In 2017, Yael Saar contributed a sci-fi short story to NY Votes for Women, “Alternative Facts Universe.” At turns funny and alarming, it provided a rationale for the times: that beings in another dimension were messing with our reality as a grand experiment, no more, no less.
Fast forward three years. While reality can feel dystopian, Saar, through her organization Mother Up! continues to support women and others who identify as mothers in a bid to guide the world to something better.
In their words, “Mother Up! is a call to action to evolve into a nurturing society by prioritizing caring over profits and pursue social justice. We urge EVERYONE (all genders/ages) to act as if the survival of the species is at the mercy of our choices—economic, political, and cultural.”
Their latest initiative takes the form of podcasts, interviewing and featuring central-NY women; this inaugural season focuses on amplifying the voices of women of color. The first few episodes have discussed mothers during quarantine, mothers in politics, intersectionality, Mutual Aid, and other aspects of building a culture that truly works for everyone. The latest episode features Saar and Michelle-Courtney Berry. You can hear it here: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mother-up/id1514988185.
The full library can be found here (Apple) or accessed through Spotify, and the Mother Up website. The site provides more detail about its variety of initiatives including Mama’s Comfort Camp, a Facebook page support system that Saar created for mothers to provide mutual support without judgement. It began in Ithaca NY and now helps mothers find comfort across the US and internationally.
Still, every time I get an email from the campaign, or an invite from a friend to join a “Women for Biden” Facebook group, my heart sinks a little. I think he leaves a lot of room for improvement when it comes to women.
Yes, Biden presents OCEANS of improvement over his rival, for all the reasons we know too well.
And yet there are a lot of people unexcited to vote.
I’ve spent the better part of the last three years noting the spectacular ways this nation has been failing to learn from history. It’d be nice if the DNC did better, but I’m nervous. The results of the 2016 election were far different than the polls going into it predicted. Especially shocking, to me, was the 64% of non- college-educated white women and 47% of all white women who voted for Trump, or as I often heard later, “against Hillary.” Lack of turnout was also a factor – just 13% of validated voters were under 30. Many young people simply didn’t participate. (Pew Research)
With his tepid apologies for shoulder-rubbing and checkered history around gender and race issues, I fear that Biden just won’t do it for some potential voters. If his choice of a female VP is supposed to carry our enthusiasm, will that wane when the flood of articles start, picking apart whichever woman it turns out to be, on points that would never be uttered if he chose a man?
And what about young people, particularly young women? The 2016 election featured a generational disconnect. I can recall middle-aged and older women nodding in agreement that it was “Hillary’s turn,” and then shaming younger women who don’t see politics that way. Their vote was theirs to what they wanted and bristled at the notion of being told what to do. Women in both groups consider themselves feminists.
So what now? I’ve seen articles so far, saying that young people are more engaged than ever and planning to vote for Biden. I’ve read others that say many young women consider him a weird old uncle who they would visit only if they had to. For all their vocal enthusiasm for Sanders, young voters didn’t turn out for him in the 2020 primaries.
These observations prompted me to do some digging. Am I the only one with these concerns?
The nonpartisan nonprofit All In Together “encourages, equips, educates, and empowers voting-age women to participate fully in America’s civic and political life.” They’ve begun studying and compiling women’s attitudes toward the 2020 election, including influences of life during COVID-19. They’ve identified “Guardian Women” as a potential swing bloc of voters in this election – women who say their top value is “security.” According to the article:
“They split in party identification, split in their current Presidential vote (46% Biden, 42% Trump, 12% undecided). In fact, they split in their past vote in 2012 (40% Obama, 42% Romney) and in 2016 (43% Clinton, 41% Trump). Sixty-two percent strongly agree their political participation matters now more than ever to protect our country and families.”
How many “guardian women” will view Trump’s latest fascist, racist gambit to crack down on (democratic) cities as tough on crime? How many feel, instead, that the actions are divisive and a distraction from real dangers? How many of these women will see protection in re-aligning with the CDC and the WHO to keep their families safe from COVID-19 and end the pandemic? How many will examine platforms and policies on climate change, viewing protection of the planet as paramount to ensuring we have a world to live in, to begin with?
These questions and more lead to a feeling that Biden can’t be cavalier even as polls show substantial leads overall. He would do well to be very clear about his positions, and plans, and how they speak to the future for young people. I, for one, would be much happier if Biden would leave no room to doubt that he takes counsel from the women he appoints to task forces. That he talks about an ERA finally and cements clear a position on women and health care rights.
