I’ve been so historical and serious in these posts recently that I thought it was time to move into the present—but only after this quick postscript to my previous three-part meditation on Suffrage(s): Check out MonumentalWomen.org to learn about the women—a diverse group—who have already committed themselves to creating a Women’s Rights Trail in New York, building (literally) on the completion of their previous campaign for the Stanton-Anthony monument in Central Park.
Now back to the present—and while this isn’t quite about What I Did Over Spring Break, it could be subtitled What I Learned Over Spring Break. Or relearned.
It all started with an email out of the blue, from someone at the great haute couture institution of fashion, the legendary House of Dior in Paris. I am not generally your haute couture fashion type—although I clean up pretty good and can be presentable if required. But then this email arrived.
It was from someone I had read about: the first woman ever to become the artistic director of Dior, the old-world bastion of fashion, Maria Grazia Chiuri, an Italian designer who had worked her way up at the atelier of Valentino and whose craftship and radical approach to fashion had landed her in this position of power at the great French house. She wanted me to collaborate with her on feminist T-shirts.
And so began a journey culminating in a real journey to Paris a few weeks ago, for the runway show that kicked off Paris’s fashion week, held at the Rodin Museum no less: the Dior autumn-winter collection 2019–2020—featuring words I had written.
Now, regular readers of this blog know that I am a creature of words, that words—as the late Ursula K. Le Guin phrased it—are my matter. But this particular iteration of the words Sisterhood Is Powerful, Sisterhood Is Global, and Sisterhood Is Forever, was a whole new territory. Chiuri is serious about her feminism and wants her work in fashion, which is her own art, to reflect something greater than simply itself. She chose the titles of my three anthologies to carry that message, and to do so in a way that bestowed mainstream influence on a genre of clothing—political T-shirts—which already were iconic in a totally different way. She also wanted to honor me as a poet, she wanted me to come to Paris for the debut of the collection, and the nonprofit NGO The Sisterhood is Global Institute, which I cofounded with Simone de Beauvoir and women from 80 countries when that anthology was published in 1984, would profit from this collaboration—with a donation and with a percentage of the profit made from each T-shirt sold.
Vous êtes kidding.
Now you need to understand that we poets are honored, if ever, only by a few other poets in a coffeehouse and by the wider society only when we’re safely 6 feet underground, if then. Almost comparably, we feminists who establish institutes that manage to survive 35 years and counting, working with grassroots women around the world on such issues as FGM, economic survival, prostitution/trafficking, violence against women, and reforming laws on forced and child marriage—well, we spend a considerable amount of our lives fundraising. Furthermore, in the US, at a time when supporters are understandably pouring their donations into political campaigns to unseat fascism in our White House, fundraising for NGOs has become all the harder.
In other words: Incroyable!
So, somewhat like Cinderella at the ball, vigilant that everything might turn into pumpkins at the last minute, off we go to Paris.
Maria Grazia herself, mid 50s, is unpretentious, warm, funny, with a sharp intelligence and a fierce dedication that must have served her well when she marched into that venerable institution to transform it. She surrounds herself with women colleagues (a good sign), especially younger feminists, including her own 22-year-old daughter—and what’s more, she listens to them when they advise her. She has a great laugh. It felt as if we were old acquaintances, not strangers meeting for the first time.
And so it came to be that I sat in a front seat beside the runway set up in the Musée de Rodin, and watched an exquisitely diverse palette of models walk by proudly wearing shirts affirming that Sisterhood is Powerful, Global, and Forever. The shirts were the hit of the show, and later were proclaimed the hit of Fashion Week; the Institute can put the donations, present and future, to excellent purpose, profiting women the world over; I made a new friend and got a trip to Paris into the bargain; and I learned all over again two things I had known but forgotten (merde).
One: Women having power and influence—if they commit themselves to using it on behalf of other women as well as of themselves—are a very good thing, indeed. Don’t we want there to be more, not less, women having power and influence? Have we been powerless so long we don’t know how to recognize Yes for an answer?
Two: Stereotypes are always bad things, revealing a poverty of imagination. We recognize their evil and denounce them accordingly when they are about those suffering from oppression—which is right but frankly costs us little and feels smugly self-congratulatory. Yet a stereotype about a designer being necessarily superficial and obsessed with trivialities is as invidious as any other stereotype. Especially if that designer, after a lifetime of work practicing her craft is, unlike so many before her, hell-bent on using her success to very practically benefit women.
There is, naturellement, an ironic afterword to all this: the media coverage, on and off line, about the T-shirts and my attending the show in Paris was stunningly broad, from the Hindustan Times to Vogue, from the Zimbabwe News to The New York Times and Harper’s Bazaar—and I don’t think the word ”poet” has been uttered or printed or posted so frequently and widely in global media in a very long time—possibly ever. That’s pretty satisfying, too. Fantastique.
This is the third and last installment of a three-part meditation on women’s suffrages—plural. Parts One and Two examined the tortured twisting path of suffrage in this country, which always prioritized white, Christian, land-holding, property-owning males. Contrary to all the national mythography, the record shows historical hostility toward women and toward those men who were poorer, or “foreign.” That is, unless they were useful: Native Americans whose land and lives were for the taking, Africans abducted and forced here into enslavement, Chinese “imported” to build railroads and infrastructure and then no longer welcome, and so on. Women? Servants of the indentured, slaves of the slaves.
In Parts One and Two, I tried to offer consciousness-changers that have meant much to me and that I recommend as sources for self-education about a legacy with which we are both burdened and privileged. The burdened part—well, see above. The privilege comes in, for every American, because the Framers (white, propertied, highly flawed males) nonetheless shared an impossibly impractical, aspirational vision that had not been put to the test of practice anywhere, ever. They knew that realizing that vision in reality would be a continuous, arduous task. The phrase “To form a more perfect union” in the Preamble to the Constitution reveals a diplomatically cautious James Madison trying to affirm the vision and not insult the original 13 states yet acknowledge the endless road ahead.
So that was the goal of Parts One and Two. Now it’s time to get personal.
I had been wanting to write about the history of women’s suffrages for some time in leading up to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. But my plans to do so accelerated because of women’s movement internecine struggles. Dear friends for decades who are longtime feminist, social justice, and antiracist activists have been quarreling, sometimes publicly, over a long-planned, yet to be formally unveiled monument to the women’s suffrage movement, depicting Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, in New York’s Central Park. It’s depressing to realize that we are still having such tiresome repetition of these same disagreements, especially in public. But women are human, and humans who have little nonetheless will be perceived as oppressors by those who have even less. (Attention is thus successfully diverted from exposing those who have most.)
Nevertheless, suffrage tributes will bravely be springing up around the country during the centennial. As only one example: Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association (TPSM) is building a national memorial to women suffragists, highlighting African American women leaders, with a special focus on those imprisoned at Occoquan, VA, who endured harsh conditions and abuse to win voting rights for American women (suffragistmemorial.org).
But wherever women’s suffragists are being honored, those who are not cast in stone or bronze will be understandably pained at their erasure and righteously furious, and those who labored long to build the memorials will become understandably defensive—and then also hurt and furious about feeling defensive, and then they’ll question what’s wrong with feeling defensive aren’t some things worth defending?
This is feminist hell, nor are we out of it.
To my knowledge, the Central Park monument has garnered the most criticism and the most defense—possibly because it’s in New York, a media center. It depicts Anthony and Stanton reading from a scroll with many more names on it, names of diverse women’s suffrage activists. Look, women toil for years to raise funds for such memorials, and I respect them, and also those who contributed. For years, women also battled bureaucracies defending public places from such dastardly insurgents as, well, us. For instance, Central Park can boast 22 statues of historical figures–all male. There is only one statue of a female, a fictional female, Alice in Wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser! Yet an 8-foot-tall statue of black-male-suffrage leader Frederick Douglass has stood in the Park since 2011 and the Frederick Douglass Circle at the 110th St. park entrance was established almost 70 years ago.
I wonder if anyone’s ever asked why it isn’t a statue of Harriet Tubman or Ida B. Wells or Anna Julia Cooper instead.
Me, I’m not such a big fan of honorific statues and monuments. They elicit a wry smile from me, because they remind me of Shelley’s sonnet, “Ozymandias.” Worse, in these days of coarsened discourse and cruel acts that churn violence through our Republic, I fear that even the best-intentioned monuments might be regarded by some as a provocation to be defaced or leveled. Then again, little girls should have a chance to know that women have made history and deserve society’s recognition, despite what mistakes they may have made in making it.
It’s a contradiction. Life is full of them. Deal with it.
