Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Western New York Radicalism

I wrote about their trip to Ohio in a single blog, but the envoys actually drove from Toledo to Detroit and then back down to Cleveland before quitting the state for good. I don’t know if they had an inkling of the weather in store for them but they opted to load the little black car onto a boat bound for Buffalo. I suspect that Sara, at least, followed by train and maybe the Swedes went along by boat to keep an eye on the car, but I haven’t figured that out yet. In any case, western NY was settling into a normal pattern of early winter weather, with temps in the 40s during the day and dipping down below freezing at night. It couldn’t have been pleasant riding in an unheated car. In contrast, our trip through western NY was through an extended Indian summer; crisp mornings gave way to balmy afternoons, and we even had to turn on the AC from time to time. A very different trip!

After some dithering as to whether they had time to organize meetings there it appears they did have at least an open air rally in Buffalo (on account of the weather being so toasty.) Then they pushed on to Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Albany, stopping and getting signatures from mayors and other notables en route.

Sheri L. Scavone, Executive Director
of the 
Western New York Women’s Foundation
In Buffalo I had the good fortune to meet with Sheri L. Scavone, who is the Executive Director of the Western New York Women’s Foundation. The Foundation provides impact grants and advocacy around childcare, helping women get family sustaining jobs, providing high-quality out-of-school time programming, and empowering women leaders. I loved that they actually fund studies and research to collect data that they then use to direct their grant making decisions- and their advocacy.

Buffalo is undergoing something of a renaissance and thousands of new jobs will be opening up there in the coming years. The Foundation has had some success in pointing out that without affordable and high quality daycare women won’t be likely to take advantage of the new jobs. In a climate like Buffalo’s, that can see 7 feet of snow in a 3-day period, working parents need places to stash their kids not just after school and in the summer but on snow days as well. The city leaders have been busy planning new business campuses that will house thousands of jobs but making absolutely no provision for childcare. Filling these jobs will require single moms to join the workforce, and they’ll need help. I’m greatly simplifying it but that’s some of the advocacy Sheri and her board are up to, and it was great to learn about their model and hear how their having an impact.

In Albany New York's Governor Whitman and his wife gave the envoys a very friendly reception, even hosting a luncheon for them and over 30 other guests. Despite the fact that New York voters had just tanked yet another statewide suffrage referendum, Whitman was optimistic that they would ultimately prevail, though he didn’t hazard a guess as to when that might happen. “It is dear to my heart and also dear to the heart of the little lady who presides over the Executive mansion,” the Governor assured the gathering as he signed the petition (which Sara is quoted the day before as saying was over 3 miles long.)[1]  

In Utica we happened to stay in the same lodgings the envoys had used; the Hotel Utica. It was built in the Renaissance Revival-style and was almost brand new when they arrived there so it must have been stunning.  Utica’s fortunes have dwindled since then and the hotel suffered too, kind of like a movie star who gets strung out on heroin for a while but kicks the habit and emerges clean and well pressed but looking a little frayed around the edges. Anyway, it was fun wandering around in the faded elegance and imagining Sara and the Swedes and Mabel eating in the restaurant. If you find yourself in Utica for some unknown reason, we recommend Hotel Utica!

Hotel Utica

Back in the day western New York was a hotbed of all sorts of newfangled ideas- from abolition of slavery to women’s rights, communes, and new religions (including Mormonism.)  Although it wasn’t part of their itinerary (the museums didn’t exist yet) we stopped at several museums that are a tribute to this history.

The first was Susan B. Anthony’s house in Rochester, which has been restored and turned into a museum. Here my cousin Matthew Rand joined Rick and me for a special tour given by Executive Director Deborah L. Hughes. Deborah L. Hughes. Deb clearly knew her history and it was great to have her guide us through the women’s rights movements earliest history. I got the feeling that Susan would have approved of the CU’s gumption in organizing this trip and she certainly would have empathized with the envoys’ road weariness at this stage. She herself had traveled tens of thousands of miles all over the country in support of suffrage campaigns.
Deborah Hughes, Executive Director of the SBA House and
Museum. And me- one of us looks very professional and the
other looks like she's been on the road for 6 weeks.
You decide.
Next we stopped at Seneca Falls and the Women's Rights National Historical Park.  There’s lots of women’s rights-themed activities there, including the Museum, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home, and self-guided walking tours. I thought they did a nice job with a complex history strung out over many decades, though I know there are complaints that US suffrage history gets “whitewashed.” Suffrage leaders did complain that illiterate men (of all colors) and “lunatics” were able to vote when educated women could not. Their careful wording of the proposed federal amendment would prevent voting rights from being denied on the basis of gender alone, and give states the option of using other voter suppression tactics like poll taxes or the Jim Crow laws. Some of their comments could be construed as straight-up racism.
Rick and me, standing in the park near the SBA
Museum; the statues are Susan having tea with
her buddy Frederick Douglas

Still, it’s also true that many early suffragists fought hard to abolish slavery, and were betrayed when the 15th Amendment to the constitution gave the vote to black men only, not to women as well. Introducing the word male into the Constitution was a dangerous precedent for all women going forward. And I think it’s important to understand their behavior in the context of the time in which they lived. The Southern states were opposed to giving black women the vote, and they had to figure out a way to move the federal amendment forward. Were they racist? Maybe. Would you and I have been similarly racist had we lived 100 years ago?  Quite possibly. Would those suffrage leaders be more likely in 2015 to reach out to and include women of color in a sort of rainbow coalition? Maybe not all of them, but I believe a majority would. So it’s complicated. I want to think and read about that some more.

The last museum we went to was the former home of Matilda Joslyn Gage, who broke with Susan B Anthony when Susan brought the Women’s Christian Temperance Union into the suffrage movement. I was somewhat aware of this history, but had focused more on the WCTU’s temperance efforts. Matilda was much more concerned about the “Christian” part of their name, aware that their stated purpose was to inject God into the Constitution and make the US a Christian nation. Sounds weirdly similar to 2015, doesn’t it? 
Matilda Joslyn Gage

Matilda thought that Christianity was a much greater threat to women than the lack of voting rights was, and she headed in a different direction. There were some great quotes from Matilda on the walls of the museum, each room of which was dedicated to a different part of her activism (and one to Oz- she was L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law, as I mentioned in an earlier blog.) I hadn’t known a lot about Matilda and she clearly deserves to be better known, especially in this time of right-wing religious extremism in the US.

“The most stupendous system of organized robbery known has been that of the church towards woman, a robbery that has not only taken her self-respect but all rights of person; the fruits of her own industry; her opportunities of education; the exercise of her judgment, her own conscience, her own will.”

[1] “Suffrage Workers Ride 4,000 Miles,” Utica Observer, 11.18.15, p. 12.

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