Thursday, October 29, 2015

Trip Logistics

We’ve been in Michigan the last couple of days, and are on our way to Cleveland. Yesterday I had a fun interview with Cynthia Canty at Michigan Public Radio- you can catch it at this link. Thanks to Patrick McLaughlin of Caldo Communications for setting this up and for hosting us in Ann Arbor.

I’ll post later about our travels in Ohio and Michigan but today I want to share some musings about navigation, communication, and money.

There were rudimentary maps of the Lincoln Highway and the areas in between cities, but floods and route changes were common and I wonder how they found out about those? When Sara and the Swedes blew into an unfamiliar city cold and weary, desperate to get to their hotel or running late for an event, were their street signs or did they have to stop and ask for directions?

When I tell women that the second (and last) man the envoys hired to drive for them got them lost in the desert, they always laugh and nod their heads and say “he must not have been willing to stop and ask for directions.” In his defense I’m not sure how many people there were to ask in that vest and empty space, especially once it got dark. But I wonder whether that stereotype about men was present right from the beginning or whether it evolved over time in the brave new world of automobile transportation?

On this trip we’re navigating almost entirely by GPS, with occasional reference to old-fashioned maps. The flat, electronic voice of the GPS calls out our turns and exits, generally getting it right but not always, as when we were trying to find our B and B in Detroit and it was oblivious to the fact that some streets were completely blocked off due to construction. Most mornings we start our day with Rick asking Siri politely “where’s the nearest coffee shop?” followed by a stream of invective when she tries to direct us to someplace hopelessly inappropriate. It still makes me chuckle, which I guess is a good thing after 5 weeks on the road.  
Letter from Erskine to Sara.

We’re fortunate to be able to communicate with cell phones, email, and texts, not to mention this blog. A hundred years ago they relied on telegrams and good old-fashioned snail-mail. The mail service was only as reliable as the addresses the sender had, and as the envoys’ itinerary evolved sometimes letters would show up after they’d already moved on to the next city and would have to be forwarded. Erskine seemed to have a lot of difficulty keeping up with Sara, as this letter suggests, and he was worried about her. "Where are you?" he asks plaintively.[1]

This telegram from Sara to Erskine illustrates the difficulty of
keeping people informed of their whereabouts. 
Telegrams were like texts, in a way. There was a bit of an art to reading them, as they were usually written in all capital letters without punctuation. "You misunderstood my wire," Sara tells Erskine in this telegram- was that an issue of timing or simply a misinterpretation of what she'd written?[2]

Sometimes telegraph operators would get it wrong and include several nonsensical words- kind of like auto-correct on your cell phone sometimes creates gibberish. In the telegram below Sara says "my thoughts are with Eyrie." [3](?) I'm not sure what that refers to; from the context, it should have read "My thoughts are with you."



Telegram from Sara to Erskine.

Telegrams were also expensive, so they had to balance their convenience with their cost, especially since funds were tight. Much more information could be conveyed in a letter, too. Finally, telegrams weren’t entirely private, so sometimes politically sensitive information could only be hinted at, with a promise of a longer letter forthcoming.
  
The CU was chronically short of funds and Mable Vernon had definitely drunk the Kool-Aid about keeping the expenses low. But it was costly to hire bands, print literature, book hotel rooms, and cover restaurant meals, not to mention her own and Sara’s salaries (I don't think the Swedes were paid), and as a result Mabel was often out of money and had to move funds from her personal bank account to cover CU expenses. The letters and telegrams back and forth from CU headquarters attempting to resolve this seemed to go astray pretty regularly. Alice Paul would telegram that she’d wired $75 to Denver, for example, but Mabel somehow wouldn’t see it and she’d have to send another telegram about how they were out of funds, and they’d go around again. It was a heck of a way to run a campaign, and must have been very frustrating.

We just go to the cash machine or use our credit cards…Several people have asked me who’s funding my trip, and really it’s my Mom and Dad. They’re both gone now, but they would have loved this trip, and the money I inherited from them made it possible for me to do it without having to spend time looking for sponsors or grants, which is a pretty sweet spot to be in. Thanks Mom & Dad!


My Dad, A. Allen Gass with grandchildren Silas and Emma
My Mom, Anne Bradstreet Whitehouse Gass


 [1] C.E.S. Wood to Sara Bard Field, November 29, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
[2] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 29, 1915. WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
[3] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 31, 1915. WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.



Sunday, October 25, 2015

Beyond Voting; Chicago Women's Efforts to Protect and Strengthen Women's Rights

I have new sympathy for Sara who was supposed to be writing accounts of the trip for The Suffragist (the CU’s newspaper). She could also earn a bit more money writing articles for a Portland, OR paper. But they were logging long miles, often leaving before light and reaching their next city in the evening. Receptions, speeches, dinners, and interviews with reporters ate into her time as well, so when she had a scrap of time she really wanted to write to her kids, and (of course) Erskine. She poured out her heart to Erskine, often writing 10-15 page missives in which she jumbles tales of the trip, comments on his letters to her, complaints about her health, advice on the publication of his upcoming book of poetry Poet in the Desert, and always, always, how much she loves and misses him. Frances Joliffe was supposed to make the trip but it was really Erskine who occupied that fourth seat, if only his spirit.