The point is, it mustn’t stop there.
The point is that we should also be celebrating the anniversary of the 15th Amendment (1870), the Indian Citizenship Act (1924), the Magnuson Act (1943), and comparable others, even if only as a way of educating the public via holidays. Perhaps if 1965 had been publicly acclaimed as The Year of the Voting Rights Act, it would not have been so easy for the Supreme Court to eviscerate it. Perhaps in understanding the jerkily progressive journey of the vote in America, we might even learn that it wasn’t until 1961 with the 23rd Amendment that Washington DC gained suffrage—for the presidential vote. To this day, the District of Columbia still has no voting congressional representatives: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton represents it and serves on House committees, and she can caucus and lobby (for a DC vote)—but she cannot vote on legislation. If we had more historic holidays—people do love holidays!—then we might actually grasp what it means that Puerto Rico, still teetering between statehood, independence, and being a colony, won citizenship for its residents in 1917, but still lacks the right for their representatives in Congress to vote on legislation. Guam, another Territory, is entitled to a delegate, but s/he is not allowed to vote on the floor of the House, and can vote only on procedural matters and when serving on House committees.
God, the devil, and genius are all in the details. If we cared enough to know these things. If we cared enough to demand to know these things. If we cared enough.
I didn’t know any of this when I cut my political eye-teeth in the Civil Rights Movement with CORE and SNCC. I didn’t know why the white and black guys treated women abysmally, patronizing the black women while pursuing the white women (who responded either from feeling flattered or in fear), while the black women watched this double betrayal and tried to look away. (Fortunately, no one came on to me because I was married at the time, that is, belonging to another man.) I didn’t know all this back then because I was in my twenties and certain I was a revolutionary who knew everything—and the germinal anthology All the Women Were White, All the Blacks Were Men, But Some of Us Are Brave hadn’t been compiled yet by Barbara Smith, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Akasha Hull. I didn’t know any of this when I became angrier and angrier at the wedges men drove between us women, who always blamed each other yet never blamed the men. It’s taken 50 years of feminism, 50 years of listening to women, for me to learn some of these things and I’m too old now to shut up about them ever again.
I know at least this much. I know that women have become experts at blaming ourselves and each other, and at believing perfection exists: that’s what we’re taught. So we don’t notice the genius in details like “more perfect Union.” I know that if we could stop inflicting guilt on each other and try to encourage anyone who tries however awkwardly to shoulder responsibility and change things, that might help. I know that if all European-American feminists would read African American Women in The Struggle for The Vote 1850–1920 by the late Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, and if all feminists of color would read Kathleen Barry’s Susan B. Anthony: The Biography of A Singular Feminist or some of the impassioned writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and then they could switch books, that might be a start.
I know that if women cannot forgive ourselves and each other; if we can’t try to do better; if we can’t locate the tears that boil inside each of us beneath the scalding anger; if we can’t let those tears flow, if we can’t conquer the patriarchy in ourselves, our species is doomed.
Look. If you’re into statuary tributes, then for godsake please somebody focus on adding, not subtracting. And what about language? Language is not fixed in stone, it’s both dynamic and revealing. So let’s not call the 19th Amendment the anniversary of winning the vote for women. Let’s call it a landmark victory in the struggle for women’s enfranchisement; let’s call it a watershed for women and democracy; let’s call it a giant step forward and a great day for many women—but let’s not call the franchise a victory for all women because that is simply inaccurate. Let’s hope that the valiant women who worked so diligently to build the Central Park monument will roll up their sleeves again and be joined by more women in building other monuments to accompany Stanton and Anthony, who will get lonely!
Let’s build a Central Park statue honoring Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and another of Mable Ping-Hua Lee and for that matter the women who never even gained the stature or education to become suffragists because they were the women behind the “great men”: Anna Murray Douglass and Sally Hemmings Jefferson. Let there be funded research into who the nameless Haudenosaunee women sachems were who modeled the idea of democracy for the Europeans in the first place, and let there be representations to praise them.
Let little girls (and boys) read the pedestals and look at the images and be enriched early on with knowledge we adults were bitterly denied for most of our lives. History is ours to make, because history is a renewable resource.
Let there be outdoor galleries, bronze forests gleaming in the sunlight with thousands of palpable images making women visible, rescuing them from the shadows of this Republic’s history. And let Stanton and Anthony, who spent their lives in the battles to abolish all slavery and enfranchise all women, have a monument. They’ve earned it.
In last week’s blog post, I tried, albeit superficially, to show that the century-long movement for women’s suffrage, which finally won the vote for (some) women in 1920, took place in a context and country where originally only white, Christian, property-owning, land-holding males possessed the franchise—and they weren’t particularly eager to share it with anybody who didn’t meet those identifying qualifications. The ignorance all of us—female and male, people of color and white people—have been infected with is painful and poisonous, but lancing and draining it will also hurt, as that requires an honesty to which we apparently as yet only aspire.
Honesty means I have to start this week with two corrections.
First: last week I ended with a quote from Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who said she wore white to the State of The Union speech in honor of Alice Paul and the suffrage movement but also carried a kente cloth purse in honor of Ida B. Wells, who was excluded from it. As usual when grappling with racism and sexism, the statement is true but not the whole truth. That famous 1913 National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s procession where everyone wore white took place on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, and it certainly did perpetuate racism: black suffragists were asked to march together and—honest to god—at the back of the parade. Wells, already known as a pioneering journalist and anti-lynching crusader, had inspired the beginnings of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and established the Alpha Suffrage Club, the largest black women’s suffrage organization in Illinois, so no exclusion for her: she defiantly marched with white suffragists in the Washington DC procession.
Second: In discussing the formerly enslaved abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, I touched on his agreement with Susan B. Anthony that both leaders would insist on enfranchisement for black men and all women together, refusing to sell out one constituency for the other. Nevertheless, Douglass gave his blessing to the 15th Amendment, so that black men had the vote before black, white, or any women. There were heartbreaking ironies in Douglass’s friendships with Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women’s suffrage leaders, conflicting with Douglass’s use and abuse of women in his private life.
His treatment of Anna Murray, the free black woman who helped him escape slavery, married him, bore his five children, and was left at home while he traveled the country and the world, betraying her publicly with lovers, was indefensible. Lionized by white suffragists (male and female), Douglass made speeches, wrote books, became world famous, and changed the story of his escape to better fit his own heroism. Anna did not suffer gladly his taking as lovers the trail of white women activists who mentored him, financed him, helped him establish his newspaper, paid off his mortgage, hid him during the John Brown controversy, and even moved into Anna Murray Douglass’s home at his invitation. Naturally, the women blamed and hated each other, not Frederick. But it was frequently rumored that Anna was about to divorce him, and he didn’t mince words regarding her, cruelly writing in an 1862 letter, “I am married to an old black log.” One of his white women lovers and supporters, Ottilie Assing, had been at his side for 30 years and been given to believe she would eventually become his wife, but when Anna died, he wed Helen Pitts, a white woman young enough to be his daughter. It was Ottilie Assing who then killed herself—not , as I mistakenly wrote last week, another of his protectors and funders, Julia Griffiths. (His sole defender regarding the Pitts marriage, about which the abolition and suffrage communities both black and white were shocked and disapproving, was Elizabeth Cady Stanton–who undeniably made racist statements in another context but who does not deserve being denounced broadly by facile critics.) For those interested in learning more, I recommend: Women in the World of Frederick Douglass, by Leigh Fought, and, though a work of historical fiction, the scrupulously researched, factually solid, Douglass’ Women, by Jewel Parker Rhodes.
It’s all the more important to get our facts not just straight but to get them at all, especially at a time when politicians fail to see what’s wrong with wearing black face and the voting rights of people of color are under attack at levels of intimidation reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s.
So I urge my European American sisters (and men of conscience) to break through the historical illiteracy in which the patriarchy has deliberately raised us, to became familiar with the luminous lives and contributions of African American suffragists like Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Anna Julia Cooper and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and later on, Mary Church Terrell, and so many more. We need to revisit the life of the magnificent Harriet Tubman, called Moses because she led hundreds of enslaved people to safety; Tubman, who was a Union spy and the first African American woman to serve in the US military; Tubman, whom we know as an abolitionist but who was also a prominent voice for women’s suffrage and, herself disabled, who spoke of disabled persons’ rights at a time when that was unimaginable.
Furthermore, we all need to become historically literate about other Americans of color, who repeatedly get erased by the chiaroscuro of black-white conflict.
