“Who built Thebes of the seven gates? In the books you will find the names of kings. Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?” ~ Bertolt Brecht.
My father was a world history teacher in our small town high school. “History” was a common topic at the dinner table and a focus of summer vacations, with family trips to museums and historic sites. (Here I am at the Alamo, age 8, with my Poor Pitiful Pearl doll, grandmother, and big sister.)
My father instilled in me a love of history, but I always saw it from the margins, distrusting the pens of those who recorded events. I dutifully learned the names of kings, queens, and explorers, but, on my own, sought out stories of women and workers, the “masses,” the marchers.
History books and news accounts, of necessity, summarize major actions and their consequences. The named players are flattened, all humanity squeezed out of them, as if they were made of sterner stuff than the rest of us. There is little mention of sweaty palms, nervous stomachs, sleepless nights.
Take Susan B. Anthony, for example. Her stiff image appears on coins and stamps. She famously said, “Failure is impossible!” But she also wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “I sometimes fear that I too shall faint by the wayside and drop out of the ranks of the faithful few.”
In 1868, she co-founded a feminist periodical, Revolution, which had as its brazen motto: “Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less.” But she also confided privately, “There is so much, mid all that is so hopeful, to discourage and dishearten, and I feel alone.”
In 1872, she was arrested for attempting to vote in a presidential election, stood trial, and was found guilty. When the judge sentenced her to a $100 fine, she boldly declared, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.” But SBA also confessed in personal correspondence, “I have very weak moments and long to lay my weary head somewhere and nestle my full soul close to that of another in full sympathy.”
Anthony acted, then, despite fear, discouragement, feelings of inadequacy, and aching loneliness.
Ah, here is a woman with whom we can sympathize. These passages breathe life into the dry and distant Susan B. We can relate to a woman who lacked self confidence, grew tired, felt alone. This is familiar territory.
Now, when we read that she committed an act of civil disobedience, we are less inclined to shrug and dismiss her with, “Well, of course. She was the great Susan B. Anthony.”
Instead, we allow ourselves to marvel at her passion and pluck, consistency and courage, and might even go on to imagine, “If Susan B. Anthony could take such an action despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed and insecure, maybe I could risk such activism myself.”
To Go Deeper:
SITES: If you’re in western New York, stop by the Anthony house and take a tour. I went (again) with my sister Lois last summer. It is also possible to take a virtual tour online. National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House (17 Madison Street, Rochester, NY): www.susanbanthonyhouse.org
Afterward, we went down the street to a leafy park to see the statues of SBA having tea with her friend Frederick Douglass (photo). Lois let Douglass whisper in her ear! (see photo) Then we drove a few blocks to the “1872 Café” (www.1872cafe.com), a relaxed and airy sandwich shop located at 431 W. Main Street, across from where SBA was arrested for voting.
If you’re in the area, also check out the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls: http://www.nps.gov/wori/index.htm
BOOKS: Women of Ideas (And What Men Have Done to Them): From Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich by Dale Spender (Ark Paperbacks, London, 1982)
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches, edited and with a critical commentary by Ellen Carol DuBois, Foreword by Gerda Lerner (Schocken Books, NY, 1981)