Suffrage: The Myth of Sisterphus

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

– The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, 1848

Woman is the nigger of the world
Yes, she is
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the one you’re with
Woman is the slave of the slaves

– John Lennon, 1972

Awhile back the New Yorker magazine published a cartoon titled “Glass Ceiling,” which depicted a father and his little daughter looking out the window of an office high up in a skyscraper. The caption read, “Someday, all of this glass ceiling will be yours.” You chuckle, because it’s funny; but then you go ahead and think about it. Then your smirk drops, and you’re thinking, “Shit, that’s not funny at all.” It’s like telling my little girl there’s a limit to what she can achieve. And then you feel bushwacked by the cartoon, and caught out because you laughed inappropriately, and think again: glass ceiling.

One thinks of that disturbing question psychiatrists ask during an admissions assessment: “Why should women in glass houses not throw stones?” It’s meant to determine a certain level of abstract reasoning. The middle-age little girl might answer bravely, “Because it might break the glass. We mustn’t do that.” He smiles upon her, hands her a benzo, and assigns her to the Open Ward; she won’t run or complain. But if Daddy really loved his little girl, when he points out the glass ceiling to her, he’d hand her a brick and say, “Smash that shit.” Concrete reasoning. She’d get the Closed Ward and clozapine. But, one day, that brick might get her to the White House. (As long as the MSM doesn’t fink on her previous history of mental illness.)

We wait, NOW, with bated breath as current Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, the surprise frontrunner and back rubber, paces and stays up at night wondering which woman to use as a running mate to guarantee a fall victory against the Pussy Grabber-in-Chief, Donald J. Trump. Possibly, he wouldn’t win any other way. He needs the women’s bloc to bring their enormous electoral power to the polls just long enough to chase Trump from office and back to the Reality TV toon world he escaped from — abetted by the basket-case deplorables we thought we left behind in the 70s. And it’s not like folks are coming from miles around to pick plagiarizing Joe’s progressive brains for any other reason. Hmph.

Almost 100 years after the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by a male Congress on August 18, 1920, ‘gifting’ women the right to vote, a number of them are waiting around anxiously, like pageant princesses, for the phone to ring and to hear corny Joe pop the question: “Will you be my running mate? You lyin’ dog-faced pony soldier?” The girls are anxious; who will it be? Will it be Tulsi? How about Amy? Might Kammy get the nod? Or will it be Sally, Stacey, Sheeny, or Maggie? What if Lizzy, for the good of the potty, throws away her principles and endorses Ol’ Joe in exchange for the nod? Warren, an arsenic-and-old-lace cup of tea away from the presidency. But what if she dies first of old age? Whoa, more glass ceilings.

Such are the images and white noise that invade the mind as I make my way through Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol Dubois. Released during Women’s History Month, the book not only celebrates the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but also details the 75 year struggle leading up to the Statute of Liberty. It’s a book about enormous multigenerational courage and the triumph of common sense, from surviving physical domestic abuse to waking men up to their own folly: women, too, are humans, people, citizens, and not just chattel. It’s a book chock full of heroines (and heroes too), and laden with seemingly intractable complexities and obstacles to overcome: race, class, religion, anthropology, politics — and just plain evil.

Dubois describes two waves of women — the fin de siecle pioneers and the Next Generation militants — who through sheer determination and personal sacrifice wear down the lip servants of Liberty to take hold of what was theirs to begin with: autonomous selfhood. The battle begins, in 1848, in upper state New York, when a series of parlor discussions about abolition turns into one of women’s issues and “the long-accumulating discontent” of the second sex. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the gathering evolves into a passionate statement of intended emancipation known as the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. Women were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore.

It was, writes Dubois, — a kind of in-your-face revelation of male hypocrisy:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Sound familiar? Same-same, but now with “women” added. New and improved product. Very effective. (Although one guy is said to have gawped out, “Hey, that’s plagiarism.”) But like every “new” product it took a while to soak in. Some say, 100 years later, it still hasn’t soaked in. Maybe we need a new washing machine.

With the parlor successes of Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reached out to leaders of communities more far flung, to the West and the pioneer states, as well as overseas. But it should be noted that her parlor talks and travelling required money, which brings to the fore the fact that she was well-off, and that, at first, suffrage in the East, was seen as an elitist goal; poor and Black women were too busy or tired to talk and travel. As Dubois writes of Stanton,

When insults and male arrogance became too much to bear, which happened frequently, her self-confidence would turn to arrogance. She would default to a haughty—and infuriating—elitism….

Still, Stanton spread the gospel of emancipation that would free poor women too (even if they didn’t know it at the time).

In 1840, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London (where women were excluded from participating, although they watched men debate slavery from the gallery), Stanton met Lucretia Mott, the woman who would become her mentor. Mott, a Quaker abolitionist from Massachusetts, was a woman Dubois describes as “emancipated from all faith in man-made creeds, from all fear of his denunciations.” Fearless women is what the movement needed, and there was no shortage of them back in the day, and they had no desire to be mere copies of men in their political deeds and future votes — but leaders of thought. “It was under [Mott’s] tutelage,” writes Dubois, “that…Stanton grew into a great women’s rights thinker.”