Have you ever heard of Mable Ping-Hua Lee? Born in Guangzhou, China in 1896, she came to New York with her family in 1905 and, by the time she was 16, was a well-known activist in the women’s suffrage movement. Lee, on horseback, led the 1913 suffrage march. Her 1914 essay, “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” declared “the extension of democracy … is a hallmark of feminism,” and her speech “The Submerged Half,” urging the Chinese community to promote girls’ education and women’s civic participation was covered in the New York Times. She fought for and witnessed the passage of the 19th Amendmen. But Mabel Lee herself could not benefit from it, because the 1882 Federal Chinese Exclusion Act would not be lifted until 1943, with the Magnuson Act.
Did you know that Texas, which held the greatest concentration of Latinx peoples, by 1923 had codified all-white primaries for the Democratic Party? Nonwhites couldn’t participate in the party’s primaries, which effectively decided the general elections’ outcomes because of the Democratic Party’s then-dominance in the state. It wasn’t until 1954 that Earl Warren’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled the 14th Amendment equal protection clause went beyond black and white citizens to include other ethnicities.
Did you realize that suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her major 1893 work, Women, Church, and State, declared that her model for a just society was the Haudenosaunee Native matrilineal, matrifocal one? (“Haudenosaunee” denoted the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, later joined by the Tuscarora). Gage wrote, “Under their women, the science of government reached the highest form known to the world.” Yet today, in some parts of this, their own country, Native Americans are kept from voting.
A friendly warning: as you begin to learn the history you’ve been robbed of, you risk getting very, very angry. Then you get angrier still, all over again, when we blame each other rather than those white, Christian, property-owning, land-holding men who set us against one another. (They’re still around; have you noticed who holds power?) They’re relying on our ignorance and our horizontal hostility.
But women are, after all, just people—and we’re different, and we make different choices. Some of the suffragist and women’s rights activists of color, like Anna Julia Cooper, chose to put their main energy into the struggle against racism—but they were also suffragists. Others, like St. Pierre Ruffin, amazingly balanced both, cofounding the American Woman Suffrage Association and being Vice President of the National Association of Colored Women. Flash forward: in a 1972 BBC interview, the great US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said, “Being black is definitely a handicap in the United States because racism has been inherent in our institutions.” Then she added, of her own experience,” I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black.” Have we forgotten a woman’s right to choose?
White suffragists, obviously, were unburdened by such conflicting priorities. Most of them already activists for years in the abolition movement, they likely assumed (naïvely and conveniently) that they weren’t racists. The late 18th and early 19th centuries in this country were hardly periods of nuance about the pernicious subtleties of racism; those involved in that struggle were busy trying to break free from the hideous, blatant reality of institutionalized enslavement, followed by its murderous and soul-debilitating aftermath.
And sexism? Misogyny penetrating all aspects of society the way we begin to comprehend it does today? Such awareness barely existed; many suffragists thought the vote would cure society’s ills. “Manhood suffrage” was sometimes used interchangeably with “universal suffrage.” But some women’s rights leaders glimpsed the pervasiveness of sexism, and in her Seneca Falls speech and the Declaration, Elizabeth Cady Stanton named the rights to education, employment, divorce, legal agency, and freedom of movement as goals beyond suffrage. She denounced the legal doctrine of coverture, under which married women could not hold any property once they had husbands, and she risked mentioning theretofore unnameable domestic violence. Stanton even dared name religion in general and Christianity specifically as primary oppressors of women—for which she was attacked from virtually all quarters.
These were fallible people, filled with contradictions, though we view them now as historical figures and want to infuse them retroactively with perfection. But every one of them was just trying to do the best she could.
The white women had more privilege, yes–although it was a mere fraction of white men’s. Those women were trying to learn how to exercise that privilege positively, as in their abolition and suffrage struggles—but yes, sometimes that privilege surfaced negatively, in racism. No other ethnic group in this country, each with a past scarred by hardship and grief, has the history endured by Africans brought here in slavery. Yet black men fighting for suffrage had more privilege than black women suffragists, who in turn had more privilege than Chinese or Mexican women who spoke no English.
If we continue to rank human suffering competitively, we will die from losing, or else die from boredom. It’s long, long past time to scrape off paralyzing guilt, bitter cross accusations, and rusted defensiveness—and get to work.
“Women’s Suffrage(s) Part 3” will conclude this meditation next week.
As you probably know, we’re approaching the 100 birthday of the 19thAmendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920, which proclaims, 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. Well, that seems simple enough, and a damned good thing, too, hard-won through more than a previous century of organizing, picketing, divorces and child custody losses and job firings, arrests and beatings and jails and rapes and hunger strikes! What’s not to celebrate?
Historical illiteracy, that’s what.
It’s not your fault if you don’t know something, but it’s somebody’s fault if you’ve been kept from knowing something. This subject sure as hell is going to come up a lot in the next months, and it would be nice if we were equipped with some real facts.
Historians, alert! Please don’t have conniptions! Please keep in mind that this is just a humble, superficial outline, ideally to whet readers’ thirst for more facts and deeper background. The map of American women’s suffrage is a patchwork of geography, delay, two steps forward and one back, coalitions and splits, the whole of it blotched by varying restrictive bigotries. We might begin with Lydia Taft, the first woman to legally vote in the American colonies in 1756—on behalf of her just-deceased husband in a town meeting in Massachusetts. Then, in 1777, the original 13 states passed laws prohibiting women from voting by specifying that only free, white, adult, property owning males could vote. (No wonder Abigail Adams was furious.) In 1787, the Constitutional Convention placed voting qualifications in the hands of the states.
Space limitations necessitate skipping over many discriminatory speed bumps along the way—such as when, in 1718, Maryland barred Catholics from voting; 1732, when the colonies allowed only taxpayers to vote, and 1737, when New York barred Jews from the ballot box. In some states, women—usually widowed property owners—could join in having certain voting rights (in school elections, for example), but by 1787 this was true only of New Jersey, because women in all other states had lost the right to vote. Through the next decades, individual states would progress and regress on such specifics as requiring property ownership, or enfranchising free black men, or mandating poll taxes. The first US naturalization act permitted only free white persons to become American citizens. Asians and other ethnic groups were excluded and therefore could not vote. As new states joined the Union, they largely followed the prejudicial restrictions of previous states. By the 1800s, white male suffrage rights were actually expanding—fewer property requirements, for example—but other people’s enfranchisement was static, partial, or even regressing.
Nobody was taking all this quietly. Women lobbied and protested in some states, as did free black men, and disenfranchised Jews and Catholics. Native Americans were so insistent that in 1842 Rhode Island felt compelled to formally bar the Narragansett Nation from voting. The 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention, organized by and for women, was focused on the abolition of slavery, but also buzzed with talk of women’s rights and women’s suffrage. As Helen LaKelly Hunt has written in And the Spirit Moved Them, this was an abolitionist feminist movement bridging race, class, and socioeconomic status. Yet it was also deeply Christian, since the fight against slavery was regarded by many abolitionist women as a holy fight. Then, in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton issued her ringing, secular Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions for women at the Seneca Falls Women’s Suffrage Convention, with approximately 260 women in attendance, as well as their ally, the formerly enslaved, famous abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass.
At this crucial point, the struggles for all women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved or freeborn black men, were one seamless fight. In fact, in 1866, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton initiated the founding of the American Equal Rights Association, pledged to win suffrage for African American men and for all women.
But from 1861 to 1865 the Civil War paralyzed suffrage activity because most suffragists were Unionists and focused on abolition and the war effort. Then the original united vision split, along with the constituencies. Anthony and Douglass had made a pact not to sell out either constituency by accepting enfranchisement for only one. But the white male establishment opposed by both Douglass and Anthony found a way to divide, if not conquer. In 1868, with Douglass’s approval, the 14thAmendment to the Constitution was ratified, introducing the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time: Section Two specified that the enfranchisement of all male citizens could not be abridged or denied. Black men could vote. No woman (or Indian) could.
Anthony felt profoundly betrayed by Douglass, and his 14th Amendment deal became an exacerbation of as well as a convenient excuse for latent racism to surface in the largely white women’s suffrage movement—while black women were, not for the first or last time, left out in the cold by both sides. All this while, by the way, groups like the Anti-Suffrage Society (1871) were celebrating their efforts to halt progress.
Still, the suffragists continued and state-by-state, women’s right to vote trickled in. Wyoming Territory, 1869. Utah Territory, 1870. Washington Territory, 1883. Women lose suffrage as proposed before the Dakota Territory legislature by a single vote. Anthony is arrested in New York for voting. Women’s suffrage fails in a Michigan referendum. Suffrage amendments are repeatedly brought up before the House of Representatives and the US Senate—and fail. In 1887 the Supreme Court strikes down the law that had enfranchised women in the Washington Territory. A Rhode Island referendum does not pass women’s suffrage.