And that he sets an example for men, everywhere, by not hugging or otherwise touching women without their consent and being clear that he’s learned to embrace respect instead.
editor’s note: it’s the last weekend of Pride Month, 2020. The 28th will mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which is credited by Wikipedia as the reason, at least in part, why June was chosen as Pride Month. Co-editor Nora Snyder contributed the following piece to the 2017 anthology, but its message feels as relevant in 2020.
Nora is the founder of the Writers Block Party. Read more of her thoughtful work at Illuminous Flux.
There is an urgency and pressure to SHOW UP, ACT, RESIST in our current social and political landscape. I think for many of us, choosing our own paths towards responsiveness, social responsibility, and political action is fraught with questions that never before felt so immediate and personal. We struggle with not only integrating our perspectives, experiences, and opinions, but also leveraging our time, talents, and strengths. None of this is new territory. However, there are times in history when a true accounting needs to take place, when we are forced to really face what is happening in the larger world and decide how we will proceed as individuals. As a woman, I believe this can be even a more demanding task as we wrestle with daunting levels of emotional labor, societally reinforced self-doubt about strength and adequacy, and self-imposed guilt and false standards regarding being and doing enough. This energy is toxic–to ourselves and our endeavors. It debilitates and divides women and dilutes our social justice action just as our failure to be inclusive or intersectional did in the past. Social media has become a new arena to make comparisons, not only regarding relationships and lifestyle, but now in addition to the daily onslaught of bad news reports. We are also inundated with images of all the stuff we are not doing and the relative privilege that we take for granted. In this swirl of shame and competition, we never quite get to the heart of the matter: how to harness our relative privilege to lift others. Momentum cannot be built on shame. Once we start operating on obligation rather than pure motivation, and parsing out whose efforts matter and whose don’t, who is sacrificing enough and who is not, we come dangerously close to determining who has value as a person. I advocate bringing in a new chapter–a spirit of trust. Trusting ourselves to engage in a diversity of efforts, fueled by passion and commitment as we each take on what feels most relevant and right for each of us personally. And trusting women in general–with their bodies and their minds, their reproductive decisions, and whether or not they choose to wear a pussy hat. The inspiration for my own contribution came packaged in a query from my millennial daughter. She asked me in her intense, serious way, “Did you know the Stonewall Riots were led by two WOMEN?” In fact, I didn’t. Much like my knowledge of the women’s suffrage movement, my understanding of this event is full of gaps and misattributions. The Stonewall Riots were never emphasized in any school text or discussed in any classroom that I experienced, and my exposure to the history of the women’s movement was only slightly less ignored. I remembered that President Obama declared the area around the Stonewall Inn as the first national monument to LGBT rights. I know I made the automatic assumption that white men must have been the leaders. Luckily, my daughter offered me her essay from her Women and Gender Studies class at Tompkins Cortland Community College to get me up to speed. I offer excerpts from her paper here, to tell this story that needs telling:
The Unsung Women Leaders of the Stonewall Riots by Abby Snyder
“In 1969, the Stonewall Inn was one of the few running Lesbian Gay Bi Trans (or LGBT)- centric bars. On June 28th, the New York City police initiated a raid on the bar attracting a crowd of over 150 civilians as the police wrongfully handcuffed and arrested groups of LGBT individuals. This happened often, with constant raids on LGBT bars and hangouts, police focusing specifically on arresting LGBT individuals for even the smallest misdemeanor… “However, this time the patrons of the bar (as well as the civilians drawn to the raid) fought back- tired and fed up with the constant police raids, brutalities, and injustices that LGBT people had endured for years…. “News of this riot spread quickly, and by the next night thousands of protestors rallied around the Stonewall Inn and fought the police that came to arrest them. This also happened a third night; and these riots are heralded as the beginning of the modern LGBT movement. These protestors consisted of LGBT people and non-LGBT people who supported and fought for LGBT rights… “However, historical documentation of this movement did not give proper justice to the two pioneers of the initial riot at Stonewall. These two transgender women of color; Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, are the two leading (yet largely unrecognized) faces of the June 28th, 1969 Stonewall Inn riot… “Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992), a black transgender woman…became a strong activist for LGBT rights, probably due to the discrimination and transphobia she faced daily just for existing as a trans woman in society… “Marsha also was an activist during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. She was seen doing demonstrations on Wall Street to protest the inordinate prices of experimental AIDS drugs. She also teamed up with activist Sylvia Rivera and founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), which was an activist group for transgender individuals… “Marsha Johnson died in 1992. She was found in the Hudson River, having died under mysterious circumstances…. There have been attempts to reopen her case, however it is still currently closed.