Anyway, I can attest that it’s hard to block out time to write- we can barely get laundry done, and I have no idea how they did that. I’m afraid my blogging’s taken a back seat, as it were, to travel, doing my own advance planning (no Mabel Vernon to help me there), research, and meetings with local people. We’re currently in Columbus OH, heading to Toledo, and on to Detroit tomorrow. I’ll try to catch you up on where we’ve been.
We reached Des Moines on a Sunday, which was unfortunate since it meant I couldn’t visit the library or archives, and had no local meetings set up. On the way to Clinton the next day we detoured through Iowa City so I could visit the Iowa Women’s Archives (IWA) and lunch with Curator Kären M. Mason. 
IWA Founders Louise Noun and
Mary Louise Smith

It’s purpose is to “document the experiences and achievements of the women of Iowa,” and though it’s only been around since 1992 they’ve built up quite a remarkable collection. Not a ton of stuff on suffrage history, as of yet, but who knows what’s still lurking in someone’s attic? Anyway, I thought it was a great model. The IWA was established by two women, Louise Noun and Mary Louise Smith. Louise was an art collector, and auctioned a Frida Kahlo painting “Self-Portrait with Loose Hair” to endow the archives, which seems fitting somehow.

Frida Kahlo's self-portrait, auctioned
to endow the IWA

By the time they reached Des Moines Sara had come down with a bad cold, and  the doctors told her she had to have some rest in order to recover. Knowing that Chicago was coming up and would be a big event, Sara decided to wait a day or two and take the train to Clinton. The Swedes drove on by themselves, stopping in Cedar Rapids.

They then pushed on to Chicago, where Mabel Vernon had organized a grand event on the steps of The Art Institute of Chicago. They were staying at the old LaSalle Hotel, and at the appointed time 50 automobiles (all driven by women) met them there and escorted them up the broad sweep of Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Art Institute. There they were joined by Mayor Thompson and his wife and about 1,000 other suffrage supporters, mostly members of the Political Equality League.
The Envoys in Chicago- The Day Book, 11.20.15.
Looks cold, doesn't it?

I should note that Illinois had weirdly granted women the ability to vote in Presidential elections only; not in any state or local elections in which you might think they’d have more direct interest. This was a strategy suffragists used throughout the weary years of struggle for voting rights. If they couldn’t convince men to give them full suffrage they’d go after voting in municipal, state, or presidential elections. They could use the partial rights as a foot in the door to full suffrage later on.

In Chicago I had the good fortune to speak with three amazing activists for women’s rights, all working on different issues. I came away feeling more hopeful than I had after being in red states for a while.

Maria Socorro Pesqueira, President & CEO of Mujeres Latinas en Acción
I spoke by phone with Maria Socorro Pesqueira, who is President & CEO of Mujeres Latinas en Acción (MLA.) MLA’s roots go back to 1973, when the civil rights and feminist movements were being dominated by white women.  A group of Latina activists decided to form their own organization to address the issues within the Hispanic community. They empower women through a range of services, from helping domestic violence survivors and rape victims to training women to be entrepreneurs and work toward economic self-sufficiency. They recognize that Latina women are often the decisionmakers in their households and they try to nurture and encourage those strengths. Registering women to vote is also a big focus.


Maria’s also focused on helping the next generation of kids avoid some of the pitfalls their parents encountered, so MLA provides youth programming as well. They have a youth curriculum which (among other things) provides “medically accurate” sex ed, and which challenges stereotypes about Hispanics in the media. “How often do you see a white gang banger in the movies?” Maria asked me. “They’re almost always people of color. We need to push back as a community and say ‘that is not who we are and that is not what we will embrace.’”

MLA encourages young Latina women to “own up to being independent”; to do well in school, to go to college, and to choose partners who will support them in their lives. This can mean challenging their families’ culture so MLA has mother-daughter and mother-son groups to work that through. There’s so much more work than one organization can do, and funding is always an issue, but MLA is battling away and is making a difference.

I next had lunch with Kaethe Morris Hoffer, Executive Director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE.)  Kaethe told me that as a child she’d gone to a feminist summer camp in Vermont where we would sing songs about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Tubman (among others.” She actually sang me one of the verses! Who knew that such a thing existed?  I would have sent my daughter there.

It isn’t surprising, then, that Kaethe went on to spend her life working for women. In high school she got trained by Planned Parenthood to serve as a peer educator on birth control. “Teachers would actually invite me into their classrooms and I’d give a talk on birth control,” she told me. Can you imagine how much more effective that would be than having weird Mrs. Robinson or someone recite you the facts, or those static-y film strips they showed us when I was in school? Amazing.

