Sally Roesch Wagner on the Womens’ Suffrage Centennial

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Photo courtesy the National Susan B Anthony Museum & House.This speech was delivered at the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference on October 7, 2016.

This is a time of great potential, a celebration of significance. The U. S. government was founded on a vision of rule by the people – not a monarch or a ruling elite but each person with a voice, a vote. But 144 years later, half the people still were not recognized in the constitution as having a voice.

State by state, women carved out a voice – in school, municipal, finally state government. NY in 1917. But federally women were still silenced.

The 19th amendment was finally ratified in 1920 guaranteeing women suffrage. It has rightly been called the Second American Revolution. The first established a government of, by and for rich white men. The suffrage amendment signaled the completion of the revolution begun in 1776.

There is a great potential to create a major national celebration in 2020, comparable to the blockbuster 1976 Bicentennial, when the nation focused a year celebrating the first American Revolution. The centennial of the second one could be as big.

But the greatest likelihood from all the signs, is that it will be a huge ho-hum; a lost opportunity. Why?

Part of it is the story we have to tell. The dominant narrative is this: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton led women in asking for the vote for 72 years and were finally given it. This is the story adults know and students are still learning today. Frankly, this story stinks like old cheese. It has no guts, no passion no relevance. It’s disempowering. Does a young girl see herself in it anywhere? It’s yesterday’s news.

And how is it used? Women are shamed into voting, “You have a responsibility to vote because your foremothers worked so hard for you to have this right.” This is just a collective version of
the old, “I worked my fingers to the bone for you.”

And it’s not even the real story. Sit in a yearly national woman’s rights convention in the 1850’s and hear demands for equal pay and an end to violence against women. Attend a National Woman Suffrage Association convention in the 1870’s to fight for a woman’s right to control her own body and make her reproductive choices. Read Matilda Joslyn Gage’s book in 1893 and learn about the sexual abuse of children by priests and the terrible problem of sex trafficking.

Watch the merger of the suffrage groups in 1890 and see this multi-issue, grass roots movement collapse into an authoritarian, single-minded focus on the vote, systematically tossing all the other issues of women’s oppression aside like so much excess baggage.

You will sit beside African-Americans and whites; free lovers and social conservatives, atheists and Christians in the 1850 convention. But by 1900 you may belong to a segregated state affiliate of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, making the argument to men that they should give women the vote because white women outnumber Negroes and immigrants and woman suffrage is the way to maintain white, native-born supremacy. Or you may be a member of a Black Woman Suffrage Association. You may listen to your minister preach an anti-suffrage sermon citing Biblical passages proving that God decreed that women should be under the authority of men and women voting will destroy the family and ultimately Western civilization. Or you may be a Freethought member opposing woman suffrage because you fear the agenda of the largest women’s organization, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. They are working to get the vote so they can put God in the constitution and set up Jesus Christian as the head of the government – destroying the wall of separation between church and state and creating a fundamentalist religious government.

You may find your model of how women should be treated in your nearby neighbors, the Haudenosaunee, the six Native Nations where women have an equal voice in government, body right, spiritual agency – an authority the opposite of your life.

This story has agency, conflict, relevance, passion – it’s sexy. It makes us wonder, if we didn’t know this, what else don’t we know? It creates a hunger for more history, more truth in history. It invites us to engage in heated argument or better yet, dialogue about our issues today. It makes a space for us to fit our story next to that of our foremothers and fathers.

But it’s a story that probably won’t be told over the next three years. Why? Because women are marginalized. In 2012 NY State legislature budgeted $450,000 for events commemorating the War of 1812. In 2016 the New York State legislature budgeted $500,000 for events commemorating the entry of one-half the population into political life. That is the best they could come up with in their $90 billion budget. We are as important as one single war.

We are eternally grateful for crumbs. Despite our marginalized funding over and over we get things done. We do it if it needs to be done and we do it on a shoestring. We are the bake sale queens.

Let’s reverse our thinking. Let’s think big. Let’s think about what we could do with $12,548,710.60 — the cost of one drone, a single MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft. The Air Force ordered 10 of them. Let’s let them get by with 9. Or none.

What could we do with $12 and a half million dollars?