“On the night of the Stonewall riot, Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), a 17-year-old Puerto Rican drag queen (she would later come out as a trans woman),… is quoted as shouting, “I’m not missing a minute of this! It’s the revolution!” Sylvia Rivera joined the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) and became a very energetic and dedicated activist for LGBT rights and liberation. In particular, she campaigned for New York City to pass a Gay Rights Bill. She was famous for her arrest while climbing the walls of city hall in a dress and heels to crash a closed-door meeting discussing the bill.… “Sylvia’s work is being furthered by the continued work of SRLP (the Sylvia Rivera Law Project), an organization working towards ending poverty and discrimination regarding gender identity….”
I am so grateful for this gift from my daughter, to add this story to my heart, to share it with others. I am glad to unveil my own ignorance of these events and often my consciousness is touched with details like poor Marsha P’s broken body left like flotsam in the Hudson or the tragic mere thirty-five-year lifespan for trans women of color. Mostly I am in awe of their courage and commitment during such turbulent and hostile times. And this is where I detect an intersection between the “Unsung Heroes of the Stonewall Riots” and the suffragists–how they were willing to take a stand for themselves and others despite their obvious vulnerability. They shared the same steely determination in their eyes, ready to brave the bias, the inequities, the violence, the rape, the torture, the imprisonment, the humiliation, and the sheer hate at the hands of the powers that be, the law enforcement that was sworn to protect them, and their fellow citizens. In the past, the women’s suffrage movement made the grave error of getting ensnared in prejudices and fanning the flames of division, silencing some voices in order for others to be heard, seeking advantage through unfair play. All these transgressions– while remaining blind to the far greater power of unity over division! I can’t even imagine the sheer magnitude such a movement would have–if all those seeking justice, opposing hate, and demanding equality stood together as one. Am I being unkind to the suffragists? Too critical? I don’t think so. Mostly because these women do not need my protection. These women were tough. They were dogged. They upended generations of social conditioning. They endured brutal forced feeding on filthy jailhouse floors. I firmly believe that if the suffragists were sitting with me today as I write this, they would not be asking for glorification. They would be sitting forward in their seats, rubbing their hands together, asking “What’s next? How do we proceed? How do we utilize what we learned from the past for a better future?” These women, like Sylvia and Marsha P, were revolutionaries. They weren’t satisfied with change being “possible,” for them change is inevitable. Change is now. They aren’t the ones who are going to be flinching at the past. Earlier I stated that “momentum cannot be built on shame.” However, there are many attributes that can build momentum, like truth, like humility. Imagine if Sylvia and Marsha P were welcomed into the fold and celebrated. Imagine if we could work together to hold the line for human decency. Imagine if we could all find our own ways of climbing the walls of city hall in a dress and heels.
Independence Day might feel a bit different this year. In many places, the desire for caution to keep COVID-19 transmissions down might mean less gathering. Fewer fireworks displays. And no baseball double-headers on TV or in minor-league ball parks.
A true spirit of patriotism, for many this year, includes continuing the re-examination of our history, and how to build a country where we all are truly equal. It means inspecting our own hearts as much as our flawed history, and taking action.
Why not turn that examination into action? There are things we can do at home, after all: postcards are one way that people are putting their passion for a better America into action.
The suffrage movement in the decades leading up to the 19th Amendment’s ratification included many postcards, both pro- and against women suffrage like the one pictured here. Today, postcard campaigns are still being used to get out the vote. Activist group Momsrising.org is a nationwide effort that takes on “critical issues facing women, mothers, and families by educating the public and mobilizing massive grassroots actions.” Their campaign allows you to to receive a FREE packet of 10 eye-catching voting reminder postcards to fill out, send back, and then they distribute them to people who don’t always vote to encourage them to do so!
Opportunities like this abound with more targeted campaigns, too. In Kentucky, for example, the Senate seat held by Mitch McConnell is hotly contested, and the Women Ditch Mitch campaign provides a set of postcards that are pre-addressed to the 2.2 million women in Kentucky; senders donate the postage, fill them out, and send.
