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
(an excerpt from remarks at Women TIES Women Rising Weekend Event, 1.19.18)
Last January, I was on my way to the Women’s March in Washington DC. I was on a bus full of other women, and we were sitting in traffic on the Beltway around the City. It was full of vehicles, not moving – the regular traffic combined with buses coming in from all over the East meant things were at a standstill. Looking out the window, I saw some movement at the edge of the treeline about 50 yards away from the road. Several men were emerging from the woods. And then a few more. I recognized the gleaming from the sun hitting the barrels of the shotguns they carried and a chill went through me. They were advancing quickly on the stopped busses, some lowering the barrels, running toward us. I couldn’t shout. Other women on the bus were starting to notice them, too. We were trapped. I couldn’t scream.
I sat up, straight in bed. It was still two weeks before the 2017 Women’s March.
I told no one about that nightmare, including the friends who were planning to come with me from Ithaca – I was pretty sure none of them had previous protest experience and I didn’t want to frighten them. I certainly wasn’t telling my mother about that dream!
Instead, I sat with those images and vision, and how stress shows up in our subconscious. Some dreams are hard to decipher but this time, my fear was clear. That my country, that all I took for granted as my rights in this country as a woman, SHOULD be able to take for granted, might be taken away after the inauguration. Just like that. Like someone hitting a light switch. What were we going to find there, in DC?
Luckily the DC March was nothing like that. It was powerful, delightful even. And in the months between then and now, I have devoted a lot of time to a project to do the opposite of that nightmarish feeling of no voice – to give women a forum to use their voices. That is this book – NY Votes for Women: A Suffrage Centennial Anthology.
I worked with Nora Snyder, who writes for her website Illuminous Flux and convenes a writer’s group, the Writers Block Party, and with Cayuga Lake Books. We put it together quickly. With 2017 as the anniversary of women gaining the right to vote in NY we wanted to have it out and done during the year. In all, it contains twenty-two women’s words in a variety of engaging essays, stories and poems.
A big part of the project is about making a forum for voices. The book contains contributions from previously published, known writers and also from women who had not been moved to reflect on the significance of the women’s movement, or current events, or even to share their voices through their writing much before. Nora led a number of creative writing sessions through the Writers Block Party, and a few of the pieces in the Anthology had their origins in those meet-ups.
And now, a year after the inauguration, the conversations continue. Voice has taken on a new turn because the Anthology has led to a number of interesting, important feeling discussions between myself and others, particularly men. Some of them have been pretty awkward but some wonderful and I believe that they have their place in moving things forward – it’s another way of not silencing, of finding words that can make things better for the girls and boys too in our lives. For them, we have to do better.