On the Eve of Voting: “We Always Persisted” by Gaia Woolf-Nightingall

11.5.18 – Tomorrow is the midterm elections in the United States.  In the past few days, my thoughts of what elections mean for women, and the persistence we employ to have our needs and desires met, have included this piece, written by Gaia, as it appears in NY Votes for Women.  Enjoy!

Gaia in white
GAIA WOOLF-NIGHTINGALL
We Always Persisted

I was not born in the United States of America. I am an immigrant.

I hail from a small Northern English village which is of little consequence except that it has the dubious distinction of being a place which was deeply embedded in Great Britain’s industrial revolution in the 1800s. It was once a land of cotton mills and coal mines and it is where my journey began.

I arrived in central N.Y. on the coldest night I had ever experienced. It was a snow-covered January night. My daughter was so tired and small at just seven years old that I
thought her little body would shatter from the shivers that she could not control in the frigid darkness. I look back on that day often now, as the silent snow piles deep against my window, and I reflect on my female lineage, those women who walked the sacred earth before me. How the journeys and sacrifices they made won me the right and gave me the courage to choose my own destiny.

My mother once told me the story of my great grandmother who, like me, hailed from a Northern English town named Newcastle Upon Tyne. Like my home town of Adlington, Newcastle was a busy site of industries, but instead of cotton mills and coal, Newcastle had shipbuilding and steel. Through the great march of time my great grandmother’s story became like an old jigsaw puzzle which had been left in the attic for too long, and now, though many of the original pieces had been lost, the fragments that I had were precious to me.

The story told to me began when my great grandmother was already married to my great grandfather and had emigrated to Mombasa, Kenya, just before the dawning of
the twentieth century. My great grandmother was white, educated and therefore a privileged woman, but this was still a time before women’s suffrage. Women in my great
grandmother’s era for the most part could not vote or stand for elections. It is unlikely that the idea of women’s suffrage had been birthed at all in my great grandmother’s
consciousness as she wandered the streets of Mombasa.

As was the custom then, and as it often is to this day, women were the primary caregivers for children, and my great grandmother worked hard to raise her four
rambunctious offspring. Like all hard working people she wished for breaks, for vacation time, for time to simply be.

My great grandfather, a man very much of his time and generation, took himself off to the bush to hunt and explore whenever the opportunity presented itself. My great
grandmother grew tired of being left alone, unable to explore the far horizons of the African plains, and so she asked her husband to take her with him on his next
adventure.

My great grandfather considered this, and then explained to his wife that she could not go on safari with him because she, a woman, was of a more delicate constitution than a man. For her dignity, she would need more home comforts than he would. He did not therefore believe it would be wise for his party to carry the extra burden into the plains. My great grandmother acknowledged this.

A week later my great grandmother returned to the subject of her husband’s next safari, but before he could object, she presented to him the extra guides, equipment and
materials that she would require, according to his judgment.

My great grandfather once more considered, and then announced to his wife that she could not go on safari because there would be no latrine in the bush and her modest
sensibilities would not be able to tolerate such an inconvenience. This was again acknowledged by my great grandmother.

Once again a week passed by and my great grandmother approached her husband on the subject of the safari. Before he could object, my great grandmother presented to him a
shovel, a wooden seat and a small tent; she would have no difficulty in digging a latrine and preserving her dignity in the bush.

Again my great grandfather considered her request to go on safari with him. “Ah but what if you are in need of dentistry when out on the great plains, there will be no one to call upon for aid, if you get a toothache.” My great grandmother acknowledged this.

About a week or so later, she returned to her husband and before he could formulate an objection to the subject of the safari, my great grandmother gave him a beautiful wide
smile. As she did so, she revealed a shining set of false teeth. She then explained that, as she no longer had any attached teeth in her head there was no fear of her getting a toothache on safari.

My great grandmother greatly enjoyed her first safari on the African plains.

As I stumbled off the bus that had brought us from JFK airport to Ithaca and first felt the stinging embrace of that bitter cold, I was thinking of my great grandmother and her legacy. I had been afforded the privilege of coming to America because of her persistence, because of her drive to succeed and make her dreams come true, even when
obstacles were constantly placed before her. She, and the millions of women like her who struggled against the prejudice of their time persisted, sacrificed and creatively
found their way through the maze of barriers erected before them.

My great grandmother’s spirit, and the spirit of her generation of women laid the foundation for the woman’s suffrage movement. When I stepped off that bus I placed my feet on a land which was to me the epitome of that spirit. I stepped off that bus and walked in the footsteps of the women of suffrage who had walked those same streets with their placards, calling for recognition, for justice and equality.

And it is this spirit that I invoke now, as I now contemplate the US election of 2016, when for the first time in American history a woman, a pioneer of her generation, stood for election as the president. It as an election that my great grandmother would never have conceived of as she stood on the African plains.

I brought my daughter to an America where one day she may vote for the people she wishes to represent her in government, or may even stand for election herself. She will, I have no doubt, witness a woman ascend to the office of Commander in Chief one day, and she will be able to contribute to that choice in whatever way her conscience dictates, through her vote. This is because here in New York State in the 1800’s as my great grandmother lived her adventurous life in Africa, a group of women drinking tea in Waterloo, New York, decided to make a change. They wanted the inalienable right to vote, to make their own choices about who represented them in government. A movement began, one that would require persistence, sacrifice and creativity to birth a new era for women.

A movement that gave women a voice, a stake in their own country’s destiny, in their own destiny. A movement that has afforded my daughter and me, and millions of women across the globe, the opportunity to take control of our own lives. I wonder what my great grandmother would have thought of it all. I like to believe that if she could, she
would have been part of the suffrage movement. She was, after all, as strong, sure, and determined as the first suffragists of England were.

I was not born in the United States of America, but I am a legacy not only of my great grandmother but also of the women of New York who began a revolution, who dared to
look beyond the far horizon and see a different way of being. Perhaps as they sat drinking their tea and imagining the future of womankind, they caught the faint echo of my great grandmother’s voice raised in joy at the sight of a great wildebeest migration. I like to think that they did.

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