It wasn’t long before girls started sharing their stories of being pressured for sex and of being raped, so Kaethe decided to work on those issues. She majored in Women’s Studies in college and after considering an MSW opted to get a law degree instead.

CAASE’s mission is to address “the culture, institutions, and individuals that perpetrate, profit from, or support sexual exploitation”; basically domestic violence, rape, prostitution, and sex trafficking. CAASE provides prevention, policy reform, community engagement, and legal services. Kaethe described progress CAASE and its allies have made in Chicago to build a toolbox that decriminalizes prostitution and shifts the focus to what she referred to as the “demand side.” The power differential in prostitution is very clear, Kaethe pointed out. Women are in the sex trade to survive. Many are victims of sexual exploitation from an early age, starting with their families. CAASE has done research that shows that the majority of men use prostitutes only occasionally- once a month. “This is discretionary spending,” says Kaethe. “They aren’t homeless or missing meals because of this. They have the cash and that’s how they choose to spend it.”

Among many other things CAASE has begun trying to reduce the demand side by providing a four-part series in high school; done separately with the boys and girls. “We try to unpack messaging around sex-trafficking- media, social attitudes and stereotypes, and ways to say no,” she says. They do pre-post tests with the boys asking about their interest in visiting a strip club (as a proxy for prostitution, and because the high school parents would lose their s*&# if they asked them about their interest in hiring a prostitute.) In Pre-tests the boys almost all indicate strong interest in visiting a strip-club, but in the post-tests this is reduced dramatically.  Furthermore, they say they’d be willing to talk with their peers re: their reasons for saying no. This seems like an amazing model and I’m glad to hear that they’re being asked to share their curriculum with others.

Talking with Kaethe made me feel hopeful that there actually is progress being made despite the numbers of women who are still abused and trafficked. Changing attitudes and laws and policy is slow work, but it can be effective. A case in point is sexual harassment in the workplace. Did you know that the US Supreme Court only ruled against this in 1986? That’s just 30 years ago! And the case that they heard was a woman who had been raped repeatedly by her boss over the years, and had to put up with it in order to keep her job.

Nowadays, people gripe about the annual mandatory sexual harassment training at their workplace, but it’s been successful in changing workplace behavior. Unless you’re in the military chances are you aren’t going to be raped at work, and you can bring a complaint against co-workers who use demeaning language or pat you on the butt. So kudos and thanks to Kaethe and all of the other amazing women who work to make women’s lives safer, at home and at work!

Anne Ladky, Executive Director
of Women Employed
My last interview was with Anne Ladky, Executive Director of Women Employed (WE), another organization with roots in the 1970s civil rights era. Anne moved over to Wein the late 1970s from working with the National Organization for Women, and has been with it ever since, giving her a great perspective on efforts to win equal opportunities for women in the workplace.   

Early on WE targeted two groups of women; secretaries (largely with high school or AA degrees) and those who were college-educated. They tried for a long time to partner with labor unions to represent clerical workers, but sadly without success. The unions simply weren’t interested in going beyond their traditional, male-dominated professions.

For women coming out of college they used classic grassroots organizing strategies to pressure businesses to expand the jobs available, so they wouldn’t get stuck in low-level positions. “We ended up having to go to the government to do that through affirmative action. Government action was essential to making that happen,” says Anne.  We hear so many negative things about affirmative action (and about government) that it was refreshing to be reminded of what a critical role the federal government especially has played in identifying and protecting women’s rights.
Next time you hear of a bunch of dopey conservative men deciding behind closed doors that women can’t get access to birth control or abortion, you can trace their lineage right back to the guys who were denying women voting rights. It took concerted action, and often by the government, to change the laws giving women the freedoms and protections from abuse that we enjoy today. But those changes were made only as a result of pressures that people like Anne Ladky and her colleagues brought to bear.
These days WE is focused on making workplaces fairer for working women, especially those with families, and in helping women succeed in post-secondary education so they can get access to higher paying jobs. Fairness centers around things like increasing the minimum wage, paid sick time and family leave, and predictable schedules.

We discussed that a lot of big companies these days use a “variable scheduling” approach which treats workers like just another input into whatever products they sell. This is especially true in retail. So, for example, say you work for a coffee shop chain. In one week they might have you work two 6-hour shifts and three 4-hour shifts. The following week they think will be slow, so maybe they just schedule you for three 5-hour shifts. And by the way, be prepared to work until 11pm one night and be right back in at 6am to open the next morning. If you’re a parent, try scheduling child care (good luck with that), and also paying bills when you don’t know from one week to the next how much you’re going to earn. It’s a crazy system. And all of it helps companies ensure that they keep their hourly workers in part-time status so they don’t have qualify for health insurance.

