with suffrage literature and bound for a month-long tour of Long Island. It was driven by Edna Kearns and Irene Davison, with eight-year-old Serena Kearns, Edna’s daughter, along as well. On the day they departed, Serena was dressed as “Little Liberty” to symbolize the “little liberty” women still have 137 years after “taxation without representation” was denounced as tyranny during the American Revolution.
Drawn by a horse appropriately named “Suffrage,” the wagon and its passengers got an enthusiastic welcome in Jamaica, the first stop on their tour, then went on to stop and speak in Springfield, Rosedale, Valley Stream, Lynbrook, Rockville Centre and Oceanside.
Today, they’ll spend the Fourth of July at a suffrage festival in Long Beach, then meet up with “General” Rosalie Jones in Ronkonkoma tomorrow. Jones is a local suffragist who distributed literature from her own horse-drawn cart last Spring on Long Island, then did the same in Ohio in the summer to help with the referendum campaign there. She has now become nationally known as a result of leading suffrage hikes from New York City to Albany from December 16-28, 1912, and from Newark, N.J., to Washington, D.C., between February 12 and 28 of this year.
Though full and equal suffrage for women has never been won in any state east of the Mississippi River, the launching of a campaign here is a well-justified manifestation of the growing—and some say unstoppable—momentum the “Votes for Women” movement has been enjoying recently.
Just three years ago, the movement had gone 14 years without a single victory, and women could vote in only 4 of the 46 states. But on November 8, 1910, the male voters of Washington State approved a suffrage referendum by almost two to one. The next year brought the biggest victory so far, when on October 10, 1911, California’s male voters approved a suffrage amendment that doubled the number of female voters in the U.S. overnight. Kansas, Oregon and the newly-admitted state of Arizona followed suit in 1912, and starting July 1 women in Illinois are eligible to vote for President as well as local offices, though not for state offices.
But the surge in support for suffrage has become visible in far more places than newspaper reports of election returns, and it’s events such as the “Spirit of 1776″ tour that keep the movement in the public eye. Until just a little over five years ago, no one had ever marched for suffrage. But two dozen women defied custom—and New York City police—to do exactly that on February 16, 1908. In 1910, a second march drew 400 participants. The next year, 4,000 turned out. Last year’s parade brought out between 15,000 and 20,000, and this year’s annual pageant drew about 30,000 marchers and a quarter-million spectators to Fifth Avenue. A parade and pageant in Washington, D.C., on March 3 made nationwide headlines and garnered great sympathy for the cause when the participants forged ahead despite riotous conditions and a disgraceful lack of police protection.
Though there have certainly been a lot of exciting moments in the 65-year history of the suffrage struggle, there has never been more reason for optimism than today. The stagnation of 1896 through 1910 has been forgotten, and no year ends without toasting a victory in at least one state. Massive public spectacles are now routinely pulled off with great success and favorable press coverage. Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms for 1912 endorsed putting woman suffrage referenda on state ballots, with the new Progressive (“Bull Moose”) party going even farther and giving unqualified support to woman suffrage.
The Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment, also called the Bristow-Mondell Amendment after its sponsors, is steadily gaining support in Congress thanks to the efforts of young militants like Alice Paul, who know this has to be the ultimate goal. On June 13, the Senate Woman Suffrage Committee issued a favorable report, marking the first time since 1896 that any Congressional Committee has acted on suffrage. The committee members gave their endorsement less than 10 weeks after suffragists representing every state in the union and all 435 congressional districts marched on the Capitol demanding action.
If New York becomes a suffrage state, its Congressional delegation, the largest in the nation, would suddenly become accountable to women and therefore be strongly motivated to add its prestige and support to the cause. This would speed the day when the Anthony Amendment is approved by 2/3 of Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Once 36 of the 48 States ratify, women in all states will be constitutionally entitled to vote for all offices, never again to be ignored by those who now need to win only a majority of men’s votes at the polls.
Of course, despite all the encouraging signs, the anti-suffrage movement and its liquor-industry benefactors are still formidable foes. At best, this will be a grueling, two-year campaign with no guarantee of success in this first attempt to win over a majority of men in the nation’s most populous state. But the campaign has been well-launched, and the first steps toward equal suffrage in New York have now been taken. The final steps will be in a victory parade, regardless of when that may happen to be.
UPDATE : Though the New York Suffrage Referendum of 1915 would go down to defeat by a vote of 748,332 to 553,348, suffragists never gave up. Just two years later women would win full suffrage, on November 6, 1917, by a vote of 703,129 to 600,776. Less than three years after that, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment would become part of the Constitution as the 19th Amendment, on August 26, 1920, and victory would be complete! The efforts of those who took part in this campaign from a century ago were never forgotten, and July 1, 2013, has been proclaimed by the New York State Legislature to be ” ‘Spirit of 1776′ Wagon Day.”