In 1890 the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) focuses in on state-level organizing. Its first president is Elizabeth Cady Stanton—but by 1895 NAWSA publicly dissociates itself because of Stanton’s strongly secularist position as a freethinker, and especially her ground-breaking book, The Woman’s Bible, a searing critique of Christianity and other patriarchal religions. (Religious/secular splits during the century-long women’s suffrage movement have not been explored as thoroughly as those over race or ethnicity—but they may have been just as important, and I hope some courageous historian will take it on.)
By now this fight for enfranchisement had become a full-blown movement. That meant schisms and splits within schisms, some for valid reasons like differing strategies, tactics, or priorities; others over racism or class or secularism, still others due to individual personality differences masquerading as political ones. (In other words, human beings acting like human beings.) In 1913, Alice Paul became leader of the Congressional Union, a militant branch of NAWSA. She organized a women’s suffrage procession in Washington DC on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration—the largest suffrage parade ever seen. A mob attacked the women and hundreds were injured, yet no arrests were made. By 1916, Paul had broken from NAWSA and formed the National Woman’s Party. It was the first group to picket the White House; nearly 500 women were arrested.
By 1917, the US enters World War I and again women’s suffrage gets swept aside by the war effort. In 1918 the 19th Amendment passes the House of Representatives, only to lose by two votes in the Senate. In 1919, Carrie Chapman Catt transforms NAWSA into the aspirational League of Women Voters (still alive and efficient today). In 1920 the Amendment is at last ratified, though Mississippi became the last state in the union to ratify it—in 1984.
So it was that some American women won the vote. African American men had won suffrage in 1868, remember, while African American women got the franchise only in 1920 (but see below). Native American women (and men) could not vote until 1924—and many states passed laws effectively barring Native Americans from voting until as late as 1948. Japanese American women (and men) were held back by the 1790 naturalization law and could not vote until 1952. Meanwhile, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a Federal law in place from 1882 to 1943, limited Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, ergo no vote.
Even after ethnic constituencies won the franchise, they all—particularly but not exclusively the African-American community—have faced consistent, repeated, even violent voter suppression, from Reconstruction through the Black Codes and Jim Crow right up to elections last year (and not only in the South). The 1964 abolishment of poll taxes and the 1965 Voting Rights Act substantially increased access for would-be voters of color. But the right-leaning Supreme Court gutted that Act as “no longer necessary” in 2013.
This checkered past—and remember, the above barely skims the surface—haunts us still. Feminists of color understandably feel hurt and outrage at being made invisible when an ill-informed though well-meaning European American woman refers to the 19th Amendment as giving all women suffrage. (It was won, not given. And it was not to all women.) Some European American feminists who repeated history by early activism in the Civil Rights Movement, feel hurt and weary of carrying guilt (which is unproductive anyway), and get defensive about wanting to honor suffragists like Stanton and Anthony–who, by the way, damned well deserve honoring. Men, sometimes even well-meaning, feed the flames. Recently, Brent Staples, a New York Times columnist whose work I usually admire, wrote about the women’s suffrage movement having ”sold out” its principles due to racism.
News flash: that racism was present in the women’s suffrage movement over a century-long span is absolutely undeniable. There was passive racism in the form of exclusion (“We just don’t know any…”), and active racism in the arguments of some suffragists that the women’s vote was needed to counteract the radical votes of black men. Volumes have been written about this, and more should be.
It’s also undeniable that the abolitionist movement—in which virtually every suffragist had been active—was infected with sexism. We don’t hear about that much, in fact hardly at all.
Frederick Douglass himself, a magnetic presence and electrifying speaker, was well known as a womanizer to whom no woman (reportedly) ever said No. He also had multiple lovers, mostly white female suffragists who financed his work, while Anna Murray, his African-American wife, seethed in pain and rage. Anna finally threatened to leave him if he continued to keep one white woman, abolitionist and funder Julia Griffiths, in residence in Anna’s home. Another white activist, Ottilie Assing, remained at his side for nearly three decades; it was continually rumored that Anna was about to divorce Frederick, so when Anna died, Ottilie had been given every reason to believe she would become the new Mrs. Douglass. But he married yet another white woman, Helen Pitts, with whom he’d been involved in secret. When Julia Griffiths learned this, she politely wished him well, then killed herself by drinking potassium cyanide—but she left him ”a tidy sum in her will.” Brent Staples knows all this because he reviewed a major new Douglass biography. But in his column on the women’s suffrage movement ”selling out” he mentioned none of this. Perhaps he thought the personal was not political. But neither did he mention Douglass’s 14th Amendment deal—which some might say “sold out” both black and white women’s suffrage, so black men could vote.
We all of us have to stop lying or telling half truths about this. Any honest conversation about race and sex in America will be painful. There are layers of complexity and profound insult. Anthony and Douglass were people ahead of their time though products of it. They were flawed the way all of us have been wounded by the history of sexism and racism in this country, starting with the conquest of the people who lived here.
Those of us with European ancestry have been wounded by deliberately inflicted ignorance and a bestowed sense of entitlement that has numbed parts of our souls and distorted most if not all of our perceptions. The wounds citizens of color have suffered and still suffer in this country are different; they are existential. Women of color, targets of both primal sufferings due to sex and race, bear wounds I think are worst of all. But I break my own rule there, because comparisons that rank human suffering are invidious and destructive. I will say, though, that it sure is fitting that African American women today are leading both movements.
I’ll continue with Part Two on this subject next week, looking at the buried history of women of color who were activists for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and bringing us up to contemporary history with the need for, maybe, multiple suffrage-day celebrations. That is, I’ll continue unless Trump starts World War III in the interim.
For now, I’ll close with the words of freshwoman Congressional representative Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, who wore white to the State of the Union but carried a clutch purse made of kente cloth, and who tweeted, with grace and wit, “Tonight, I honor women like Alice Paul, who led the movement, and women like Ida B. Wells, who were excluded from it.”
“Fetal assault. Chemical endangerment of a fetus. Manslaughter. Second-degree murder. Feticide. Child abuse. Reckless injury to a child. Concealing a birth. Concealing a death. Neglect of a minor. Reckless homicide. Attempted procurement of a miscarriage.”
These are charges being brought against some women for seeking or having had an abortion in some states in America today.
The above list is a direct quote from the New York Times Special Section: Report on a Woman’s Right, dated January 20 of this year. The Times added, “More and more laws are treating the fetus as a person and the woman as less of one as states charge pregnant women with crimes.” I’m glad and grateful that their editorial board actually gets it. In fact, if we are not both vigilant and active, we will be back at square one with women dying by the thousands every year in back-alley butchered abortions.
Furthermore, the moment a state government acts to ensure this won’t happen in their state, anti–choice religionists pounce.
Last week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law one of the most expansive reproductive rights bills in US history, and no sooner had the ink dried than some prominent Catholics began urging Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York to declare Cuomo excommunicated. Three decades ago, New York Cardinal John O’Connor tangled with Andrew’s father, then Governor Mario Cuomo, over the same issue. Then as now, both father and son governors just shrugged, and neither cardinal acted.
US bishops have responded inconsistently to pro-choice Catholic politicians. San Francisco Archbishop Cordileone said publicly that politicians who favor legal abortion, like Nancy Pelosi, should be denied communion—but other archbishops, like Washington’s recently retired Donald Wuerl, have loudly disagreed. Pope Francis is perceived as a social liberal, but on abortion he stands with the current Church position forbidding any pregnancy termination for any reason, and he has likened abortion to ”hiring a hitman to resolve a problem.” So much for social liberalism that refuses to include the rights of humanity’s female half.
When, above, I referred to “current Church position” on reproduction and abortion, I meant just that. It’s time to revisit a little history instead of continuing to wander around untruths, half-truths, and outright lies. I confess that I will plagiarize these historical facts below from the well-researched book, Fighting Words: A Tool Kit for Combating the Religious Right, published a few years ago and written by . . . well, me. (After all, if you can’t plagiarize from yourself, who can you plagiarize from?) Fighting Words is in print as a paperback, intentionally small enough to fit into your pocket and then wield in arguments, and is also available as an e-book in all formats. I did my best in compiling factual ammunition to combat the widespread ignorance most of us have been raised with regarding abortion (and a few other subjects). For example:
1. There is no mention of abortion as a crime or as a woman’s right in the United States Constitution. This is because: A) there is no mention of women in the Constitution, and B) abortion was both legal and commonly practiced at the time.