Let’s start with sites: where it happened. As Sen. Betty Little said at the founding meeting of the NYS woman Suffrage Centennial Commission, “what if we bring all these visitors to the suffrage houses and they’re in a state of disrepair?” I ask further, “what if the lights aren’t on?” Most of our houses and sites operate on half a shoestring. We need to begin with the physical infrastructure of our story. Make sure it’s sounds. Fill the sites with interactive, state of the art exhibits and innovative programs that launch dialogues about the remaining issues of women’s rights.

What could we do with real funding? How about New York hosting a women’s rights summit, bringing together clan mothers, African-American, Latina, Asian-American, immigrant women and white activists to shape the women’s rights agenda for 2020 onward. Let’s talk about who doesn’t get to vote today and why.

Let’s identify more sites: Continue Judy Wellman’s identification project of all the state’s women’s rights sites. And Tom Flynn’s identification of now 83 Freethought sites in NY, an overwhelming number of them closely associated with women’s rights.

Let’s fund the women’s rights trail and the new UGRR consortium. Let’s fund Ganondagan and the Skan-Nonh Center to tell the story of how suffragists learned what it meant to be equal from Haudenosaunee women. Hire scholars to build on the new scholarship that is pulling all these elements together and blowing the old, tired story to pieces, then hire them to share their richly-textured stories and work with the sites to develop a coherent, integrated women’s rights story, with a piece of it at each site. Let’s link the full story of the integration of women’s rights, abolition, Native American, and Religious Freedom in a major tourism initiative.

There are so many projects out there already for 2017, shoe stringing it along; trying to squeeze a little bit of funding through the small funding pots available. Throw an MQ-9 Reaper drone amount of money at them and see what they do.

Here’s just a few that are on my radar screen alone: a Matilda Joslyn Gage opera; plays for students to perform; digitizing library materials from museums and historical societies in our Central region, Syracuse Cultural Workers prepared to publish educational materials. You in this room could add dozens more.

History lies dormant in every village, town and county, like a Pandora’s box, open that box and–watch out. Partner with teachers to work with students digging through newspapers to uncover the women’s rights story in their town. Pay historical societies to mine their collections, those boxes of stuff nobody’s had time to go through, and we’ll uncover treasures, like the superb collection of woman suffrage posters in the Howland Stone Store Museum – and the piece of Susan B. Anthony’s birthday cake they have!

Let’s fund a grass roots, state-wide history project to get every community involved in discovering their stories, claim their part in this transformation of society. Let’s repopulate history, bring it alive and share it.

It may be too late to do much for 2017 unless the money flows quickly into the right channels. But 2020 is coming up fast. Our own Sen. Gillibrand has introduced legislation to establish a commission to plan it. Already the turf war has begun. Who will own the centennial of woman suffrage nationally, who will take leadership?

New Jersey can claim it – they held the first national woman’s rights convention, or Pennsylvania, the birthplace of democracy.

Let’s tell New York: we want to claim it. Not with War of 1812-funding, but with what-women-deserve funding.

We are the real birthplace of Democracy, on the shores of Onondaga Lake where the Five Haudenosaunee Nations before Columbus created the world’s oldest continuing democracy in the world, the model for our own government.

We have the suffragists and women’s rights activists – from the National Woman Suffrage Triumvirate, Anthony, Stanton and Gage – whose homes are equidistant from each other off 90 – a boondoggle for tourism. We have the Civil War heroes Mary Walker and Harriet Tubman; the first ordained women ministers, Antoinette Brown Blackwell (irregularly ordained) and Olympia Brown (her ordination recognized by her denomination). We have the richest landowner in the state of NY, Gerrit Smith, who used his wealth to fund every social justice cause in upstate New York, which was the hotbed of radical reform. We have Victoria Woodhull, that communist stockbroker (fact check me!) and Belva Lockwood, the first woman lawyer to plead a case before the Supreme Court, both of whom ran for President before women could vote.

