The Woman Who Dared to Vote

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Woman Who Dared VoteThe Woman Who Dared to Vote
by N. E. H. Hull

Those of us who are natives of Rochester, New York, have two big hometown heroes — Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. They were friends and allies in the two greatest causes of their age. Schoolchildren growing up with these heroes learn to see that freedom means not only my freedom, but your freedom as well, that we must desire for others the same good we desire for ourselves.

We also learn more complicated truths, especially when we see how these two friends sometimes argued fiercely over serious differences on matters of tactics and priorities of timing. Yet arguing strongly for what you honestly believe to be the best course of action, though it may put you head-to-head opposite a friend, is a very different sort of argument from invective denigrating your opponent’s honor, intelligence, or patriotism. The causes these two fought about were close to both their hearts. That gave them a common core of agreement, however much their strategies diverged. They were never disrespectful of each other’s priorities, even when their own priorities were different.

Anthony and Douglass at teaIn a park near Anthony’s house here in Rochester, there is a sculpture depicting Anthony and Douglass opposite each other across a tea table, in earnest yet relaxed discussion. They look deeply involved and thoughtful, gesturing to make their points, yet also focused on each other, listening intently. When I see this sculpture, I imagine that this meeting occurred in the midst of their post-Civil War disputes, and I see in it the strength between two friends willing to hear each other out, and while yet unconvinced, to drink tea together.

Two of the greatest speeches in American oratory have their roots here in our western New York soil during those years of struggle. One was Douglass’s Fifth of July speech, given in Rochester in 1852, in which he asked bitterly, “What, to an American slave, is your Fourth of July?” The other was Anthony’s 1873 reply to the Judge at her sentencing for illegal voting, in which she passionately protested “laws made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, in favor of men, and against women.”

There are times in history when we are ready, as individuals and nations, to expand our minds and hearts in wonderful new ways. It’s often after agony that we discover clearer vision. We see as plain and good some truth we’ve been rejecting. We see as brothers and sisters people we’ve been ignoring. We suddenly are disgusted by rot and decay we had taken for granted as normal and inevitable. We are inspired with the energy to break from apathy and build something fresh, something better.

The years immediately after the Civil War were one such graced moment. People who had worked a lifetime for the abolition of slavery saw their hopes become reality, while  people who had been indifferent to the question were inspired by the idealism of the times to become supporters, and even those who had hated abolitionism were ready to accept it as inevitable. In the aspirational mood of the age, so many hopes of other reforms began flying high. There was a general sense that this was the hour for a new age to begin. The trouble with such periods of zeal is that they eventually grow cold and die. So much seems to be achieved in sudden spurts when there is this general enthusiasm for national betterment, with long stretches of backsliding in between. For people with hopes of their own, there is a sense of urgency to these moments, a push that says, “Now — quick — before we lose the momentum –“

The women had hoped that during this wave of post-war reform, they too would become voters. Knowing that such ripe moments are brief, they chafed at advice to “wait — one thing at a time — your turn will come later.” In their agitation at risking a lost opportunity, they even threatened withholding their support from the 15th Amendment enfranchising black men, unless it also included women. When that amendment was adopted with no mention of sex, a movement immediately began to launch a 16th Amendment, specifically enfranchising women.

In the midst of all this agitation and argument, some voices began suggesting a fresh viewpoint on the problem. In 1869, Virginia Minor and her husband Francis began to say, in effect, “Just vote!” Could it be that simple? Could it be that women already had the franchise and needed only to exercise it? In 1870, Victoria Woodhull presented a memorial to Congress setting forth the same reasoning as the Minors’. The 14th Amendment, one of the three Reconstruction amendments, had declared: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Woodhull Memorial argued that one of the “privileges and immunities” of a citizen was the right to vote. By this reasoning, the 14th Amendment guaranteed voting rights to all citizens, though it had not specifically mentioned voting.

The best way to clarify this point was to put it to a practical test. Leaders of the woman’s suffrage movement called on women across the country to turn out for Election Day in November 1872, to assert their right to be registered and to vote. If they were refused and turned away, as was thought likely, they were to file lawsuits against those officials who had denied them their guaranteed right as citizens, carrying their cases through appeals if necessary, hoping to get a definitive ruling from the Supreme Court which would settle the question in their favor.

In Rochester NY, Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women were ready for the battle. A few days before the election, they presented themselves at a local barbershop which was serving as a voter registration location and announced that they wanted to be registered as voters. The three local election inspectors were thrown into some consternation. Their first reaction, to simply say “no”, was countered by Miss Anthony inquiring whether they had ever heard of the 14th Amendment, which she produced and read to them, along with an explanation of its present applicability. Two election supervisors were called into the consultation. One of them was convinced enough to throw his influence behind the women, carrying two of the inspectors with him. The third, while not so convinced, surrendered to the majority and the women were registered.