Back home, in Worcester, Mass., another convention served to align the values of abolitionists and the suffragettes. It was attended by such luminaries as Frederick Douglass and Stephen Foster. Dubois describes the vibe:

“The cause we have met to advocate…bids us remember the two millions of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women,” the convention resolved, “and omit no effort to raise [them] to a share in the rights we claim for ourselves.”

This fierce resolution, Dubois suggests, was in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. a dickheaded law that allowed Southerners to come to Northern states to repo escaped slaves. But sometimes freemen got taken. Think: 12 Years A Slave.

Probably the most well-known suffrage leader, and future coin head, was Susan B. Anthony, another Quaker from Massachusetts. She was a stout leader of the temperance movement and a committed abolitionist. She and Stanton formed the New York Women’s State Temperance Society in 1852. Ten years before the Civil War, writes Dubois, “the abolition of slavery and temperance were the two issues most riling American society, shaking up political parties, and—of particular

Importance—igniting women’s energies.”

Dubois mentions other early suffragettes, such as Lucy Stone, from Mass., the first American woman to earn a college degree, and Amelia Bloomer, from Seneca Falls, who edited the magazine The Lily, for which Stanton wrote regularly. Bloomer is most remembered for the ‘feminist’ fashion statement she introduced, which, like Turkish pantaloons, was a loose-fitting garment that suffragettes adopted as a symbol and called a “freedom dress.” It caused a sensation probably akin to the recent Burqa fashion craze introduced by rich car-driving Saudi women. (However, suffrage in the Kingdom is unnecessary, onnacounta they don’t really have any elections.)

One of the most challenging aspects of Suffrage is Dubois’s weaving and unwinding of the myriad threads of political and social complexity. For instance, most suffragettes were abolitionists who worked hard to see slavery ended; but other suffragettes weren’t particularly bothered by it. Most contemporary Americans are unaware that a majority of Northerners were indifferent to the plight of slaves. On January1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, which some claim the North was losing, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “using his presidential powers to declare all slaves in rebel territory forever free.”

As Dubois explains though,

The resentment of many white northerners of the proclamation, which seemed to them to mean only that they would pay the ultimate price to end slavery, about which they were concerned little, and free the slaves, about whom they cared even less, boiled over.

Riots broke out in New York and many Blacks were killed, when America’s first draft was announced — one in which the rich conscripts could buy their way out of, while working class workers could lose their jobs processing (ironically) sugar and cotton from the South.

Dubois points out some very serious flaws in the legacy of the Emancipation. For one thing, she writes, “Like all executive orders, it could be undone by the next president.” But more stunning, Dubois points out that “Right before his death, Lincoln had laid out a plan for a postwar reconstruction that would readmit seceding states but not enfranchise African Americans.” Susan B. Anthony was appalled and said of his plan at a memorial service shortly after his assassination,

My soul was sad and sick at what seemed his settled purpose—to consign the ex-slaves back to the tender mercies of the disappointed, desperate, sullen, revengeful ex-lords of the lash.

For Lincoln, the Civil War might have been so politically costly that he felt he needed to be conciliatory. For suffragettes, it ended up alienating them from the abolitionist fight.

Another piggy back ride that proved costly for the suffragettes was their hopping on the back of the Temperance Movement in the hopes of driving women together to form one bloc of action that would lead to suffrage for all. Frances Willard, a friend of Anthony’s led the charge through the Women’s College Temperance Union. Writes Dunois, “Drink, she believed, was a new form of enslavement that she was called upon to fight, just as her abolitionist parents had fought chattel slavery.” But the strategy was dubious for one obvious reason — few men to be affected — not just the drunks and louts, who tippled and terrorized families at home — but powerful gentlemen who enjoyed a good glass in a social milieu of politics and sports, wanted to stop drinking. There would be hell to pay.

As we’ve seen over time, a lot of white powerful men in America like drinking, but may like the notion of enslavement even more — take modern debt enslavement and the control it implies over lives. Getting women from various socio-economic-religious backgrounds, with various agendas, organized and mobilized around the concept of universal suffrage — and seeing it as the political key that unlocked all other doors — was a formidable task. A lot of women just didn’t see it that way. For instance, suffragists had difficulty convincing Democratic women who, writes Dubois, “regarded woman suffrage as a wealthy woman’s hobby.” While abolition and temperance alliances severely hampered suffrage for decades, once working class women saw what was in it for them, they embraced the movement.