You know what Nicholas Kristoff found when he studied international funding? Give the money to men and they spend it on hookers and booze. Give it to women and they spend it on education, health, and building the community. Upstate needs economic development. And the state government threw money at it. You know what we got when NY state gave money to men to develop upstate’s economy? Felony charges of rigged bids, extortion and bribes. A $15 million state-of- the-art film studio that sits vacant. $90 million for a manufacturing facility whose construction may be shut down because of the corruption case. Give a fraction of that money to fund women’s rights and we WILL develop upstate economically. And we won’t end up in jail.

You want to create jobs? Develop Heritage Tourism in renovated, dynamic sites that tell the sexy story of woman suffrage. Where is I Love New York on this? Have they funded a conference to plan how they can take our story to Europe to bring international tourists our way? This is a moment when we can make history relevant. Women demanded “Equal Pay for Equal Work” as early as the 1850’s, when women made half the wages that men made. 150 years later and we’ve barely turned the corner on 75%. Are we ready to wait another 150 years for the other 25%?

Healing can take place now, as well. We can celebrate our victories and progress, but we also have an opportunity to practice Truth and Reconciliation. Strong connections existed between the anti-slavery and woman’s rights movements before the Civil War. The passage of the 14th amendment, which defined citizenship as exclusively male, and the 15 th amendment which gave African-American men voting rights, split the two movements. After 1890, the National-American Woman Suffrage Association adopted a Southern strategy of arguing women should be given the vote because white women outnumbered Negroes and immigrants, and woman suffrage was a way to maintain white, native-born supremacy. The well-documented organizational racism of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the Woman’s Party, (WP) both of whom played the race card to win the right to vote, involved allowing their state organizations to segregate, making African American women march at the end of their parades, and asking allies like Frederick Douglass not to attend conventions held in the South. Acknowledging this legacy of racism could begin the healing this long-festering wound. It’s time.

The movement we’re commemorating was messy and it was militant. It was illegal for women to vote, and these suffragists broke the law by voting in droves. They impeached the government for its treatment of women in 1876, saying they had more cause for revolution than the founding fathers and risked arrest when they illegally presented their Declaration of Rights of Women at the official Centennial Celebration.

They chained themselves to the White House and called out President Wilson for fighting for democracy across the ocean while denying it to women at home. We honor these women lightly by voting but we honor them deeply by picking up the issues they began, demanding full equality and self-determination in every part of our collective lives.

They worked to get constitution protection for the vote for 72 years. We picked up their issue and have worked for equal rights to be guaranteed to women in the constitution for 93 years and we still don’t have an equal rights amendment! And to add insult to injury, the US is the only democracy that has not ratified CEDAW, the International Bill of Rights for Women.

Will we enter 2020 an embarrassment in the eyes of the world because the US arrogantly demands human rights from other countries while refusing to recognizing equal rights for women in our own country?

When NY suffragists demanded and won the right to vote in school elections in 1880, Governor Lucius Robinson vetoed the bill, declaring that the God of Nature did not intend women for public life. When he ran again for governor, the women resolved that the same power should retire Mr. Robinson from public life. They defeated him and the next governor promptly signed the bill. Matilda Joslyn Gage, who led the fight, left us this message in 1880: When men begin to fear the power of women, their voice and their influence, then we shall secure justice, but not before. When we demonstrate our ability to kill off, or seriously injure a candidate, or hurt a party, then we shall receive “respectful consideration.” . . .We must be recognized as aggressive.

We are far too well-behaved. It’s true, well-behaved women seldom make history. Let’s stop being nice girls. Nice girls don’t make history. Let’s be like our foremothers, the mass of angry, militant feminists that make men once again fear the power of women. Let’s stop being well-behaved women. Let’s whop us some ass and make us some history!

Photo courtesy the National Susan B Anthony Museum & House.

2 thoughts on “Sally Roesch Wagner on the Womens’ Suffrage Centennial

  1. Julie Dowd

    We were all so impressed by Sally’s speech in Seneca Falls recently. We brought her message back to a joint Clinton/Essex County planning meeting on Woman’s Suffrage last week.

  2. Martha E Wheelock

    Thank you Sally for this inspiration. This 202 ( and before, as we did here in California, hopefully in LA in 2016 for Inez Milholland, and in 2017 for NYS)( will not be ho hum. The problem is the few numbers of inflamed women historians. but we will keep at it.

    you present some great ideas and rationale.

    Thank you.


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