2. There is no mention of abortion in the Bible. There are as many as 600 Mosaic laws but not a single one comments on abortion. Jewish law traditionally considers that life begins at birth.
3. The history of the Roman Catholic Church’s position—from which all current US anti-choice extremist Christian positions derive—is not what you think. Today’s Vatican denounces even the words “reproductive health” as unacceptable in official UN documents—in case anyone might construe them to include the already deleted word “abortion”—and although the Vatican is a non-voting so-called “State” at the UN, it is a highly effective lobbying force continuously purging all UN documents of such language. It works on this in brotherly coalition with Islamists and Protestant fundamentalists; apparently, convenient patriarchal alliances against women override pesky little memories like, say, the Crusades.
It comes as a shock to most people that the Catholic Church’s fierce opposition to abortion was not always what it is today, because the Church pretends that its position on pregnancy termination has been based on a “right to life” and has remained unchanged for 2000 years. Poppycock. In fact, it has varied continually over the course of history, with no unanimous opinion on the subject at any one time.
In 400 C. E., Augustine expressed the then-mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for any sexual aspect of a sin, not as homicide; 800 years later Thomas Aquinas substantially agreed. (Pssst: the Church made them both saints.)
Between 1198 and 1216, Pope Innocent III ruled abortion as “not irregular” if the fetus was not “vivified” or ”animated”; animation was then considered 80 days for a female and 40 days for a male—male fetuses apparently could develop faster then slow-poke female ones. Oddly, it has never been explained how anyone in the 12th century could tell sex differences in the womb. Or was there some early version of ultrasound back then that historians somehow missed?
Pope Sixtus V forbade all abortions in 1588, but in 1591 Pope Gregory XIV rescinded that order, and reestablished permission to abort, this time equalizing things a bit: up to 40 days for either a male or a female fetus.
Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence (also now sanctified), was a 15th century Dominican who wrote a major treatise on abortion, in which he taught that early abortion to save a woman’s life was moral.
Thomas Sanchez a 17th-century Jesuit, noted that all his Catholic theologian contemporaries justified abortion to save the life of the woman.
It was as late as 1869—only about a century and a half ago—that Pope Pious IX ruled all abortion murder and defined it as excommunicable.
And therein, my friends, lies a tale.
Napoleon III was gravely concerned that the birth rate had been dropping and that France would face a serious depletion of soldiers for its wars and colonizations. Pius IX, for his part, had long yearned to pass a doctrine of papal infallibility—but had faced opposition from within the church as well as from external kings, czars, and the like. But Napoleon was an emperor.
So the two struck a deal.
In return for Napoleon’s powerful support for papal infallibility, Pius would change the Church’s regulation of abortion—which at that time forbade the procedure only after quickening, at about three months. But Pius, a shrewd bargainer, played hard to get. So Napoleon threw in a further inducement—that all teaching positions in French schools would thereafter be filled by the Church.
Napoléon would get his huge crop of babies to grow into cannon fodder, because the Vatican would outlaw all abortion. In return, Pious and all popes after him would get their infallibility plus Roman Catholic control of French children’s minds (and those of kids in colonies around the world) for generations to come. Women’s deaths, by now in the millions because of this bargain, would pay the price. But hey, the art of the deal.
Interestingly enough, however, and also contrary to popular belief, the prohibition of abortion is not governed by claims of papal infallibility. This leaves far more room for discussion than is usually assumed. Some Jesuit historians have actually been honest about this history.
There’s much richer detail in the book, Fighting Words, but above you have an outline of the abortion chapter. Such crucial history gets buried for a reason. Which could lead us to wonder: if this issue is not governed by infallibility, and if the Church position itself has been flexible, and if there is no mention of forbidding abortion in the Bible or the Constitution, then just how and why does this issue continue to be so explosive in discussing women’s basic human right to bodily self-determination? And, for that matter, to the foundational concept that defines America: the separation of church and state?
For the first time in the history of the Republic, a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives barred a President of the United States from entering the House.
In 1986, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill refused to let President Reagan address the House before it voted on an aid package for the Contras, right-wing Nicaraguan rebels for whom Reagan hoped to persuade Congress to appropriate $100 million. O’Neil offered a joint session with the Senate instead, but Reagan turned it down because he wanted to focus on the purse strings of the House. That’s the only time anything has happened remotely like what we’ve just witnessed.
It’s worth repeating: For the first time in the history of the Republic, a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives barred a President of the United States from entering the House.
This is completely within the rights of the Speaker’s power, since the Constitution specifies that no president may set foot on either the House or Senate floors without a concurring resolution from both chambers. Remember that the Speaker is the most powerful post in Congress, directly in succession to the presidency after the vice president. Nor is it coincidental that the Constitution established the House (Article I Number II), even before the Senate, as the primary legislative body of the land.
So you might reasonably think that my colleagues in the media might report this occasion—the first time a Speaker locks out a President and dangles a future invitation as a strategic carrot—would be treated by my colleagues in the media as the successful, historic event it is. Yet the confrontation has been described as a “petty scuffle,” a “kerfuffle,” a “tit for tat ego squabble,” and a “toe to toe scrap.”
Gee, I wonder why.
Let’s recap briefly. In the saga of whether and where Trump would deliver the State of the Union address during his own shutdown of most government functions, Pelosi had courteously suggested he not deliver the speech in the House, citing such sensible (and face-saving for him) reasons as security forces being decimated during the shutdown, and diplomatically leaving unspoken long-term reasons like Listen, buddy, the House of Representatives is now speaking for the people again and refuses to let you throw a tantrum whenever you don’t get what you want in the future by closing down the United States.
Trump, whose approval rating dropped another 10 points in the last month to around 33 percent, decided to defy her. He tweeted that he would deliver the address as planned, “on time, on schedule, and very importantly, on location!”
(Wait. What? On location? Does he think the Oval Office is a movie set so if he speaks elsewhere he’s on “location”?)
Pelosi was utterly unmoved. Trump, still unwelcome, began muttering to reporters,”We will do something in the alternative.” There you go! Forget the Constitution and all that stuff about a President having to report to Congress, the Judiciary, and the nation once a year as to what the Executive branch has been doing (sort of an annual job review). Oh, no, Trump would stage a rally instead, where his dwindling number of fans could buy hats and cheer his racist, sexist comments! Yes, he would, so there, take that, even if he had to hold the State of the Union in a Walmart parking lot!
He dared Pelosi to literally bar him from the House. Pelosi (probably yawning delicately, like a bored cat) replied with a cool “I look forward to welcoming you to the House on a mutually agreeable date for this address when the government has been opened.” He blustered. He ranted and raved. He pounded things. Finally, she made it flatly, icily clear that she would not entertain a concurring resolution with the Senate to lift the rule that a president must be invited by both houses before he can enter either one. Doubtless, Trump had never heard of a concurring resolution—but neither did he want to be met by a locked door with the lights turned out.
Everyone in Washington had talked about how a bully caves when someone actually stands up to him, but Democrats lacked the clout and Republicans the spine to do so. Then came the midterm elections—with their consequences. And in the dark of Wednesday night, using an almost civil tone, Trump tweeted total defeat. He surrendered. Gave in. Lost. He would postpone the speech until the shutdown was lifted, and he acknowledged that it was within the Speaker’s prerogative to make him do so. Well, well, well.
In her prerogative.
It was in her prerogative when each of all the women he pursued had turned him down, only to have him assault them anyway. It is in the prerogative of refugees and immigrants to seek asylum. It is in the prerogative of the American people to hold fair and free elections and not to be held hostage for a vanity project wall.
Hard-right pundits mourned that Pelosi had ”emasculated” Trump. Pelosi applied even more pressure, responding to him that she hoped to invite him soon, as she hoped he would end the shutdown soon by supporting the Democrats’ bill that offers to negotiate, plus money for border security. But. None. For. His. Wall.
Which is basically what he did two days later.
Trump became (his own term:) a loser. Pelosi won.
She won a rescue for the nation to begin recovering from his disastrous shutdown. She won against sexist troglodytes who still sneer that women lack the toughness of spirit to be real leaders. She won against the juvenile sniping of some newbie members in her own caucus who had dismissed her as too old or too “establishment” to demonstrate worthiness of leading their radical inexperience. Most important, she won by modeling for everyone how to reinstate the crucial, co-equal powers of the three government branches. (Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, take note: with work, you too could become a profile in courage.)
Does the above battle sound like a kerfuffle or a spat to you? Would anyone dare characterize it as such had both parties been men? Oh no, headlines would have blared Titanic Duel! Mano a Mano! Speaker Wins Historic Triumph!