Anne says WE and others are making some progress on raising awareness of this issue. It’s kind of like the women in the west who had voting rights and didn’t realize their eastern sisters didn’t have them. Most professional women have never worked in a job that gave them unpredictable hours and income, and we need to wake everyone up to what an awful bind that puts women and their families in. Fortunately, there’s increasing research that shows that variable research costs employers money because of employee turnover and poor morale. (I might be tempted to spit in the occasional grande skinny half-caf latte as I made it for my employer who didn’t give a damn that my kids were sick and the rent was due next week.)

Thanks again to Anne, Kaethe, and Maria, and to all their colleagues across the country who are working to help women have a better chance for themselves and for their families!




Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Nebraska Brings Conservative Views and Meltdowns

Original illustration of  Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.
If the witch figure was captioned an anti-suffragist,
this could have been used in a suffrage campaign...
I want to pick up where I left off in the last blog and note that L. Frank Baum, the author of the Oz books, was a big suffrage supporter. He married Maud Gage, whose mother was noted radical feminist and suffrage activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and he developed female leaders in many of his books- notably Dorothy, but others as well. So it wasn’t completely random to mention Oz, it turns out.

I’m pretty sure that Sara and the Swedes could have used some yellow brick roads around this time. Things got a little better through Nebraska, at least there’s no mention of bad roads, mud holes, snowstorms, or the car breaking down. Still, it was a slog and they were in the part of the country that was least enthusiastic about their message.

In her later oral history Sara recalled that the western states were very enthusiastic about their mission, but the Midwesterners were more skeptical.  “The attitude seemed to be, ‘Oh, women never get together on anything,’” she said. There was a lot of doubt that women would agree to the CU’s strategy of holding the political party in power accountable for failing to pass the federal suffrage amendment, especially if it went against their own party.

 Sara did recall, though, that “the more remote a settlement was, the more glad it was to see you.” While they filled the car with gas in some little town, the proprietors would bring them coffee or tea, and beg them to stay and visit. Sara always explained that they had to be in some larger city in time for an event, and so off they’d go in a shower of warm wishes. When they got to DC she told Alice Paul, "You know, I am a symbol and I want you to know that as a symbol the Women's Party has had more blessings heaped on it than I think it can possibly evade. I think it will always have to admit that it had a special blessing."

Maria and Ingeborg, being older and from another culture, thought Sara was a little too free and easy with the men at the service stations they stopped at. But if a little light flirting lifted the tedium of the long miles, and encouraged the men to finish the servicing a little faster when the envoys were behind schedule, what was the harm in that?

Still, that general disapproval, combined with her simmering resentment at not being allowed to speak at the rallies, sent Ingeborg over the edge. “She suddenly turned on me and said that I was grabbing all the limelight, that while she and her companion sat on the platform every time, I always described them as driving the car at a time when women seldom would have undertaken such a journey and of being able to take care of the car, as if they were just, she said, menials. ‘You make all the speeches.’”

Sara tried to soothe her, explaining as delicately as she could about their broken English, and her own knowledge of the West and past organizing experience. “But it didn't mollify her at all,” Sara recalled, “and finally she said to me, ‘I'm going to kill you before we get to the end of this journey.’ She said it with a fierceness and with a look in her eye that was a little terrifying…”

I could understand that the rigors of the trip and the schedule were such that they might have made anyone a little nutty, but Sara goes on to say that they later learned that Ingeborg was a former mental patient who had only recently been released from some sort of home. 

Image of Ingeborg's rage
Sara’s assertion that Ingeborg was mentally ill has been widely accepted, but I wonder. Labeling someone as “crazy” can be a convenient way to exert social control, and there are certainly stories, for example, of husbands putting their wives in an asylum when they got too uppity. Ingeborg was clearly outspoken and a radical, and seems to have had a bit of a temper, a combination which put her at odds with the prevailing image of ideal womanhood, and at risk of being labeled deviant. And it must have been irritating to have thought at the outset they were equal partners in this glorious venture, only to be shunted aside as the lowly chauffeur and “mechanician.” Even if they did get to sit on the platform and have their pictures in the paper, it was Sara who was extensively quoted and fussed over. Sara, who's constantly pining for Erskine and whinging about her bad heart. Sara, who sits in the back seat and does NOTHING except deliver a little speech now and then, while Maria drives and Ingeborg patches tires and crawls under the car in the mud and snow to fix it. I mean...

Though I will say that Ingeborg does appear to look progressively cranky and weird as the trip goes on… Still, we know so little about either of the Swedes that I feel like we need to resist the rush to judgement. I mean, haven’t you ever been terminally pissed off by a traveling companion?

I’m also surprised that the incident didn’t appear in Sara’s letters to Erskine, or in any communication with the Congressional Union’s DC headquarters. If Sara really felt threatened, wouldn’t she have flagged it for someone? Tell Mabel? Sara did make a push to have the errant Frances Joliffe replace her in Chicago, although her excuse was fatigue and illness, not a murder threat.