On Election Day, however, when they turned out to vote, they were faced with a challenge at the polls from an onlooker. The law provided that, if a voter’s eligibility was challenged, the voter might take an oath to tell the truth and then answer whatever questions were put concerning his eligibility. If the challenge was not withdrawn, the voter might still vote if he were willing to take a second oath stating that he was indeed eligible. Susan and the other women took the required oaths, and the inspectors then received their ballots as the law directed.

Letter to Stanton excerptWhen Susan got home, she quickly wrote to her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton — “Well, I have been and gone and done it!! Positively voted –” There was a sense of giddy excitement. A precedent had just been established, one that might set the stage for larger numbers of women at future elections. The excitement took a sharp turn a couple of days later, though, when arrest warrants were served on all the voting women and on the three complicit inspectors.

We all know “Aunt Susan’s Trial” as a set piece. We visit her house, stand in the parlor where she was arrested, and gawk at her worn alligator handbag. But without context, it’s crushed into an iconic tableau, a myth, rather than an encounter with a woman as real as ourselves. This book fits the trial into a carefully nuanced context. It’s not a complete biography of Anthony or a sweeping history of the women’s movement. It provides just enough context to carry us intelligently through the situation as it stood in November 1872, when Susan and the other women went to the polls, and in June 1873, when Susan’s case came to trial.

The story of the trial is a story of legal maneuvering and counter-maneuvering. Susan and her friends campaigned on lecture platforms throughout the Rochester area arguing their cause, winning an unexpectedly large public response. The prosecution, fearing the Rochester jury pool had been biased toward the women, moved for a change of venue to the nearby city of Canandaigua instead. Susan’s legal advisor, Henry Selden, who had given his opinion before the women registered that they were within their rights in doing so, agreed to represent Susan in court. But he found himself facing a judge who seemed to have already decided the case before it was even argued. Judge Ward Hunt refused to allow the jury to give their verdict, on the grounds that there was no point for a jury to consider, and directed that the jury’s verdict be entered as “guilty”.

Susan B. Anthony had been refused the right to take the stand as a witness in her own defense, and had been forced to sit silently throughout the trial. But when the Judge asked the standard question before sentencing — “Has the prisoner anything to say why sentence should not be pronounced?” — Susan took the opportunity to burst out with one of the most famous speeches ever made by an American woman. “Yes, your Honor, I have many things to say –” And she went on to say them with spirit and directness.

I’ve been working on a recording of the trial transcript for LibriVox, and when I got to Susan’s speech, I found myself reading that entire section straight through in a single take, without careful re-recording and editing. As a non-fiction reader, I usually read in a calm and neutral tone of voice. With Susan’s speech, that just wasn’t possible. I was back there in her parlor, seeing her picking up the old alligator bag and marching firmly off to take her case to court, and she was 100% real and alive to me. Even my impossible Rah-chester accent was suddenly called into service, as I realized that Susan was a Rochester woman too, and may have sounded just like me. This time, when I spoke her words, they weren’t a set schoolroom speech — I had walked with Susan through all the events leading up to that speech, and the words arose out of all that had gone before. They were part of a whole story for me now.


The Underground Railroad

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Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad
by William Still

Today marked the completion of the massive five-volume Underground Railroad project at LibriVox, as the fifth and final volume was catalogued. I’ve been so deeply involved in this project that leaving it behind isn’t immediately possible. I feel as though it was somehow the defining theme of the entire year 2013 for me, my personal book of scriptures. This is a book that’s going to stick with me for life, one that I’ll carry with me wherever I go from now on.

I joined LibriVox last January. Shortly after I joined, they launched a new project — Volume 1 of William Still’s UGRR memoirs. I signed up to read a few chapters, and was gripped by the power of the stories, dozens and scores and hundreds of individual stories. After 11 months, the LibriVox crew has recorded all 43 hours — 280 sections — about 650 individual stories of escape from slavery — a flood of individual lives. I recorded 52 sections over the course of the project, and then went back and listened to all of the others as soon as they were available. I felt the weight of so many witnesses gathering around, calling out their names, shouting out to be heard. William Still told every story of every single man, woman, or child who passed through the Philadelphia Underground Railroad offices, with names and places and dates and family and destinations. Some had unusual stories to tell, full of drama and excitement. Others had only the barest of matter-of-fact accounts to give. But Still recorded every single story, giving each of them the same respect.