Now. What follows below may seem like a lateral leap to a different subject, but it’s not. Read on and you’ll see.
Last week, the nation observed Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I remember the long struggle to make it a national holiday, and I’m deeply glad we prevailed. But let’s fill in some background.
Fifty years ago, Daisy Bates, head of the Little Rock, Arkansas, NAACP chapter, had helped recruit nine black teenagers and escort them through violent white mobs into their first classes. Bates lost her vision, was jailed, threatened with death, and survived the Ku Klux Klan burning an 8-foot cross on her lawn. Naturally, she was invited to the famous 1963 March on Washington, when Dr. King delivered his “I have a dream” speech.
But Bates had to march with the wives of male leaders.
Rosa Parks was invited too, and Pauli Murray, the feminist lawyer who staged the first sit-in at a Washington restaurant, back during World War II. They also had to walk with the wives—and stay away from photographers. Murray said later, “Not a single woman was invited to make one of the major speeches or to join the delegation of leaders who went to the White House. The omission was deliberate.”
Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro women (who was frequently cropped from photos of organizational leaders), pleaded with King to include at least a token woman among the speakers, nominating Diane Nash, the student leader who was perhaps the person most responsible for the success of the Freedom Riders in the South. But as Height later wrote, ”Nothing that women said or did broke the impasse blocking their participation.” The men said women already had participation—because singers Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson were going to perform.
None of the women made their protests public at the time, in solidarity and for fear their criticism might be taken as ”emasculating” all black men, many of whom historically had suffered literal castration by white racists who were other men.
Yet King’s first success had been as the public face of Montgomery, Alabama’s bus boycott, made possible because a college teacher, Joanne Robinson, and a group of other middle-class black women, organized it.
Rosa Parks herself, a long-time activist, was represented by movement spokesmen as a seamstress too weary to give up her seat on the bus, because the men thought that was more passive-sounding and pitiable than acknowledging her years of activism.
Gloria Richardson, who famously waved away the bayonet of a National Guardsman during a Cambridge protest in 1963, and Dorothy Cotton, who taught students how to protest peacefully even as people taunted, beat, and kicked them—no speaking at Dr. King’s March for them, either.
Nor for Ella Baker, possibly the greatest organizer the Civil Rights Movement ever had. She also was rejected for the directorship of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which she helped found and which she ran as “acting” director—a rejection, she noted, because “I was female. I was old. I didn’t have a PhD.” So she organized college students, forming the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), instead.
Surely, these women had earned the entitlement to walk side-by-side with the male leaders, and to speak at King’s March on Washington. Surely it was their due, their right, their prerogative.
Why doesn’t this country have a Baker Day, a Parks Day, a Bates Day? Why don’t we have days, streets, statues, and schools honoring Height and Nash and Murray and Robinson and so, so many others?
And will a future statue stand in the halls of the U.S. House of Representatives celebrating Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi, the way the House honors a select few of the greatest Speakers in the history of our Republic?
Nancy Patricia D’Alesandro Pelosi, age 78, married to the same man for more than 50 years, mother of five (five) children and grandmother of eight, may be the most strategically brilliant political leader since Elizabeth I (Tudor) of England.
Both women went into the family business, although Thomas “Tommy” J. D’Alesandro, Jr., a Maryland congressman and then mayor of Baltimore, was not lethal to his (one) wife, unlike Henry VIII. Pelosi herself was the last of six children and the first daughter—who had to negotiate herself out of expectations that she would honor the family by becoming a nun. An activist behind the scenes in local Democratic politics while raising her own kids, she then ran for and was elected to Congress from California in 1987 and has served ever since, posting landslide electoral victories and dropping beneath 80 percent of the vote only twice. She made history being elected the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in 2007 (accepting the gavel while surrounded by invited children), serving in that post until 2011, when she became House Minority Leader. In 2018 she made history again, raising more funds for Democratic candidates to retake the House than anyone else and this January was reelected to the Speakership, the first woman ever to do that and the first former Speaker to return to the post since Sam Rayburn in 1955 (she again accepted the gavel surrounded by children). She is a self-acknowledged feminist, a serious Roman Catholic, and a pro-choice activist for women’s reproductive rights. She routinely wears four-inch-high-heeled shoes, because she likes the way they look and because she knows height adds authority to her diminutive stature. She can stand on these painful stilts for hours, smiling with a wide-eyed expression of innocence while she tactically eviscerates her adversaries.
This confuses some people.
It has now confused Donald J. Trump.
Pelosi, to date the most powerful elected woman in U.S. history, appears to be the first person, female or male, ever to paralyze Trump with a clear, flat-out, unmistakable “No” to his face. Others, mostly women, have valiantly tried, and some have succeeded in squirming away from his sexual assaults while many could not. He never tried that with Nancy Pelosi, since he has some self-preservative reflexes; besides, he likes his victims to be in their 20s or younger. Pelosi’s “No’s” are, however, more dispiriting to Trump than any about sex. No, you may not have billions for your border wall. No, you must learn that holding the American people hostage in your fits of pique will not be successful, or you’ll do it again. No, we will stay here until you understand that we can negotiate border security only after you lift your government shutdown so Americans can get back to their lives again. No, you may not characterize me or my leadership strengths. No, you may not have a third basket of KFC chicken.
Just kidding about the KFC, although she apparently has actually expressed maternal concern about his constant inhaling of junk food.
But the rest of the above “No’s” are real. And I’ve heard that every time she emerges from a meeting at the White House, she holds forth in her office and regales staff and colleagues about what and how he said and acted. Meanwhile, like a windup toy that has hit a bump in the carpet, he keeps trying, thinking that if he just bullheadedly batters away at the real-life wall that is Nancy Pelosi, he can bash through and conquer. He has tried threats, chicanery, offers of candy, his version of manufactured charm, storming out of meetings, and proudly shutting down the United States. He gets back only chilly but well-mannered dignity—and “No.” He reportedly stalks the White House halls, collaring hapless aides and yelling, “Why can’t I get a deal?” He tried to woo freshman Democrats with a White House invitation, but eager to visit the White House as they all may have been, under “friendly advice” from their own Democratic leader, her heels clicking on the marble floors of Congress as she strode to meet them, they answered Trump with a united No. He threatens to call a national state of emergency and would eagerly do so except for advisors warning him that she would haul him into court. He’s like Bluebeard, strangling with rage in his own facial hair. With impeccable discipline, she remains soft voiced and pleasant, even when she’s been up for so many hours holding her caucus together that she looks glassy eyed.
There’s no more ante for him to up.
And then she strikes. It’s a move so deviously simple that even Republicans who denounce her as a “Latte liberal” gasped to reporters in admiration of her parliamentary skills.
This woman knows her Constitution. She knows her Roberts Rules of Order. She knows history. She knows that the Speaker of the House, second in line to the Presidency directly after the Vice President, has considerable powers. Unlike Trump, she doesn’t fabricate additional powers but deftly wields those legally available to her. She knows that, although a Presidential State of the Union Address is traditionally delivered in person in the House (a larger space than the Senate), originally the Address was sent to Congress on paper. She also knows that a State of the Union speech is the sole occasion where all three coequal branches of government are assembled in one room: the Legislative, with both Houses present; the Judiciary, with all nine Justices of the Supreme Court in attendance; and the Executive, with the President, Vice President, and Cabinet—plus the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all foreign ambassadors to the United States, honored guests, and a massive global audience on television and online.
She knows that Members of the House are permitted lifelong entry to both the House and Senate floors, and that Representatives are likewise permitted lifelong entry to both. She also knows, more importantly, that the President of the United States is not permitted to visit either chamber unless specifically invited by the leadership of that chamber.
So she disinvited Trump to her House. Politely.
She wrote him a courteous letter “suggesting” he not deliver the address in person so long as his own government shutdown was in effect. She suggested that he could lift his shutdown and then come speak or, failing that, he could deliver the speech from the Oval Office or . . . wherever. Or he could always just send it to Congress in writing. To ensure that no one could mistake this checkmate move as a mere partisan gambit, she gave her reason for this disinvitation—and it has the virtue of being a sensible, simple, real reason: the audience for this event is the single most difficult and delicate security matter of any year. Imagine protecting so many dignitaries moving through the city to a single destination, remaining there for two to four hours, then leaving in a crush to disperse across the city and indeed the world. That’s a nightmarish challenge for Capitol security, the Secret Service, the FBI, the Washington DC police force, the military, and all other attendant law enforcement—many of whom, being government employees, are on forced furlough or layoff because of Trump’s government shutdown. This problem had never occurred to Trump or his ironically named braintrusts. Touché.