At any rate, the threesome in the little black car did make it through Nebraska, stopping in Lincoln and then Omaha. These days the roads are lined with eerily identical cornstalks drying in the fields, and huge grain silos spotted at regular distances. I’m not sure what their views were like- probably a lot more small farms, but still a lot of corn, wheat, and hay though perhaps of different varieties. It’s not just me- Nebraska has become sort of metaphor for bleakness and misery, and I wonder if that also contributed to Ingeborg’s meltdown.

From the Omaha Daily News.
Honestly, I think they almost all look a little
wiggy in this photo...
Evidence of their chillier reception can be seen from their stop in Omaha, Nebraska, where only a handful of local suffragists dared to come out and support them. I had a feeling that was going to happen when I was looking at some suffrage history in the Nebraska state archives. The Nebraska Woman Suffrage Association was firmly in the camp of the state-by-state approach to enfranchising women. The Omaha Daily News took note, reporting the low turnout even though the event had had widespread publicity.  It also correctly identified the issue.

 Despite this, Mayor Dahlman and County Commissioner Johnny Lynch were glad to sign; maybe they were Republicans and all too happy to stick a spoke in Democrats’ wheels. They both joked that they reserved the right to vote another way, suggesting that they really did have other reasons to sign.



From the Omaha Bee
This division over suffrage strategies and tactics would become increasingly bitter in the next few years, especially once the Congressional Union started picketing the President at the White House gates. The National American Woman Suffrage Association, even though it eventually did put a lot more muscle behind passing the federal amendment, was adamant that its members would be strictly “non-partisan.” Campaigning against the party in power, and generally letting their elbows fly in the rough and tumble world of politics, were not part of their image of how women should behave. This blog is titled “We Demand…” in part to capture this difference in philosophy.


With League members at the library in Lincoln, NE
I was in Omaha on the weekend so I wasn’t able to meet with anyone locally, but I had a great reception in Lincoln courtesy of the local League of Women Voters. President Sherry Miller organized a lunch with several League members, and then we went over to the local library and I did a little talk about the original trip and what I’m up to. There was a small but enthusiastic crowd and we had a great discussion. Nebraska is yet another state that hasn’t enacted the Medicaid Waiver, where voting rights are under threat, and where women’s access to safe and legal abortions is restricted. Incidentally, my sister Vicki set around a link this morning to an article which explained in part how the red states have gotten to be red- see Democrats in Deep Trouble. This is precisely the pattern I’ve seen in my travels so far.
Afterward, one woman told me her own voting story. Her husband was in the service and stationed in Nebraska. Newly married and just turned 21, she went off to register to vote and was told that she had to vote at her husband’s listed home address, which was his parent’s home in Kentucky! A state she had never lived in. She had the gumption to protest and they eventually, reluctantly, as a special exception, allowed her to vote where she was then living and working. While this was over 40 years ago, it illustrates how in the not-too-distant past women’s rights were still really subservient to their husband's. Weird. And a little scary.

















Buy Your Holiday Gifts from the National Woman's History Project Auction!

The National Woman's History Project is an amazing effort to preserve and share women's history in the US. They're having a fundraising auction - you can bid online! Check it out, but hurry, it closes on October 21, 2015 at 6:00 PM PDT.

I ought to have flagged it before this, but as they say in a recent email:

Check Out These Great Buys...
You can still bid on any of the special items in our auction right up to the final seconds of this exciting event. Every tick of the clock brings us closer to the finish line. This may be your last chance to win that special item or to grab a great bargain. So don't miss out... BID NOW!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Wait, How many Signatures?

“Wish this trip were over it is no joke…” Sara wired Erskine from Pueblo.[1] It was grueling beyond what she and the Swedes ever could have imagined before leaving San Francisco. But as time went on she could see the positive energy and momentum the trip was building, and she became more confident of her speaking abilities.  In and out of mud pits, dealing with hostile men, losing and finding their way; these setbacks and more Sara and the Swedes overcame. And it made for great press.

“Oh, these men…” Sara said to a Kansas City Star reporter. “Will they ever get rid of the idea that men and women are made of two different kinds of clay? We didn’t need any men to help us drive across the country, through all kinds of hardships and into situations that would have tried any man.”[2]

The truth was, there was great symbolic value to the vision of women doing a car trip across the country unaccompanied by men, even if it wasn’t the first one that had ever been done. Alice Ramsey had done this in 1911. But it was still rare enough that many people hadn’t seen it, or perhaps even heard of it. Still, it wasn’t entirely true that the envoys had no help from men along the way. Maria and Ingeborg had hired a man to drive them over the Sierras, and while he got them lost they’d hired another male driver to get them through the desert and into Salt Lake City.

From Topeka Capital, 10.24.15
From Topeka Capital, 10.24.15
I’ve been amused, though, at the way the accounts in the newspapers appear to be getting more exaggerated. I don’t know if Sara was just getting punch drunk, or if the reporters flat out got it wrong. Both are possible, I suppose. But the Emporia Gazette says they’d collected one million names on the petition, and a Kansas City MO paper quotes Sara as saying they had 1.5 million signatures. News articles refer to the “mammoth petition” or “monster petition.” They left San Francisco with 500,000 names, supposedly, and there’s no way they’d collected even half a million more in just a few weeks.  And when they arrived in DC some accounts say they still only had 500,000 signatures, though they must have picked some up along the way.