One of the first stories Still told was his own story, the story of his family. William Still’s father had purchased his own freedom; William’s mother seized hers by flight. She escaped with two of her children, joining her husband in New Jersey, where the rest of their children were born. William was the youngest of fourteen, though the two oldest boys had been left behind in slavery and had never met the rest of the children. When William was in his mid-20’s, he moved to Philadelphia and began to work for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, at first as a clerk, and then as the chairman of the Committee which assisted escaped slaves.  One day, a recently emancipated slave named Peter Friedman arrived in the office, hoping to trace members of his family. The story Peter told was familiar to William; it was the same story he had learned from his mother, the story of the two boys left behind and later sold South. “I believe you are my brother!” A coincidence almost too good to be true.

The story wasn’t all about happy reunions, though. Peter’s wife and children were still enslaved, waiting for Peter to arrange a rescue. Peter made a dangerous visit to the south to see how things stood and returned to discuss possible ways and means. A white abolitionist named Seth Concklin offered to fetch Peter’s family and bring them north by river. On the border of the free states, though, the group was arrested. Concklin turned up dead in the river, and Peter’s wife and children were returned to slavery. The tension, anger, and grief with which William tells his brother’s story is impossible to forget or to shake off.

Two things in particular seemed most striking, like two clear threads that ran through all these hundreds of individual stories. One was that the oppression most often found unendurable, the straw that kept breaking the heavily laden back, wasn’t the hunger or hard work or physical abuse or verbal abuse or restrictions on personal movement. Strong people bore up bravely under all these. But the one thing there was simply no accepting, the “deal-breaker”, was the threat of being sold. One narrative after another said something along the same lines. “I stood it all until I heard that I was to be sold, my family was to be sold, we were to be sold and scattered and never see each other any more. That’s when I decided to run.” This was for so many the moment when the risk and danger of making a run for freedom was no longer a factor. Human beings can endure a lot, as long as we have each other. Without each other, we die inside in ways more painful than any physical pain. The cruelest and most inhuman part of slavery was its callous breaking of vital human bonds.

The other point which jumped out at me, a repeated theme in one narrative after another, was the freedom of individual thought and choice. No matter how strongly the world insists that “the way things are” rules us all, this book makes it clear that we are not mere sheep, captives of our circumstances. People raised in a system of slavery, sheilded from any hint that another possibility might lie outside that system, managed to discover that possibility anyway, and to choose it despite the risks, to trust that in running away they were making a leap of faith. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, were the white people raised in the same system, assured that this is the way it was meant to be, that God himself supported the status quo, who somehow managed to escape from stifling conformity and dare to rock the boat.

Some of the slaves who ran away to freedom became leaders and crusaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Others simply settled down in Canada and lived quietly with their families. Some white abolitionists risked their lives like Seth Concklin. Others simply knew what their bolder neighbors were doing and approved and supported them. If the common thought of an age is made up of all the separate individual thoughts of each unique person, then every one counts. A family of emancipated former slaves living an ordinary life in the midst of their neighbors is helping to change the common thought about social possibilities by actual living example. A sympathetic white neighbor who approves of these winds of change, who expresses disgust with the Fugitive Slave Law, helps change the atmosphere in his own circle just by where he gives his approval.

Every drop helps fill the bucket. As Jesus said, “Anyone who isn’t against us is for us.” But the opposite is also true. You can support an evil system passively. If you are the neighbor who stands with your hands in your pockets and says not a word, while the slave-catchers surround your neighbor’s barn, then you are assisting them. Jesus also said, “Anyone who isn’t for us is against us.”

Tiny individual acts, decisions, and attitudes are of such immense importance because they are the quirky, mismatched, hand-made bricks that build the kingdom. Average aggregate statistical theoretical people never really did or thought anything. Only actual individuals, in the often trivial and repetitive little details of daily life, make history. Reading these hundreds of stories of real flesh-and-blood individuals, building up a memory of one encounter after another, I found out something much more true and real than any abstract generalized history of the Underground Railroad could ever have shown to me.

This has been a good project for me to be involved in, filling my mind with people who linger there and seem to be strong friends, people like Euphemia Williams and Frances Harper and Samuel Green — and William Still himself. I’ve been drawn into their stories, moved by their courage and hope, angered by the many unnecessary cruelties we humans heap on each other, uplifted by the sheer kindness we are capable of giving each other, inspired by evils overcome and chains broken in the past, strengthened for the struggles still all around us today.

Links to listen to —

UGRR Volume 1

UGRR Volume 2

UGRR Volume 3

UGRR Volume 4

UGRR Volume 5

Beautiful Souls

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Beautiful SoulsBeautiful Souls
by Eyal Press

“Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

This is the second time in about a year that I’ve been drawn back to this book. In other contexts far afield from these, the four stories in this book have stayed in my mind as having something relevant to teach me. My thoughts keep exploring them from all sorts of angles.

