When you hold a reading from a new book, it should be disappointing if people don’t come. But sometimes the unexpected is far sweeter, and that is what we experienced on election night 2017.
Four contributors to the Anthology were scheduled to read at the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville NY. The Center is the historic home of Gage, who, as Wikipedia puts it, was a “19th-century women’s suffragist, a Native American rights activist, an abolitionist, a freethinker, and a prolific author”. Though not as famous – she was considered very radical – Gage collaborated with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her home was the perfect site for a reading, but as Sarah Jefferis, Marguerite Kearns and I pulled up 10 minutes before the start time on that blustery night, the Center was dark. Volunteer Kathy Bishop was there to meet us and to let us know that our hostess, Sally Wagner, was on her way – she had stopped to vote after teaching her Tuesday night class.
We followed Kathy into the building, though darkened rooms full of exhibits, all of us searching for light switches. Sarah and Kathy said it felt like spirits were watching us, but I was distracted by worry: Marguerite was visiting from Santa Fe. She had graciously looped this reading into her visit to New York, planning to stay overnight in Syracuse, and I hated the thought of it being a wasted effort.
Sally arrived. It was clear it would be us five, but that soon became more than OK. Kathy gave us a tour of the main floor, the suffrage room, the Haudenosaunee room, and the Wizard of Oz room! It turns out that Gage’s daughter had married Frank Baum, and they, too had lived in this house.
Sally presented us with two choices of tea in delicate antique pots and a lovely assortment of cookies waited for us on the Victorian dining table. We settled down in a circle of chairs to read our pieces to each other, and just to talk, and it was fabulous! We got to share stories and learn more about each other’s lives in a way we never would have it had been an ordinary reading. Marguerite told us of her ancestors’ contributions to the suffrage movement. The Spirit of 1776 Wagon, which had lived in her grandfather’s barn when she was a child, is now on display in the New York State Museum in Albany, something she had worked toward for a long time. While reading her contribution, Sally stopped at one point to share exciting news of her plans. The 2020 national commemoration of women’s suffrage is still coming and there is still so much more in store. Sarah read two of her poems in her strong, clear voice and I read mine, then Kathy, also a writer, told us a vivid story of a time she had stood up for feminist principles in the course of her life and made a difference. As the conversation ranged, we made and felt connections. I could hear bits of myself in the memories they shared.
I looked around and let it sink in: here we were, 100 years after women fought for and gained the right to vote, talking about progress, and plans and pledges, as Sally put it when we toasted with our teacups, to “kick ass harder”. Matilda Joslyn Gage was definitely listening.
Sarah and I bundled into the car to drive back to Ithaca, feeling like we had just spent the night with three badass aunties we never knew we had! Driving home under stars made brighter with cold air and hope, we were inspired and nurtured.
When people ask I like to tell them how one rewarding aspect of this Anthology process, was inspiring women to use their voices and tell their stories. This very special election night it became clear that we need to continue to do that for one another, each of us, with our own stories.