One of the great moral and political boosts for suffrage was the fact that many states west of the Mississippi –the Go West pioneer states — in the end, some 12 states where women could vote, acted as a stable reference point and a factual rebuff to those men — and women — back East who proclaimed suffrage could neither be done, nor was wanted. Maud Young, a speaker at the National Women’s Party (NWP), reminded her audience that

Four years ago, women voted in six States—today in twelve.… [They] constitute nearly one-fourth of the Electoral College, and [cast] more than one-third of the votes necessary to elect a President.” She finished with a ringing call: “The women’s votes may determine the Presidency of the United States.”

And they would, too, if they ever got together as one.

In the 20th century, a second generation of suffragettes, the New Woman, pushed through the usual obstacles, plus the muddle of World War I (where the work women did in armaments factories, in support of soldiers overseas, greatly helped their cause), and strove on through a distracting pandemic known as the Spanish Flu, which took perhaps 50 million lives, to eventually successfully pressure president Woodrow Wilson in backing legislation for the 19th Amendment.

Among the stars of the show in this more active era cited by Dubois were Ellis Meredith, a novelist and journalist who wrote a column for the Rocky Mountain News called A Woman’s World; Carrie Chapman Catt, who played a major role in the international suffrage movement; Anna Howard Shaw, a physician and ordained minister; Mary Kenney O’Sullivan, who helped build a bridge between labor and suffrage; Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the first female civil engineer in America; Milholland Boissevain, “the supreme New Woman, [who] was renowned for her determination and fearlessness.”

But Alice Stokes Paul, was the firebrand the movement needed to bring it all home. In 1913, she worked closely with Blatch and Carrie Chapman Catt, as they organized a major suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Paul had witnessed first and the tactics employed by British women in their own fight for suffrage (watch Suffragette here). Writes Dubois, “Paul had learned from the British suffragettes to deploy public demonstrations for maximum popular attention and to hold the political party that was in power responsible for inaction on women’s enfranchisement.” But it could get violent.

In August 1917, DC was covered with picketers demanding the right to vote for women. Paul, and others, decided to get themselves arrested to make a splashier point in the news. Shortly after Alexander Kerensky, who led the Russian provisional government after the 1917 revolution, announced that Russia would be “enfranchise its women,” writes Dubois, “Suffragists wanted to underline the irony of the president’s resistance to women’s enfranchisement.” Their banners ‘announced’ to the people’s revolutionaries that America was not democratic. The Wilson administration was not happy. “A line had been crossed,” writes Dubois. “Peaceful picketing now began to look like treason.” The picketers couldn’t be arrested under the new Espionage Act law, but were arrested for obstruction of traffic and disturbing the peace, tried and sentenced to six months imprisonment.

Paul continued to push for her rights, and those of the others, while in prison. Recalling the tactics of British militant suffragettes, Paul and the others set up a hunger strike, which garnered lots of press, but at a significant cost to Paul. Dubois writes,

Paul would be the first suffrage activist in the United States subjected to forced feeding… This was another first: the first documented use of psychiatric diagnosis and confinement as a deliberate form of political repression in the United States, perhaps worldwide.

More recently, one recalls how we wrung our hands in anguish when we discovered that ‘gloves-off’ Enhanced Interrogation Techniques against Gitmo ‘terrorists’ sometimes involved force-feeding (and remember the Zero Dark Thirty scene?), but we were doing it to our own women almost 100 years earlier.

Dubois sums up, “When on August 26, 1920, the secretary of state certified that ratification was completed, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the Constitution.” Women now had the right to vote and the power to influence legislation with it. But Dubois seems almost wistful in the end, as she notes disappointment in the fact that women never came together afterward to form the kind of formidable voting bloc that could have significantly changed politics in America. Indeed, when all was said and accomplished, newspapers across the country called into question the success of suffrage. Dubois refuses to deny or qualify one fact: “Even so, [as hard as suffragettes had worked] the first election brought out approximately one-third of eligible women voters, about half the rate of men.”

Dubois closes with a few measuring stick paragraphs on how far women have come since 1920 in developing an elusive agenda and bloc of electoral power. She singles out Betty Friedan for her book, The Feminine Mystique, and its influence on getting women to free themselves from a modern day slave mentality. She says the book was received “hostilely by women.” In her Epilogue, she quotes a joke she overheard between two men talking after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed — some guy says to the other: “It will give men equal opportunity to be Playboy bunnies.” Maybe, but perhaps they should have read Gloria Steinem’s account of her undercover days serving Hugh Hefner, “A Bunny’s Tale.

Sexual harassment (Epstein, Weinstein), domestic abuse, fracturing along all the usual lines — class, race, religion, partisan politics — the struggle forward and upward continues, just as it started out 100 years ago — call it the Myth of Sisterphus. About the only thing men and women don’t fight over much anymore is drinking: Everybody loves to get shitfaced on the weekend, EOE. Love them weekends. If only we loved democracy as much.

The only question that remains is the age-old one that goes back to Adam: Who owns a woman’s body? We’ve been wondering about women’s bodies since Eve was just a rib in Adam’s gaze. But I don’t really want to know the answer. I’m not sure I’d like the implications. Where’s the paradise in the answer?

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.