Today is not simply another Women’s Equality Day. Aug. 26, 2010 marks the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to full citizenship, that is the privilege and responsibility to vote.
I looked up the text of the 19th Amendment and found it to be two simple sentences of merely 39 words:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Then, mostly for curiosity, I looked up the 1971 Congressional Resolution designating Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day. I found it a bit humorous because this resolution required 192 words; Four WHEREASs, one THEREFORE and one RESOLVED. So it shows how much more complicated government became in five decades.
It seems the most unusual event that’s happened on a Women’s Equality Day occurred last year, when GoTopless.org claimed women have the same constitutional right to be bare-chested in public places as men do. In 2009 GoTopless used Women’s Equality Day as a day of national protest, encouraging women to flaunt their constitutional privilege. Did anyone here participate?
I see that the chests of all women here are covered, so I feel safe in assuming you, like me, consider such bravado declaring women have a constitutional right to bare their boobs outrageous.
One hundred and sixty two years ago, however, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood up in the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY and insisted women had a constitutional right to vote, even her fellow organizers of the First Woman’s Rights Convention considered her claim outrageous.
And a century ago, when the U.S. women’s suffrage movement was ramping up under the almost inhuman energy and commitment of Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and others, up until the last moment when the last vote was cast ratifying the 19th Amendment, many people, male and female, considered women’s ability to cast a vote for an elected official or to vote on new laws—outrageous.
But it takes people I’ll label “over the top” to get things done. Elizabeth Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Harriet Tubman, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Sojourner Truth were all over-the-top women. Their ideas were exaggerated. Their presentations were dangerous. Their follow-up was unrelenting. Their commitment was unswerving.
At a time when women were supposed to keep their mouths shut, these women shouted.
I wrote my first book A Shocking & Unnatural Incident, because I wanted women, and especially young women, to understand and appreciate what women in the past envisioned and endured so we can have the privileges and opportunities we enjoy today. My second novel, Wixumlee Is My Salvation, came out last June and I’m currently writing the third and last book in my Canal Tales Series.
A Shocking & Unnatural Incident is the story of three young women whose lives reflect the three issues leading up to the First Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848: temperance, abolition and women’s rights, or what I like to call female sovereignty. So, Tess is the daughter of a drunken handyman; Beany the daughter of a runaway slave; Lucy the daughter of a middle-class attorney.
These issues, however—temperance, abolition and women’s rights—are played out in the lives of their mothers. So now we have the second female generation observing how their mothers are treated and reacting to how they perceive their mothers are mistreated.
For women in the United States, life in the mid-1800s was much like it is now for women in some parts of the world. Besides being required to obey laws they had no voice in creating, women’s every day lives were restricted and their opportunities limited.
So when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, some friends and a few hundred women got together in a church in a small western New York town, the demands they made were considered outrageous. They said, “We want to attend the same schools men attend. We want to keep the money we earn in the little piddly jobs men allow us to have and not hand it over to our husbands, fathers or brothers.”
Most of the women attending the convention agreed with these demands, but when Lizzie Stanton stood up and said, “And women should have the right to vote!” all hell broke loose. Even her fellow organizers—Lucretia Mott, Martha Wright—said she was ridiculous. They were embarrassed.
One of the biggest argument—and I think the silliest—seemed to be that women were “too frail to vote.”
This excerpt from A Shocking & Unnatural Incident demonstrates Stanton’s opinion of this argument:
“When a wispy-voiced female sings out that women are the frailer sex, Mix Stanton laughs–a raunchy chortle that reminds me of my canal buddy Beau. ‘If women can scrub floors, lift huge cooking pots and carry heavy babies…they can muster the strength to fill out a paper ballot and drop it in a box!'”
So that’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s mocking take on female frailty standing in the way of female suffrage.
My second book, Wixumlee Is My Salvation, is very different from the first. This novel is a character study about regaining courage.
In book one, the narrator Tess is strong, smart and bold. Those of you familiar with Girls Inc. know “strong, smart and bold” is their motto. I like it so much and use it in my talks because those three words, strong, smart and bold describe my narrator Tess perfectly—in the first book.
At the end of the first book there’s a horrific battle on the canal towpath where Tess fights to save her friends. She manages to escape on a canal boat with one friend and they travel all the way down the Erie Canal to its end in Buffalo, NY, which in 1848 is a dangerous, perilous place to be. It’s in Buffalo that Tess discovers she is no longer strong, smart and bold but has flip-flopped into a fearful, anxious young woman.
This excerpt from Wixumlee Is My Salvation shows what Tess thinks of herself at this time:
“I hate myself for losing that red bag full of Lucy’s college money. Coins it took her years to save working a mean little job sewing gloves….Her college dream is dead ’cause she showed up on the towpath and gave her money-stuffed…bag to Beany. A sacrifice I made worthless by losing it. Didn’t fight for it. Was too chicken to chase a skinny thief not much older or bigger than Beany.”
So, book two is a character study on how this fraidy cat gets her nerve back. Wixumlee—the fearsome woman driving Tess—steals Tess’ friend. Tess must get her back. How will she do that when she’s scared of everything and everybody? Wixumlee challenges Tess. Tess tries and fails. Another challenge, Tess tries and fails. Again, tries and fails. But Tess knows if she is to regain her friend she must regain her courage.
Elizabeth Stanton, Susan Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and the legions of women in the United States and Europe tried and failed many times before they achieved their goals. Because they were outrageous, they succeeded.
Text of Georgia Ann Mullen’s presentation at Pomegranate Books, Park Avenue, Wilmington, NC, at 7 p.m. tonight. The reading and book signing commemorate Women’s Equality Day and the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.