Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sarah, Susan & Alice

Sarah, Susan & Alice
No, you can't go to school! It's not a place for girls. I'm sorry, your husband is the only one who can own that property. Yes, Mr. Smith makes more money than you because he has a family to provide for. You don't. Lady, if you want that credit card you'll need your husband's signature. Don't worry your pretty head about politics, I'll take care of it. You can't be a manager, you're a woman! The military is for men only. Women have lived with statements like these for centuries.

Then there was a revolution in the 1700's that created a nation. But along the way, the founders forgot about women. Volumes have been written about the new nation. It's essential truth was "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." It went on that, "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted by men who get their powers from those governed." What did that really mean? Only men were created equal? If men were the Government did their powers only come from other men? Did freedom and liberty and justice for all apply only to them? My questions weren't so unusual. Others long before me had asked them. Especially Sarah, Susan and Alice!

In South Carolina, Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina(1792-1879) were the first American female advocates for abolition and women's rights. Sarah's father, Chief Judge of the Supreme Court, refused to send her to law school deeming it only fit for his son Tom. Nonetheless she studied every book in her father's library excelling in the law. Judge Grimke, later said she would have been the greatest lawyer in South Carolina if she were not a woman. In violation of that law, Sarah taught her personal slave to read. And later freed her. Then the sisters went on another improper activity for women - a national speaking tour against slavery and for the rights of women. Angelina wrote "Women were not created for the possession of men. But rather as unique, intelligent, capable creatures deserving equal regard, rights and responsibilities with men." It was inflammatory and incited riots.  (Read their remarkable story in Sue Monk Kidd's book, The Invention of Wings.)

Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) is the most famous reformer of the suffragette movement in America. She too was an abolitionist but later was more focused on women's rights. As headmistress of a female academy she was enraged to learn she was paid much less than a male headmaster. It caused her to ease into the role of voting rights for women, saying "I didn't want to vote but I did want equal pay for equal work." That changed when she met the women of Senaca Falls who were lobbying for a woman's right to vote. For over fifty years she and her closest collaborator, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, worked tirelessly. They marched, petitioned congress and endured public humiliations. She and many of her friends were imprisoned in horrible conditions for illegally voting in an election. Not until August, 1920 did women get the right to vote in the 19th amendment to the US Constitution. It changed things.

Then there was Alice. No, not Roosevelt.  This was Alice Paul from Mt. Laurel NJ. She was the architect, activist, strategist and leader of the campaign for the 19th Amendment. She dedicated her life to securing a woman's right to vote. She mobilized women as "Silent Sentinels" to stand outside the White House during WWI incurring the wrath of angry mobs and the disdain of the President. They were imprisoned in filthy rat-infested cells. They were beaten
and left out in the cold with no coats. They went on hunger strikes and were force fed. Government officials removed Alice to a sanitarium in hopes she'd be declared insane. The doctor said no she wasn't. When the press found out about their treatment the public responded in favor of the women. It went to Congress with the deciding vote in the hands of a 24 year old from Tennessee who intended to vote "no." Until his mother sent him a telegram saying "support the women." Ninety-seven years later, a statue honoring his mother and the Tennessee Suffragettes was just installed in Nashville's Centennial Park.

Thank you Sarah, Susan and Alice. You were vilified and humiliated. You were imprisoned and tortured. You were spat upon and urinated on. You were chained and beaten. Yet you persevered and endured. You struggled for hundreds of years, finally getting women the right to vote. In November, at Thanksgiving, in an election year where the first woman in history is running for office, we thank you for your valiant courage in the face of unimaginable discrimination and horror. Because of you we can vote without facing those horrors. Thank you Sarah, Susan and Alice!

                                                                                           Jo Mooy - November 2016