There is the story of Paul Gruninger, a Swiss police official who falsified entry dates on travel documents to allow Jewish refugees to enter Switzerland from Nazi Germany in 1939. There is the story of Aleksander Jevtic, a Serb who saved Croat neighbors during the 1991 Yugoslavian civil war by inventing Serbian-sounding names for them and insisting they were Serbs. There is the story of Avner Wishnitzer, an Israeli soldier who decided in 2003 to announce his refusal to serve any longer in the occupied West Bank. There is the story of Leyla Wydler, a Texas stockbroker who in 2009 testified against her own company and provided evidence of their crooked financial practices. Four very different people, four very different sets of times, places, and circumstances. Yet this common thread — all walked a path that veered from the one being taken by the crowd around them, all chose a less-traveled path which seemed to them the only obvious right one.

I’m drawn to books that tell me true stories of people doing good things. I know that there’s a lot of darkness in the world, yet reading books that focus on the pervasiveness and power of the darkness don’t help me to live any better. Reading negativity makes me feel afraid and powerless to stand against it. It’s when I read about the strength of goodness that I am encouraged to stretch more strongly towards goodness myself. It’s not that the darkness doesn’t exist, or that it can’t hurt people. Rather, it’s that darkness hasn’t been able to extinguish the light. As long as I am reading about people who simply walk straight ahead through the darkness with their vision fixed on light, I can follow their line of sight and keep that light in view for myself.

Talking to someone who tears everything down, who puts the darkest and most cynical spin on everything, is destructive to my own life. No matter how disturbing life looks at any moment, if I’m in the company of somebody who will remind me of goodness and point my eyes towards the light, I can lift up my head and keep going. If I react this way to the people around me, I also react the same way to books. I need books that put strength into me, not books that suck away strength. I need books that teach me how to be a better person, how to help make a better life.

The circumstances of my life, or of most people’s lives, don’t put us in situations of confronting stark evil or heroic life-and-death drama. Yet the people who do face those kinds of circumstances were preparing all their lives, in thousands of small ways, for the moment of the test. Rosa Parks didn’t just decide to ignite a revolution on a bus one day out of the blue. She had spent a lifetime slowly traveling the winding paths that led to that day. The people in Beautiful Souls, too, had become the kind of people who did such things through doing similar things in more routine ways every day of their lives. Millions of passing daily thoughts and words and actions build up an overall pattern to each of our lives. If reading about people like these gives me help to wrestle through the minutiae of my own ordinary days more mindfully, then it doesn’t matter that my day’s choices are more mundane than theirs. What matters is that their stories are helping to shape my story.

At one point in this book, the author talks about people drifting into evil without awareness of evil intent, simply by becoming gradually desensitized to it, one seemingly insignificant choice at a time. “One reason ordinary people were capable of carrying out unjust orders was habituation. You pulled one switch on the voltage generator, then a couple more, and after a while you stopped agonizing about it, not least since you’d already dirtied your hands a bit. As counterintuitive as it might seem, might a similar process unfold among people who resist? … Resistance to authority often begins not with grand gestures carried out in the name of abstract causes but small, modest actions that rarely seem unusual to the people carrying them out. “

Later in the book, the author considers how the accumulation of such small, modest actions by some people shapes the way other people understand their own moral choices. “Even when the people engaging in them have limited ambitions, acts of conscience have a way of reverberating. … Why do such ripple effects occur when, as courts have sometimes ruled, conscience is a merely personal moral code, the faculty that individuals consult when disregarding other voices?”  While the book’s subtitle refers to “breaking ranks”, none of the people it describes were iconoclastic loners who completely disregarded other voices. Rather, they were people who assumed that certain moral truths were obvious and widely understood — that police and soldiers in a civilized country protect the weak, that neighbors have each other’s backs when thugs come down the street, that accountants warn their clients of doubtful investments. When faced with the suggestion that they do exactly the opposite, these people said “no, of course not” with the assurance that what they were doing was “normal”, and that what they were being asked to do was a shocking departure. When asked to explain their choices afterwards, it’s striking that most of these “heroes” simply said, “What else could I do?” What they did seemed to them the only natural and normal thing.

If this is the way it works, then it actually makes sense that we would want to fill our thoughts with stories like these. We use these stories to remind ourselves that daily moral choices of people like ourselves, no matter how routine, accumulate to make up the larger moral patterns of human society. By recollecting all the good examples we’ve heard of, we are creating in ourselves a sense of what is “normal”, deliberately choosing to set up light as the norm. This is how we train ourselves to walk towards the light, so that we will turn towards it more and more instinctively as the years pass, so that we, too, will automatically say “no, of course not” when invited to deviate from it.