The truth is, I’m starting to have my doubts about this petition. One news article claims that when they left San Francisco the petition was already 18,000 feet long. Hmmm, that’s equivalent in length to 50 football fields; you can also think of it as almost 3.5 miles. That’s one hell of a petition, even if they wrote it on the flimsiest toilet paper. And check out this front-page photo in the Congressional Union newspaper showing Sara with the petitions under her arm. She wasn’t a big person, and she doesn’t seem as if she’s struggling to hold them up. Does that look like 500,000 signatures to you? And would something that big have even fit in the car? Where did they put it? How did they protect it from the sun, wind and rain?
From 10.16.15 The Suffragist

It’s a mystery. None of the accounts I’ve seen of this trip have ever questioned the petition story. I’ll have to look into this some more…

I enjoyed my tour through Kansas, trying to ferret out some new information about the original trip and the effect it had and talking with some amazing women about women’s interests and issues in 2015, including Anita Epps and Mariana from the LWV of Topeka. The League is doing great work around protecting voting rights for everyone, not just women.

One of the people I met with was Sylvia Stevenson, who’s the founder and president of the KC chapter of the National Congress of BlackWomen. Since she’s about 20 years younger than I am I was curious about Sylvia’s thoughts on why women don’t get more involved in politics. She thought it was a lot about our DNA. “Women don’t wake up in the morning and say ‘I’m ready for conflict,” said Sylvia. “By nature we’re nurturers, and it’s hard for us to give up what we hold most dear- our children and families.”
Sylvia Stevenson

Women carry the majority of responsibility on the home front; we’re more likely to be the lead cooks and child care providers, point people for school and the doctor, and caretakers for aging parents. While men do help out, the Family Caregiving Alliance estimates that women provide two-thirds of the care for families, and will spend up to 50% more time providing care than men do.

I’m not sure what we do about the DNA issue. But Sylvia also thought that it was hard for women to run because they can’t afford it. Here’s where things like getting paid less than men, and being more likely to work part-time (in order to care for their families) works against women’s political careers. They make less money, they’re less likely to rise to influential positions within their companies, and honestly it’s hard to be out there networking when you’re home changing diapers or taking Dad to his third doctor appointment this week. So better pay and more supports for families providing care to their aging parents would be a huge help.

A hundred years ago Alice Paul would get frustrated with women who weren’t willing to concentrate exclusively on suffrage. But even she had to disappear from DC to take care of her family’s New Jersey farm when someone got ill, and so did many of her most faithful organizers. It just seemed to be understood that when someone in your family got really ill, it was the women who gave up everything they were doing and came back to help. Men can also be nurturers and there are lots of examples of them providing great support, but it still feels like the sex roles haven’t changed an awful lot in the last 100 years.

Some of this was echoed in a phone interview I did with Robert Barrientos, from Latinos of Tomorrow in KCMO. When I asked him “why don’t women run?” he also cited home responsibilities. “Women are the first to volunteer,” he told me, and they make the greatest volunteers.” But they’re often busy at home raising kids, and so they aren’t able to establish a broad network which makes it hard for them to get elected.

Rick in front of the Oz Mueum
Darn. What do we do about that? Maybe having more high-quality, affordable child care would help…But to get that we’d probably need to have more women in office, and oops we’re back to the same old problem. Meanwhile, take a peek at this sobering look at what happens when you photoshop men out of important moments- kind of alarming, isn’t it?

Maybe we just need to go to Oz…Dorothy and the witches were pretty powerful there. We came through Wamego KS today and discovered the OZ Museum. We were short on time so we didn’t go in, but here’s a photo of Rick.

'Bye Kansas. On to Lincoln, Nebraska tomorrow, and a date with the Lincoln League of Women Voters.







[1] Sara Bard Field to CES Wood, October 15, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California
[2] “The Suffrage Car Gets In,” Kansas City Star, 10.21.15.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Stuck in the Mud in Kansas

“Like Odysseus I have many experiences to relate,” Sara telegrammed Erskine from Emporia. ”Stuck in mud half Monday night, walked through water and mud a mile to farm house for assistance. Arrived 15 miles west of Hutchinson at two in morning. No bad results except cold.”

Kansas started out a little tough for Sarah and the Swedes.  I guess no one told them about the short cut across from Kinsley, so they followed the road to Great Bend and Lyons. But it had been raining hard and a mud hole swallowed their car outside of Nickerson. It was 10pm; they’d driven through the rain from Dodge City and had hoped to make it to Hutchinson to spend the night before taking off for Emporia the next day.

