Back on Suffragette City

I’m about to go vote in today’s U.S. election, and as usual, I’m getting a bit weepy.

Is this because, as I consider some of the candidates, I realize I’d rather vote for a dead weasel?

No, it’s because I start thinking about Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, the Pankhursts, and everyone else who fought for universal suffrage.

“Don’t lean on me man ’cause you can’t afford the ticket, I’m back on Suffragette City … ”

Apparently, in the tangled hyperlinks of my brain, there’s a jump from “suffrage” to David Bowie. To cast him out, let’s move back in time. Hello, Abigail Adams! What a solid chick you were, going to the Continental Congress (what “continent,” by the way? Weren’t we just 13 rather puny colonies at that point?) to make the case for women’s rights.

Row, row, row your boat ...

But your husband, future president John, vowed to fight “the despotism of the petticoat.” O Abigail! Our stern-faced Founding Fathers could stand up to King George and his Redcoats, but they didn’t think they could take us women in a fair fight. So it was the despotism of the Y-fronts until 1920, when American women finally got the vote.

“Hey man! I can’t take you this time, no way … ”

Bowie again, interrupting as I move forward in time – but not as far as you, Ziggy Stardust – to Matilda Electa Joslyn Gage.

She who holds the sky

Another righteous sister, born in 1826 with “a hatred of oppression,” Matilda grew up in a house that was part of the underground railroad for escaped slaves, and campaigned for abolition and Native American rights as well as women’s suffrage.

In 1878 she bought a newspaper, renamed it the National Citizen and Ballot Box, and served as its editor for three years. In 1890, believing that the National American Suffrage Association was too conservative, she founded the Women’s National Liberal Union to advocate for, among other things, stronger separation of church and state.

She also admired and hung out with the Iroquois, who initiated her into their Wolf Clan and gave her the name Karonienhawi: “She who holds the sky.”

Now mostly forgotten, Matilda Gage had a greater influence on women’s suffrage and other great causes than her reputation suggests, a fact that’s recognized in the term “the Matilda effect,” referring to a female scientist who receives less credit than her achievements deserve.

So, voting: a hard-won privilege. Sure, there are too many “better a dead weasel” candidates. And in California we’ve got these baffling propositions. Do I want to spend half an hour deciding whether to eliminate the State Commission on Redistricting? No, I don’t.

But my mother’s mother, born in Iowa in 1872, was 48 years old before she could vote. Thanks to the suffragists, I was born with that right.

Off now to cast my ballot.

“Wham bam, thank you ma’am.”

Poster in the public domain. Badge reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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