Suffrage Lessons

I hadn’t intended my recent East Coast trip as a tour of the history of women’s suffrage. It just turned out that way. The heritage of women’s rights shed light on current events.

It started in Rochester, NY. Historians say it started two weeks earlier up the road in Seneca Falls, but look closer. Something radically original happened at the Unitarian Church on Fitzhugh Street. The Rochester Woman’s Rights Convention of 1848 was the first in which the presiding officer was a woman.

The earlier Seneca Falls meeting was presided over by a man. In the parlance of the day, any meeting that allowed men and women to participate equally was termed “promiscuous” — thereby requiring a firm (male) hand at the helm.

Social movements are propelled by courage of conviction. It was in Rochester, 170 years ago, where women took control of their own movement for equal rights. They wanted the vote, but finding their voice came first.

I attended a reenactment of that meeting. Painstakingly thorough minutes had been taken and preserved. C-Span couldn’t have captured it better.

Susan B. Anthony could not attend, but her sister and her mother did. Frederick Douglass spoke in support of equal rights for all Americans, without regard for race or gender. Others questioned whether confronting sexism and racism at the same time would doom the movement. If the war was to be divided into two battles, which battle should be fought first?

The minutes faithfully preserved the unflattering views of some of the age’s most stalwart defenders of human liberties. Even when our best do their best, the ideal is seldom reached. Moral clarity benefits from hindsight. History reveals what few can discern. Humility should be longevity’s lesson to each of us.

Barely a week later, I passed women with signs and megaphones, gathered on a lawn between the U.S. Capitol and the Senate office buildings in Washington, DC. These protests were just steps away from the Sewall-Belmont House, where suffragists Alva Belmont and Alice Paul planned their battles a century ago. Susan B. Anthony’s desk is on display there. It was still being used daily, less than a decade ago

Our National Park Service guide was most impressed by the unwavering courage of Alice Paul. She led the first-ever picket line in front of the White House. She was arrested for sedition, but she continued her protest from behind bars. She refused to eat, forcing her captors to feed her through a tube inserted in her nose. When they released her, she was unbowed — back on the street, protesting within hours.

As our guide recounted these stories, muffled megaphones could be heard outside. Women were protesting the diminishment of their voices during the Kavanaugh hearings. How will history judge these events? Humility again should be the order of the day.

Before “suffrage” meant vote, it meant voice. Its earliest use in modern English can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, referring to the intercessory prayers of the people. For the courage of conviction and the quickening wisdom of hindsight, we pray to our gods.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.