Now is the moment to sit back and dwell on the sheer beauty of Pelosi’s strategy. Examine it from every angle, and appreciate how inescapable it is. Admire its judo-master elegance. Revel in its wit. Notice its evocation of nonviolence, yet recognize its quiet menace. Acknowledge its power. I’m tempted to say that this is a quintessentially female tactic of non-confrontational confrontation, but must concede that it would not be impossible for a very wise male leader to employ it.
At first, there was only silence—not a peep, not a tweet—from the White House in response to Pelosi’s letter. But we knew that if Trump had been upset before, there must now be stains from yellow hair dye and hairspray on the elaborate White House ceilings. He feeds on audience approval, and in the Capitol there would be enough Republicans to dutifully provide at least some of that; in the Oval Office there would be a couple of his aides and the camera crew. No applause. No standing in homage to him. No glad-handing and sycophantic praise on his way in or out of the chamber. Only that bucket of KFC upstairs in the private quarters waiting for him—his sole pathetic reward.
So he hit back, but with an unwittingly hilarious parry and a thrust that fell limp. He wrote to Pelosi that due to the shutdown’s personnel shortages, he would deny military transport “for the eight-day excursion” she had planned to make to Egypt, Afghanistan, and Brussels; that she must postpone her “photo op” until the shutdown was over; and that if she still wanted to go she should take commercial aircraft.
The problem with his snide proposal is its breathtaking ignorance that 1) anybody would go to Afghanistan for vacation fun or a photo op, 2) Brussels is where NATO headquarters are, 3) Pelosi would not have been traveling alone but would have been leading a bipartisan congressional delegation, 4) the delegation would have been meeting quietly with troops and commanders to assess the Afghanistan situation on the ground, and trying to repair the grave damage Trump has done to the US ‘s relationship with NATO in Brussels, 5) the delegation had never planned to go to Egypt in the first place, 6) far from being a photo op, the trip was to have been kept under wraps, and 7) publicly announcing in advance the journey of any government official to an active war zone like Afghanistan is a major violation of security.
Pelosi sent Trump a brief reply, informing him of the above facts while using a tone that oozed the calm disapproval of a nursery-school teacher chiding a tot that he must now take a “Time out” for going pee-pee in the potted ficus.
Meanwhile, Politico reported that Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Representative Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) both urged that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell invite Trump to deliver the speech in the Senate, but McConnell was suddenly in hiding and nowhere to be found, and a letter Brooks circulated has so far garnered the support of only 10 co-sponsors, all hard-core hard-right.
Trump, now wildly frustrated and befuddled, considered (what he thought were) his options. Bust into the House of Representatives anyway? Hold his own sit-in at the door? Settle for delivering the speech from the Oval? Deliver it at a hastily assembled rally somewhere safe in “Trump country” (which is shrinking by the hour)? He settled on making what was announced as “a major speech” a day or so later. It recirculated ideas he had already killed in previous versions, and added back in the “Dreamers” and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to his hostage list. Even Republicans expressed disappointment.
Nancy Pelosi sighed and said No. She reminded us all that his pattern—now re-proposing a watered-down version of the bipartisan agreement he had months ago vowed (live on TV!) to sign but then rejected once the Democrats fell for it—did not foster trust. Nevertheless, she added that she would consider it, but after he ended the shutdown.
So No, never try the same trick twice on Nancy Pelosi. No, it seems the shutdown wasn’t such a bright idea after all, nor has it distracted the public from the Special Counsel’s investigation and Michael Cohen’s testimony. No, sending Melania to Florida for the weekend on the same military plane he denied Congress for a combat-troop visit probably wasn’t so smart either. Nothing seems to get him his wall!. He only looks increasingly foolish, and it’s a woman making him look foolish. He’s made additional enemies among Republicans in Congress in the process, and he now is said to yell, “We’re getting crushed!” at the portraits on the White House walls.
No, Donald, no no no. You’d best surrender to a superior intelligence, end the shutdown your sadistic pride gleefully inflicted on the nation, and sign the bipartisan agreement you once swore to support but immediately betrayed. The handwriting’s on your wall, Donald, and it reads NO. Why not bury your sorrows in a bucket of KFC?
Susan Zerinsky, age 66 and 5’1” tall, has just become the first woman to head the legendary CBS News division. Yes, that CBS News, as in Murrow and Cronkite, which once set the gold standard for broadcast journalism, of late severely tarnished by #MeToo scandals necessitating the firings of Charlie Rose and Les Moonves. Zerinsky came to CBS at age 20, worked her way up, has produced “48 Hours” for years, exercises seven days a week, boxes, lift weights, does Pilates, and has taken SLT classes because she heard they might make her taller. Of the sexual misconduct at CBS, she vigilantly declares, “#MeToo isn’t behind us, it’s part of us.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is working from home since being released from the hospital after surgery for two malignant nodules on her left lung. She’s 85 and this was her third bout with cancer. She expects to be back on the bench shortly.
Florida Democratic Congresswoman Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, ran for this seat at age 78, because she was tired of getting mad at Trump and not doing anything. She is the oldest ”Freshman” in her House of Representatives class.
There is enormous press coverage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest woman in that class (just 29), but little about Shalala, while much press attention to the once and now again Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, 78, has been devoted to wondering if she’s too old to do the job. Democratic Representative Maxine Waters of California, 80, who now chairs the influential House Financial Services Committee, breathes fire. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the popular vote for the Presidency at age 69, watched the election get stolen from her, picked herself up after a grueling campaign and devastating disappointment, and now continues doing work mostly in the cause of women’s equality and empowerment.
In praise of old women? You bet. Notice the “old,” not the euphemistic ”older.” Older than who or what? Let’s free the word “old” from all cutesy, infantilizing euphemisms—“senior,” “golden age,” “oldster,” and similar sins against the English language. Not for nothing was the archetype of the Crone born from poetic imagination. After all, what is perpetual youth but arrested development?
Recently, Jessica Bennett, prize-winning journalist, author, and gender editor of the New York Times (at a mere age 38), wrote a terrific piece that reminded me I hadn’t addressed this issue in far too long. Bennett noted of course that men lead major organizations and nations well into their seventh and eighth decades, retaining power and prominence—and, I’d add, welcome or unwelcome access to much younger women. The current “demographic revolution,” as termed by Prof. Susan Douglas of the University of Michigan, is the result of a half century of Women’s Movement activism from the 1970s straight through to #MeToo. And lifespan has a lot to do with it.
Such a demographic shift was unthinkable when women faced a high risk of dying in childbirth or could enter careers political and otherwise only after their children were grown. But in 2016 the average lifespan of women in the US was 81.1 compared with men’s 76.1, and some 18 percent of women age 70 to 74 are employed. Having a job later in life is more common among women with higher education and savings, Bennett reminds us, while those not employed are more likely to have poor health and low savings, and be dependent on Social Security.
We live in a youth-obsessed culture that propagandizes girls of 13 they need to be anorexic to look glamorous and should shave their pubic hair to seem even younger. The Women’s Movement itself has followed this trend by prioritizing the concerns of younger women and supporting emerging young leaders. That’s perfectly understandable, since the future is theirs, as is the task of carrying on the work. But like everything else, it shouldn’t be an either/or choice, especially when we can opt for both/and.
In some people, age can certainly atrophy a capacity for experimentation, risk, energy, and openness to new ideas, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Furthermore, age has compensatory gifts. Not so much “wisdom,” which some folks, old or young, have and some frankly don’t. But with aging you accumulate experience that you simply couldn’t have acquired earlier. It depends on what you do with it, yes, but you need to have acquired experience even to make that decision. Skill, which is formed by practice—another form of experience—can be another privilege of age. For instance, except for the rare Mozart, the longer an artist can manage to live, generally the better her or his work will become.
Then there’s sex. Some women blossom into a fuller or even entirely different sexuality. Others luxuriate in being alone, able to sprawl diagonally across the bed, and pleasure only themselves. One recently widowed friend chuckled to me, “If I miss cuddling, I’ll get myself a puppy.” There’s also such relief at not sweating the small stuff like you used to, because you’ve learned it passes and is ultimately unimportant. In fact, in retrospect you can’t believe you expended such “passion in a waste of shame“ on certain undeserving crises or persons. In any case, there’s a rejuvenation in energy and intellect that resembles the feminist epiphany, when you realize you actually like who you are.