There are also plenty of ways to get involved with local candidates in postcard, phone, and text bank efforts – in my district, Leslie Danks Burke is getting my support for her NY State Senate bid. Check out the candidates you like near you, or even your local League of Women Voters, and see who could use a little help.
This 4th of July, set off fireworks of a different kind. Get involved!
Women Who Inspire, based in Albany NY, is an effort started by Cynthia Pooler. “Women Who Inspire come from all walks of life and strive to make this world a better place in which to live.” – today, Cynthia interviewed Stacey Murphy about “NY Votes for Women: A Suffrage Centennial Anthology”. Listen here.
Our Anthology’s publisher, Cayuga Lake Books, has been sharing the words of some of our contributors in their Facebook project Solace in Viral Times. The project’s intention is to share short pieces in response to COVID-19 and our experiences, and offer some comfort to readers during this time of physical distancing. Several contributors to NY Votes for Women have pieces that have appeared recently, including (so far) Carol Kammen, Lisa Harris, Stacey Murphy, Yael Saar, and Yvonne Fisher. We hope you enjoy “Surrender” by Lisa Harris.
When presenting about NY Votes for Women: A Suffrage Centennial Anthology, I like to start out with a trivia question, asking the room if anyone knows which state guaranteed women the right to vote first. As you’re sure to have guessed from the headline, it was Wyoming in 1869, while still just a territory. As it would follow logically, Wyoming was then also where the first woman would cast a vote; Louisa Swain of Laramie. My friend Abi Munro-Hulley works near the Wyoming House for Historic Women in Laramie, and walks by Louisa Swain’s statue every day in front of that building. During the 2016 election, women legislators and professors from the University gathered to lay white roses in the statue’s arms in recognition of progress women had made, and to signify their hopes for the future.
How are things in Wyoming now? Abi notes, “Wyoming is very proud of its history of being the first state to give women the right to vote, but apparently we have one of the lowest numbers of women in state government in the country.” A 2016 story by Wyoming Public Media noted that, at that time, women held only 13% of political seats in in the state, and “the gender wage gap in Wyoming is the second largest in the country, and it will be decades before that gap is closed.”
In 2020, the Equality State’s legislature is 18% female. As their website notes, there is a 30% “tipping point” experts say is necessary in politics to effectively address gender issues. The Wyoming Women’s Legislative Caucus, a non-partisan group of women lawmakers, looks to improve on the legacy of that name. Its members work together to encourage Wyoming women to run for office through candidate development, speaking events, an intern program, and events including an annual conference. This month, Leap into Leadership in Cheyenne will continue that effort with sessions on grassroots campaigning, building a team, volunteering, and more, all designed to support women becoming more involved in politics.
People marching in Women’s March events this weekend (I plan to be at the one in Seneca Falls if the weather cooperates) will have this newest bit of hope to celebrate, even as we give voice to all of the issues that need remedy: today, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). It was first introduced in 1923. Many women are surprised to learn that, in spite of a push during the 1970s, it was not ratified and the Constitution was not amended to afford legal equality between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment, and more.
Wikipedia has a good summary of the history and timeline of what was largely a bipartisan effort in the 1970s until…it wasn’t. I was a child of the 70s and mostly recall rude jokes about bra-burning and women’s libbers, though most people seemed inclined to support the concepts, at least from the farthest views out.
Virginia, as the 38th state, gave the final state approval that would have been needed to ratify the amendment. However, the last deadline to achieve sufficient support for the ERA was 1982. There’s also a matter of five state legislatures that voted to revoke their approval (Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, and South Dakota). Still, there are legal challenges to those because it’s never been decided whether a state can revoke its ratification of an amendment to the Constitution. There will be, of course, more legal wrangling to come, and although many of the original objections seem outdated thirty years later, I expect there will be newer modern problems, or as we are seeing with women facing limits on their health choices, opposition resurrecting that we thought was laid to rest long ago.
Still, today’s news was hopeful. I love looking at the faces of the women in Virginia today, jubilant. Perhaps we can finally put the matter to rest and see the ERA amendment in place by the time of its own Centennial in 2023.
Stacey Murphy, 1/7/2020 In the weeks before the 2016 election, there was a day that a Twitter-burst went around, musing that if women didn’t have the right to vote, Trump would be elected. The shocking part for me, at that moment, was that several women responded, saying they would gladly give up enfranchisement. They were kidding, I figured, but still, it was October 2016, and something felt very wrong with the world. I couldn’t sleep that night; why would anyone make a joke about giving up a fundamental right? I supposed it was just a matter of taking things for granted; American women (white ones, anyway) had been guaranteed suffrage almost 100 years before that. It seemed safe enough, after so much time, to be able to joke.
