These were the words in an email from the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. It was about four weeks until our reading there. Part of the material from NY Votes for Women: A Suffrage Centennial Anthology was deemed political enough that we would have to make use of the free speech zone in order to read it in a government-managed facility, instead of just holding the whole thing in the Wesleyan Chapel as planned. The permit I completed was clearly meant for more than a couple dozen people listening to poems; one of the questions asked me to check a box if I “anticipated any counter protests”. I did not.
The First Amendment Area is the grassy spot between the Visitor’s Center and the Wesleyan Chapel, where the rest of the reading would begin. The irony of our needing to use it was lost on no one. This historic site, after all, was created to honor the place where, in 1848, an estimated 300 people came together to sign a controversial document declaring women needed more equality; almost 170 years later our government was restricting where a small bunch of women could read their words. The concern stemmed from a futuristic character in a sci-fi story stating that a self-admitted sexual predator had been elected.
In spite of any personal pangs about what felt unfair about this, especially against the backdrop of #metoo, it still didn’t take long to see how this was a gift. The whole reading took on a new parallel with history, much like the structure of our Anthology.
We started the readings in the Wesleyan Chapel – the site where women and men signed the Declaration of Sentiments on a hot day in July 1848. (If you’ve never been in that building, it is humbling – especially if you go in on a quiet day, alone, and let the energy wash over you.) Nancy Dafoe’s essay and Jen Cremerius’ poem hearkened to that time and described facets of history beautifully. The poems by Katharyn Howd Machan, Laura Lusk, and Sarah Jefferis all displayed more modern snippets of feminine experience and what we take from ancestors to become strong women ourselves. As their pieces led us forward through time, we drifted outside to the First Amendment Area, where Yael Saar would read her sci-fi-short story, and I would present my poem intended to give a little hope for the future. That same area is where about 10,000 people had participated in the 2017 Women’s March, symbolically tying into that piece of history, too.
It was a 40-degree day, spitting rain on the verge of snowing, but I thought of the women in their layers of dresses and petticoats who gathered inside for two sweltering days in 1848. They were tough. We could withstand a few minutes of cold. Our park ranger guide for the day sympathetically pointed out that once we held our “first amendment activities” in that area nothing prohibited us from gathering to continue the discussion inside the chapel away from the podium, and that is precisely what we did. As with the other readings, it was the first time many of the writers had met one another; for me, that is always the best part. Seeing these sparks of connections and sharing in a few moments of commonality, that brief bond with one another and maybe something more significant, is heartwarming every time.
Afterward, I got some quality time with my niece who brought a friend down from Rochester for the reading and touring the museum with them also gave me hope. There are so many examples of overcoming hardship are in that gallery, and evidence that there is more to be done. I’m proud of the women who worked on this project.
– Stacey Murphy
It has taken me two months since that reading to get my head around exactly what I wanted to say about it. As mentioned above the irony of the situation that day was not lost on anyone. I have to admit, as the actions and words of this president become ever viler and inciting of hatred, there is a piece of me that is happy there is still, in fact, a reminder of protocol for free speech. Whether one stands in this place, or that, it is still possible to speak out, that guidelines for safety and protection are included in those protocols, regardless of how it feels in my specific instance in the moment. Even if our current country’s leadership is sorely lacking in it right now, we can still declare our own sentiments with dignity and class. We can still hold space for decency’s return, and in doing so, demonstrate that we expect much, much better from our leaders. –S.M