Christiane Amanpour, 61, says a whole new chapter of her life has opened in replacing Charlie Rose on PBS (there is justice after all). My sister-cofounders of the Women’s Media Center, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, are respectively 83 and almost 85, and they tire their younger aides out. Oprah Winfrey is 65. I could go on but you get the point: we don’t lack role models; we lack consciousness of ageism, particularly when combined with sexism. Actor Dame Helen Mirren quipped, “As James Bond gets more and more geriatric, his girlfriends got younger and younger. It’s so annoying.”
In fact, although US Bureau of Labor Statistics show that more people over 65—almost 20 percent—are still employed than at any point since the 1960s, women over 50 have the hardest time finding a job. (Not that they don’t work, even when jobless, given all the unpaid, invisible labor women perform lifelong at home and in their communities.)
This is not plain ageism like discrimination against old men who are neither wealthy nor powerful. Ageism against women is uniquely bound up with reproductive capacity and patriarchal sexual preferences. It always comes back to sex and reproduction, which is why those two basic human rights to self-determination remain both starting place and goal for feminism.
Me, I turn 78 in a few weeks, and the reason I can’t quite believe that’s true is not denial but because inside I am basically, oh, 39-40ish. Do I wish my body was younger and without pains in places I didn’t even know I had? Absolutely. But although I’d willingly exchange this body for one of my younger ones, I would not exchange what’s in my mind and spirit for younger versions by even five seconds. I’m busier and happier than I’ve ever been. I love younger women—mentoring them and learning from them—and I’m grateful for and relieved by their unapologetic, fierce feminism. I’m optimistic and cynical at once. I’m no longer fearful of getting furious when I want to be, and I seek approval only from those I truly respect. All this—plus having had decades to develop a wry sense of humor, a practiced capacity to be mindful of every moment of every day, a fascination with humanity’s growing knowledge of the universe (including the thrills of science and awe at the universe), and a sense of absurdity regarding my creative, clumsy, adaptive, cruel, evolving species—gets me through.
So this is in praise of old women. Especially because this spring, 84-year-old Glenda Jackson is bringing to Broadway what theater critics abroad have unanimously declared the greatest single performance of our era: King Lear herself.
So offend, trivialize, or ignore old women at your peril. Respect, support, and welcome the talents and years we have to offer, and together we become women (and men) for the ages.
There’s a lost south in me, a place where joy, though costly, was a common middle name. Tomorrow, there, had elsewhere stayed today, solstices changed places, nothing was the same. There at the world’s edge, the antipodes, with all the stars and seasons rearranged, earth’s axis seemed to shift and gravity’s force drew me in. My latitudes since then have changed. A lost love, like a phantom limb, gestures emptily, making itself felt through pain. So ached this south in me for many years. But the world is round, and the lost self was regained once, seeking my own south, I ventured forth in due course, with due diligence, due north.
“Compass” is from Dark Matter: New Poems by Robin Morgan, published earlier this year in the United States and the Commonwealth by Spinifex Press. Copyright 2018 by Robin Morgan. This blog will return on January 14, 2019.
Warning: this is about nothing relevant—except reality. Poor reality, it’s so threatened these days. Now, I am devoted to imagination and, as you may have gathered, quite a fan of the surreal and the supra real, though I’m not always sure what that last is. But I feel so bad for plain, poor reality. After the Age of Enlightenment, it seemed that human beings had promised reality a better future. And in our modern, rational society, many of us thought we had finally reached the point where reality was dismissed only by folks certain that a bearded old white guy on a gold throne in the clouds was their salvation, or else that drinking Kool-Aid would hasten a comet coming to bring them to another planet.
Alas, no. For us to have thought that was, well, unrealistic.
There is a new so-called therapy gaining great popularity for use with people who have Alzheimer’s or other forms of age-related dementia. It’s either an ingenious, compassionate idea (which is how it’s being marketed) or it’s the most manipulative, cynical, misleading concept since the Nazis posted the phrase Arbeit Mach Frei—Work Sets You Free—over the entrance gates of the extermination camp Auschwitz, to delude incoming prisoners into thinking it was a work camp and to stave off any rebellion.
Picture this. A group of people is ushered through the massive doors of a warehouse in a San Diego suburb. They emerge into a place called Town Square, a 9,000 square foot working replica of a 1950s small town center, built and operated by the George C. Glenner Alzheimer’s Family Centers. The design is intended to evoke the years from 1953 to 1961, when most people now in their 70s and 80s were in their adolescence and early 20s. Glenner Family Centers plans to update the memorabilia to fit the population as new generations age. The current Town Square has rotary phones, a parked 1959 Ford Thunderbird, a classic jukebox, portraits of movie stars, and vintage books and magazines. These are scattered among 14 different storefronts, including a diner, a movie theater, a pet store, a park-like square, even a city hall. The group is ushered around and told that all this is real and perfect and safe. They usually visit five or six storefronts a day and perform tailored activities in each one. Storytellers entertain them in the library, they play with small live animals in the pet store, and the old men gravitate toward the sports pub where they can shoot pool. Town Squares reflect the “good old days”: very white in population, middle class in style, preferentially male in entertainments, and with the assumption of heterosexuality in all relationships.
Dozens of these fake memory towns are already sprouting around the United States, with more planned as franchises in the coming years. The 65 and older population in the suburbs has increased 39 percent since the year 2000 and will likely continue growing. Memory towns claim to be a form of adult care in cheerful, interactive settings. Part of the sales pitch is that family members can feel guiltless and good about stashing their loved ones there. That extra reassurance comes at a price: $95 a day, while the average rate for adult care centers is $61. In order to build hundreds of Town Squares across the US, Glenner is partnering with the home health care giant Senior Helpers, which employs 25,000 caregivers around the country.
In case you’re not squirmingly uncomfortable already, get this: “reminiscence therapy,” as it’s being called, has been tried on older people who don’t have dementia, with some evidence of mood improvement. We don’t know what “some evidence” or “mood improvement” means in this context (maybe they simply looked at the world around them and got depressed?), but we do know that Glenner Centers’ CEO Peter Ross hopes to bring it to a larger market: “Any senior looking for an interactive program to make their day” might be at home in one of the future fake towns, he said in an interview with The Atlantic. He likens Town Square to Disneyland for the elderly.
Full circle of words distorted to mean their exact opposite: “reality TV,” “reality president,” “reality dementia.”
This is a uniquely American commercialization of nostalgia that raises more questions than I have space, time, and stomach to engage. Do people respond to these places because they remind them of their youth, or does their form matter, too? What if they didn’t grow up in a small town, or did but ran away to a city as soon as they could escape? For a hefty sum, families of people with cognitive disabilities get time off from caregiving— and god knows they probably deserve it—if they can afford it. What if they can’t? And what about the travelers down memory lane themselves? What if they’re black or Asian or Hispanic or lesbigay Americans caught in this white-bread nightmare? Moreover, with many forms of dementia, even white, straight males tend to float in and out of cognition. What happens if you surface into reality to find yourself smack in the 1950s, as if you’d wandered into the movie “Back to the Future?” What happens when you glimpse that everything you were just participating in was fake, as in another film, the subtle horror pic, “The Truman Show”? Do such realizations so shock you that they send you permanently over the edge?
They certainly would do that to me. But then to me, who partly grew up in a small town and have no great nostalgic affection for them (a subject for another time); for me, who detested every moment of the suffocating, segregated, McCarthyite, duck-and-cover under your school desk to be safe from the atomic bomb 1950s—for me, finding myself in Nostalgiaville would be to discover that I believe in hell after all, because I’m in it.
There are many ethical questions swarming around this new industry. Is it government licensed and regulated? OMG, that’s scary. Is it not government licensed and regulated? OMG, that’s scarier. This commodification of delusion, which claims to address the needs of old people and others with cognitive difficulties compassionately, positions itself as fresh and innovative. Yet architects have already devised friendly, government-funded, civilized city areas with walkability, accessibility, plenty of outdoor space and good transit, and opportunities for social connection—and surprise!—these are mostly, as usual, in the Scandinavian countries. On the other hand, privately owned, commercialized “Disneylands for older people” seems somehow uniquely American.
I know there must be others of you out there like me who would prefer to know the truth, whatever that is; who would rather look reality in its thousand glittering eyes than be lulled to a slow death-in-life by fakery. I know there are many of you out there who would prefer not to, and perhaps such towns are a palliative, maybe even a blessing, for such people: after all, there are folks for whom Trump still can lie no wrong.
But the fact that this is a growing industry with a huge commercial future being hyped as the ageist, sexist, racist answer to “Pssst, where in hell do we put old people?”—now that should alarm every one of us.