Did you know that, in America, women have lost the right to vote before? During our earliest days as colonies and then a fledgling country, women who had the right to vote had it taken away.
The colonies and early states set their own voting laws, but in all cases, voting rights went with property ownership. “…the right to vote for the lower house of colonial legislatures had been defined in traditional British terms: Only people who had freehold landed property sufficient to ensure that they were personally independent and had a vested interest in the welfare of their communities could vote”(Ratcliffe, PDF). British law and customs dictated that women ceased to be legal entities of their own upon marriage, meaning that women who were single or widowed could vote. Mainly it was widows who exercised this right because younger women generally did not have the property of their own to qualify. There’s a great set of stories by Jocelyn Sears, early accounts of women voting in four colonies and early states, here, including the details around each of their circumstances and more of the pertinent history of the time.
Women legally voting began to change in the 1770s, when New York clarified its law to remove voting rights for all women. So went Massachusetts, and then New Hampshire in the 1880s. In 1787 the U.S. Constitutional Convention placed voting rights in the hands of all states. All of the states in existence then, except New Jersey, removed the voting rights of women. Jersey actually AFFIRMED the rights of “all free inhabitants,” including white and black women to vote in 1790 – but then revoked women’s suffrage in 1807.
Later in the 1800s, as territories became states, a number of them carried the rights of women to vote forward into statehood. But as we know, it wasn’t until 1919 that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed suffrage.
Perhaps it is this piece of early American history that informed my sadness that evening in October 2016. I didn’t know any of this, then, but what if we carry knowledge in our DNA? I believe, with certainty, we hold it in our subconscious. Or perhaps the foreboding of that night, the sense that all was not right in our country, was a harbinger of the next few years, where we are now. Our voices are stronger now than in the 1780s, of course. Women of all races CAN vote, but suppression efforts that target non-white and lower income communities seem to be a bigger problem than ever.
We have returned to fighting for so much, even things that those who fought for equal rights in the 1960’s and 70’s thought would be safe in perpetuity. In matters of equality, health care, body autonomy, and more, women have to make sure our voices count. We have to use them to push equality forward so we don’t slide further backward.
Above: Nancy Avery Dafoe, Stacey Murphy, and Gaia Woolf-Nightingall at the Women’s Rights Alliance of NY State’s annual conference, 11/2/19
In early November, three of us contributors presented our pieces in the Anthology to the members and attendees at the Women’s Rights Alliance of NY State’s Annual Conference in Syracuse, NY. To keep with the conference theme, “Women’s Rights and Justice in New York State, Past and Present,” I opened our reading with remarks on what we had learned in 2017. These lessons might be useful as 2020 is coming, as groups across the nation are planning celebrations, marches, local events, and other activities around the 19th Amendment.
If there is one main takeaway that people embarking on these events will need to realize to be effective, it’s this. Early in the process of gathering submissions and writing, I realized that in spite of a visceral sense of Suffrage’s enormity, I knew almost nothing about the events of the movement. I only had heard about a couple of its leaders. I didn’t know how many women were involved. I wasn’t aware of how racism played out as the movement(s) evolved. I am still learning a lot about when women did and did not have certain stated rights.
But I also learned I wasn’t alone. Many of the contributors experienced the same thing. And it comes out in conversations I’ve had since. This September, for example, one friend was shocked to learn that racism was a factor because, in her words, after all, “Frederick Douglass was at the 1948 convention.”
It comes out in the pieces, too. We did not edit out writers’ expressions or opinions, so in the book, there are pieces that laud the suffragists as a uniform, powerful force marching toward equality, and right before or right after, there are pieces that point out some of the more difficult realities that appear in the arc of the real story.
More and more, people learn and retain history in sound bites. Most of the history I was handed in school in the 1970s and 80s was white and male. That is changing, but still, facing 2020, I expect there will be a lot more education that needs to happen to understand what we are celebrating. Planners can expect to encounter it at events and other activities that come to bear around the national centennial. Some of it will be representative of the dearth of information and related confusion. Some of it will be vigorous pushback. Organizers that are planning events as actions for activism around women’s rights would do well to be ready. – Stacey Murphy, 12/13/2019