Desperately Seeking Susan B. Anthony: The Search is On

This article has been cross-posted from The New Agenda.

Hello from the great state of New York, city of Rochester! We’re here in search of Susan B. Anthony, and hope to find her at her homestead later today. We’ll report on that and Seneca Falls on Friday. My apologies for being out of touch so long, but we’ve had some glitches accessing wifi outside of my iPhone. Here’s what we’ve been up to before today.

Amelia at Paulsdale

We visited Paulsdale, Alice Paul’s house at Mount Laurel, NJ on Saturday. We had stopped at a hotel in Mt. Washington, NJ the night before and found ourselves surrounded by loads of families decked out in Valley Forge gear after having seen the sights there. It was a festive atmosphere and I couldn’t wait for the next day to see Paulsdale. Seeing all the folks so hyped about history really whet our appetites for it. As we pulled into the driveway on that crisp morning and saw the placard with her picture on it, I admit I started to tear up. It was an emotional moment stepping onto those grounds, knowing the story, and being able to share it with Lily and Amelia.

Thing is, the place was deserted. No one was there at 11:00 on a Saturday. I realized my mistake later after re-checking the website—tours had to be scheduled. I was pretty surprised. Here was the female equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, and no one seemed to care, save the folks who run the place. That was the first eye-opener of this trip. There aren’t any Paulsdales in the Midwest where we live, and while there are plenty of women’s historical sites to see, they don’t get a lot of traffic. I don’t know why I thought it would be different here.

Nevertheless we attended the grounds and peeked in windows while I told the girls why Alice Paul was important. They were most impressed with the force feedings and Night of Terror, of course. I told them how Alice Paul had used Paulsdale as a planning headquarters, how she had scads of women up to help plan and foment the revolution that Abigail Adams had promised 150 years earlier. I asked my young charges if they could picture it, the women moving about the gorgeous wrap-around porch or trailing their skirts along the grass, engaged in such meaningful conversations. We stood in the yard and let our imaginations run away with us. I think they could see it once I prompted them.

Boston the next day was the same mixture of disappointment and profound reverence. We arrived in Boston and located Beacon Hill, but then had I left my travel binder with info on the Women’s Heritage Trail and The Boston Women’s Memorial in it in the car. We knew the trail started at the State House, so we made our way the block and half to that, where we saw the statues of Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson at either end. If you don’t the stories of these two amazing women who gave their lives in pursuit of religious freedom, I encourage you to look them up.  It is amazing that Massachusetts has acknowledged how badly they wronged these two women, and offered a mea culpa in the form of bronze statues.

From there we made our way to Boston Commons in search of a visitor center. As we walked we asked several people if they knew where the Women’s Heritage Trail was or the Boston Women’s Memorial. Without exception people were surprised to hear it existed, and no one knew where it was, even locals. At the visitor center a half a dozen employees were working the front desk, and only one of them even knew of the Boston Women’s Memorial and where it was. This whole aspect of the day was the most disappointing for me, for I had assumed that these monuments had been erected because the general public cared and appreciated the contributions of women.

Lily contemplates the Boston Women's Memorial

We left our disappointment in the park and struck out for Commonwealth Avenue, which we learned was an entire avenue of monuments, all men save the Boston Women’s Memorial, which was almost at the end. We traveled the five or six blocks and examined the monuments to the great men of Boston on our way. I was delighted when we finally arrived to see the statues of Phillis Wheatley, Abigail Adams, and Lucy Stone. I walked to each of the statues telling the girls the women’s stories. Other walkers stopped to listen in, and that was the most delightful thing. People cared if they could understand, that much was obvious. Afterwards we sat on a bench and people-watched while we talked. Here I had a revelation of my own, which I shared with the girls.

Amelia and Lily offer pennies for luck to Phillis Wheatley's hand.

All of the monuments to men had been larger-than-life statues, all of which were ensconced atop of pedestals or large stones. These monuments to women were different. Not only were the statues actually life-sized, none of them were set on top of anything. They were all at ground level. This memorial was designed by Meredith Bergmann, and it occurred to me as I contemplated it that the stark difference between it and the other statues spoke to the different approaches men and women generally have taken to the world.

Now, one has to be terribly careful when using such generalizations because of the temptation to make value judgments. I don’t mean to suggest that any way is superior in the end; and I want to make clear that I think both are necessary. But an important connection was made for me on the bench by that memorial. I want more women in government and business and everywhere else precisely because I believe that the combination of different approaches is necessary to our success and progress, and that with balance we can create a world that manifestly represents all of us. I want that world so bad, not only for myself, but for these budding young women too.

Mercy Otis Warren statue at the Barnstable Superior Courthouse

Yesterday we struck out for Cape Cod to check out Barnstable, home of Mercy Otis Warren, where statues of Warren and her brother, James Otis, have been erected on either side of the courthouse. Lily and Amelia were angered to learn that Warren had disagreed with Abigail Adams about the equal participation of women Adams had sought via her husband’s participation on the Constitutional Convention. They wanted to dismiss her outright when I explained this to them. So we sat on the grass below her statue and talked about time and convention and how powerful the combination of those forces were, how difficult it was to overcome them. I explained that we could not hold Warren’s beliefs against her, for she was a product of her time. Nevertheless, her views did not diminish the important work she had done, nor did it change the fact that by including stories of women, African Americans, and Native Americans in her history of the United States she had forever changed the approach historians took when evaluating what was worth recording. They accepted my answer, but still insisted it was not okay to hold this view today. This, dear readers, is an outstanding measure of our progress.

We take so much for granted in our day-to-day lives, it’s easy to lose sight of how hard others have worked to make sure we have the rights and opportunities we have today. I had cheekily named this series “Desperately Seeking Susan B. Anthony,” but I am learning that these sites really need to be found. They need to be visited and shared, looked at and appreciated. The stories need to be handed down and preserved. If they aren’t, one day we might not have them.

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5 comments on “Desperately Seeking Susan B. Anthony: The Search is On

  1. artandhistory says:

    Hi, I came across your post while browsing tags. I was a member of the committee behind the Boston Women’s Memorial and in fact had the honor of helping to write all of the biographical texts there.

    You were absolutely right in your observation about the pedestals. Meredith chose to have the women “come down from their pedestals” and turn them into useful objects. Abigail Adams, shown in her later years, leans against her pedestal as she rests from all the physical work she had to do while John was away in Washington.

    Phillis Wheatley’s pedestal becomes the desk on which she writes. And Lucy Stone uses hers as a work table to lay out and compose issues of her newspaper. One thing all the women have in common is that all were writers.

    I was sorry to read the tourist offices were so unhelpful. I’ll make a few phone calls and try and get them on the ball. Glad you persisted.

    – Marilyn Richardson

  2. Anna Belle says:

    Thanks Marilyn, for your comment, and the work you did on the memorial. It is truly lovely! Thanks also for following up at the visitor centers.

  3. roofingbird says:

    AB – It sounds like you ought to start a tour. I’d buy in!

  4. Janis says:

    PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE do an article on this:

    If votes can’t be trusted, then Anthony, Stanton, Paul and all the rest worked themselves to the bone for NOTHING. Making sure this sees the light of day, even if it is two years too late, is the best way to commemorate the work that Anthony and her colleagues did.

    • Anna Belle says:

      Janis, thanks for the link. That was powerful testimony. I agree with you that it’s important and would like to write about it. Let me think on it and see if I can come up with something. Can’t make any promises, but I’ll try.

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