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.
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 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.
When 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.