They couldn’t budge the car themselves, so they sat there and called for help. When it was clear none was forthcoming, Sara climbed out of the car into the knee-deep mud and made her way to a farmhouse they’d passed earlier- from one to three miles back depending on the newspaper article you read…But hey, even one mile in a pitch black, rainy, cold autumn night would be a rough walk. There she rousted the farmer, who agreed to hitch up his team and haul them out of the mud hole. That all took time, though, so they didn’t make it to Nickerson until 2am. They hunkered down there for several hours, lucky just to scrounge up a place out of the rain; hot drinks, food, and wash water were only a dream.

In the morning they learned that some men in Nickerson had heard them calling for help but, knowing they were suffragists, jerkishly decided that they should figure out how to take care of themselves and didn’t come to their aid.

That really irritated Sara, and she pointed out in various interviews that providing help was a matter of simple humanity. She’d gotten up at 2 AM any number of times to take care of a man who wouldn’t lift a finger to help himself, she pointed out. (I guess there were man-colds a hundred years ago, too.)  

Anyway, they eventually made it to Hutchison where Sara found a tailor to clean up their outer garments while they dined at the Bisonte, and then they were on their way again.
The Bisconte Hotel in Hutchinson, Fred Harvey Collection,
Main Library Special Collections
University of Arizona, Tuscon

Sara remembers the farmer who hauled them out saying “You girls have guts,” and in fact the bragging rights they earned from that event gained them a lot of respect as their trip wore on and the news spread.

Kansas has treated me much better so far. For starters the weather has been stunning- clear and warm. I got to drive some back roads and see fields stretching for miles with sorghum and wheat. If you like mono-culture and rural landscapes, Kansas is a treat.

In “Hutch” Mary Clarkin interviewed me for the Hutch News, and I was treated to a delicious lunch by Dennis Perrin and his wife Ladonna Fulmer. Dennis teaches technology at the Hutch High School, so after lunch he and his aide did a radio interview with me for Salthawk Radio in this cool studio they have set up just down the hall from his classroom. That was a blast- when the students finish the post-production I’ll post the link in this blog.

On Saturday morning I met with several members of the Emporia League of Women Voters. We talked about how Kansas is in a pretty tough financial bind right now because Governor Sam Brownback decided to conduct the Tea Party’s dream experiment and slash taxes, especially for businesses. The conservatives’ theory (some sort of voodoo, trickle-someway economics) is that new businesses will flock to Kansas because of the low taxes, and existing businesses will expand, and that will replace all the lost revenue. But it hasn’t happened. So public schools, and social services (things that women tend to care a lot about) have been hit hard. Kansas has also not accepted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which benefits the working poor, including a large number of women. 

They groaned when I asked them about Planned Parenthood (PP) funding- check out this effort by the Governor to slam PP back in August when the doctored videos came out- Keep in mind that it was in Wichita, Kansas that an anti-abortion nut murdered George Tiller back in 2009. Tiller was a doctor who provided abortion services, and was one of a few physicians nationally who would do late stage abortions. Kansas conservatives are doing their best to shut down abortion services for women, and judging by a huge “Abstinence Works” billboard I saw coming into Emporia family planning might not be too popular either.

Emporia League of Women Voters
According to the Guttmacher Institute, there are now only 3 clinics in Kansas offering abortions, and most services are limited to situations where the mother’s life is in danger. In some cases- including plans offered in Kansas’ health exchange under the ACA- not even pregnancies resulting from rape or incest are covered. Crazy!

One of the League women I met with said that back in 1968 she was planning to get married, and she went to her doctor to get birth control. He (of course it was a he- there were almost no women MDs back then) told her that he wouldn’t give it to her until one month before her wedding. “You won’t need it until then,” he told her. And what made it his business?

It feels like in the red states we’re sliding back in time to a much scarier place, closer to what Sara and the Swedes had to deal with. Kind of like a giant mud pit. And, like Sara and the Swedes, we’re can’t rely on men to haul us out of there, we’re going to have to wade through the political mud and fight for our safety and our rights. 
Rural Kansas landscape

Friday, October 9, 2015

(Lack of) History Repeats Itself, Unless We Prevent It


Ingeborg, Maria, and Sara arrive in Denver
Sara described Denver to Erskine as a “nightmare,” due mostly to her exhaustion and a “whirlwind of activity” that had been organized for them.[1]  These included “a great meeting at the Capitol attended by throngs,” an hour with the Speaker of the US House, Champ Clark, who happened to be in town, and various other lunches and receptions.

When she tried to beg off she was admonished and told “Why, they’ve been planning it for days and days,” so she had to struggle on. Luckily, they seemed to strike a chord in Denver; the day after their arrival they were recognized and “greeted with shouts and applause” (as well as the occasional jeer, but not many of those.)

They do seem to be looking a bit grim in this photo from the Denver Post. Sara was complaining of a weak heart well before she left San Francisco, and the higher altitudes she'd been in during the previous couple of weeks, the long days in the car, and having to be on stage when she arrived in any town really took it out of her. 

When the meetings were all done she was scooped up by a Mrs. Cuthbert and brought to Colorado Springs, where she was pampered and cosseted for a day and a half. Picture this contrast to the rigors of the previous few weeks.

Afterwards the dear lady sped me here in a luxurious car, all cushion and softness. Such a wonderful place…Great windows from which to watch the skies spilling their cloud foam onto the peaks…I was given a whole suite of exquisite rooms in rose pink and white. A maid came in to wait upon me. She prepared my bath of fragrantly scented water and assisted me (to my embarrassment) in all my toilet. Then I was put back to bed in a dreamy gown of lace and silk and breakfast brought on delicate china and mirror-bright silver.

Damn. My trip has been a lot easier but that still sounds pretty good to me. Not so sure about the maid...but a shower and a cozy room and a beer or two usually makes me pretty happy.

It’s not clear to me what the Swedes did during this interlude. They had been expecting money to be wired to them in Denver, but it wasn’t there when they arrived, and according to Sara this caused them a lot of anxiety, so they followed her around like little ducks until she found a banker to sort it out. It sounds as if she needed a bit of a break from them but I wonder how they felt when they saw her whisked away by the Cuthberts.

My heart goes out to the Swedes, who so generously offered their car to bring the envoys to DC in a spirit of genuine solidarity with the Congressional Union’s goals, only to be silenced and treated as lowly support staff both during the trip and by history. TWhen they were interviewed by reporters it was always about the car, never really about their views on suffrage. No one completed an oral history with them later on, as Amelia Fry did with Sara, Mabel Vernon, and Alice Paul. 

A once-in-a-lifetime cross-country trip that they could have completed at their leisure, stopping when and where they would, was suddenly subjected to a tight deadline that required long days in the car and no time for sightseeing. While they were always invited to be on stage at events and were usually in the published photos, Sara did all the public speaking. Their accents, frumpy clothing, and clearly foreign demeanor made them unsuitable for public roles according to Alice Paul’s vision for how community organizing should work. Frankly, I’d have been a little pissed off had I been in their shoes and might have been tempted to leave Sara at some dreary outpost to find her way to DC on her own.

Sign in the Pueblo rail station historical exhibit

This feeling was reinforced when I stopped by the Pueblo Railway Museum in Pueblo, CO, and saw signs like this one. Swedes aren’t names specifically in this long list, but given the other ethnicities there I’m not sure that they would have been feeling all warm and fuzzy about the reception they got when they came to town. It's to the town's credit that they acknowledged this bigotry existed.

Sign in the Pueblo rail station historical exhibit
It was in Pueblo that I suddenly had the bright idea to ask about old newspapers in other languages besides English. As a railroad hub and a steel town Pueblo attracted a lot of people looking for work, and by 1915 had a pretty diverse population, including several thousand Swedish immigrants. Maybe Maria and Ingeborg had reached out to them? Maybe the Swedish language newspapers had covered the envoys' arrival?

But when I checked with the museums, historical society, and library, only English speaking newspapers had been preserved.
Really? Given the tenor of these signs I guess I’d been naïve to think that anyone would have cared enough about immigrants to have preserved their history. And the immigrants themselves lacked the resources to do it.

History is written by the victors, I’ve always heard, and I guess that means it’s preserved by them as well. I’ve now been through a bunch of these smaller museums and while Native Americans are often featured, they’re presented almost as a phase of human development that somehow went almost extinct, kind of like the dinosaurs. “Geesh, one minute they were there, and then they kind of disappeared. Not really sure where they went.” Sometimes clashes between settlers and Indians are mentioned but it’s rare that they acknowledge that hey, maybe the Indians had a legitimate beef with the settlers since they were stealing their land, killing their game, introducing diseases and alcohol, and disrupting civilizations that had been in place for hundreds or thousands of years. Instead, the settlers seem to emerge as heroes who survived the tough conditions and hostile attacks from the savages to bring civilization to this new land.

Then I started to wonder if the lack of information I’ve found about women’s efforts to achieve equality with men is related to the fact that men were in charge of the newspapers a hundred years ago. The men in charge then were no more interested in preserving women’s history than they were in preserving the experience of poor immigrants and Native Americans.

I talked about this before I left San Francisco with Marian Doub, and was reminded of that conversation when I interviewed Andrea Herrera, PhD Director, Women's and Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. It’s easier to focus on the experience of one group of women, many of whom are privileged due to race and class, but that story would be incomplete. Andrea reminded me that we need a deeper analysis of how race, class and ethnicity influenced women’s experience a hundred years ago and how it continues to affect it today.

This has made me determined to reach out to minority communities throughout the rest of this trip to try to uncover their relationship to the woman suffrage movement a hundred years ago, and also to hear their views on women’s issues today. If you have suggestions for people to talk to or places to look, please send me a note at agass@maine.rr.com.

Random shot of eastern Colorado landscape. 

 [1] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 15, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California