She's been dead 100 years. She belonged to a time of petticoats and whalebone, stagecoaches, "women of a certain age," the Abolitionist and Temperance movements, our Civil War. But Susan B. Anthony refuses to go away. She was a radical, with radical ideas, even by today's standards.
She was full of fire. To her critics: stubborn, callous, angry. To the women who loved her and called her Aunt Susan: passionate, intelligent, dedicated. And funny.And well-dressed.And kind to children.
This was a constant letter-writer, who wrote in staccato phrases held together by dashes, but who asked her colleague, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to write all her speeches. This was a woman who, on her travels crisscrossing the country, preferred to sit with the stagecoach driver. She fought, bargained, yelled, and suffered humiliation so women could get the vote. It was, she believed, the only way for them to get anything else.
She was maddeningly single-minded in her pursuit of women's equality, bringing it up at inappropriate times, at dinner parties or meetings or wedding announcements, making men and women feel uncomfortable. She urged her colleagues to limit how many babies they had. She scoffed at illness, or needs of husbands, if they came in the way of the cause. Every letter she wrote carried Suffragist material in it. In her day she was criticized for her looks, her unmarried life, her lack of children, her inflammatory talk. Would it be much different today?
Women got the vote in 1920. The Equal Pay Act passed in 1963. US women can serve in the military and the government. They can be, technically, almost anything they want to be. Girls grow up with Grrl Power and "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" in their vocabulary.
So everything's fine, then? It's all good and equal? Nothing to worry about?
Think of baby clothes that come in pink or blue. Barbies and Easy Bake Ovens. Stop Hillary Now. Feminazi.Dumb blondes.Girls Gone Wild. Hos and bitches.Anorexia. Family values. Bitch slaps.
What would Susan say?
Where women are concerned
Nora Bredes is the director of the Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Leadership at the University of Rochester, one of the organizing institutions for a yearlong Susan B. Anthony celebration this year.
Bredes was a legislator in Suffolk County before she moved to Rochester. She spoke to City recently about Susan B. Anthony's vision and the challenges still facing women today.
City:You've said part of the work of the Center for Women's Leadership is to help women in political office who "need resources to move critical issues forward." What types of issues might women need help with?
Bredes: As women have become more able to win office --- though their numbers are still incredibly low --- they bring concerns that involve their lives to the work of government. Since the '80s especially, there has been growing concern about how to prosecute and prevent domestic violence. So laws and procedures have changed to give law enforcement and district attorneys more of the tools they need. Child support enforcement is another area, as is women's poverty; health and the environment are other areas where women are particularly concerned.
Political scientists find that women have brought new interest to these areas that really haven't concerned governments before. When you get a certain number of people you establish a culture of an organization, and the culture of all legislative bodies has been established in our history by men, and their values and beliefs and issues have been the guiding force.
City: If you were thinking of areas of society where women still have a way to go to achieve equality, politics would be one?
Bredes: I've been giving a lot of thought to this. I think what's confusing at this time in our history about women's equality is that we've come so far since Susan B. Anthony. We have the legal rights that she fought for. We have the right to vote, we have property rights, we have --- well, we don't have equal pay yet, but the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963. We can serve on juries. If we divorce, we can retain custody of our children. Fifty percent or more of many, many college classes are made up by women.
The problem is that while the rights are there, there are still what she called the "ancient prejudices," the attitudes that we hold about what are the correct behaviors.
You find, for instance, a study done by a woman at Harvard, Hannah Riley Bowles, which offered graduate students a chance to negotiate their starting salaries. Men overwhelmingly would negotiate their salaries. And only about 7 percent of women would, even though when salaries were negotiated the starting salary increased by an average of 7 percent. If you look at women's discomfort with negotiation, with moving themselves forward, that means they start an average of 7 percent behind.
City: And does the study speculate that's because of how women believe they should act?
Bredes: We are supposed to be self-effacing. It's much harder for us to accept our ambition. There's a great book by a woman named Anna Fels called Necessary Dreams, about women's ambition. She's a psychiatrist. She noticed in her practice that many professional women would talk about their success as if it were accidental. "Oh, I just worked really hard, and then I happened to get this Guggenheim Fellowship." They were very humble, self-effacing, and had a very hard time taking any credit for what they did, even though clearly they were driven to work. It's that self-effacement and a forced social humility that makes it very hard for a woman to promote herself.
City: But there are still many women in college and graduate programs. It seems that at the educational level the numbers are more equal.
Bredes: The National Science Foundation did a survey of women and men earning doctorates. In 2001-2002, for the first cycle, there were more women earning PhDs than men. And then they looked at entry-level positions offered in that same year at the top 50 research institutions and found that 60 percent went to men. And 70 percent of tenured faculty positions were held by men. It's very hard for women who are still primarily the child caregivers to try to combine achieving tenure and raising a family. They both sort of happen in the same window.
Betty Friedan said we will earn equal rights, but the institutions have to change themselves. The institutions have been formed by men to reflect traditional ways that men behave in the world. It doesn't make them bad; it makes it hard for women's different experiences to be accommodated.
City: If Susan B. Anthony were alive today, would she be considered a revolutionary?
Bredes: She probably would be. As much as she saw winning the vote for women as essential, she saw it as a tool. It was a means; it wasn't an end. It was a means to what she said would be a world where men's physical strength and might and dominance over women would be replaced by an equality and respect, men for women and women for men. And there would be, she said, manly women and womanly men, women who learned to develop all their gifts through independence and self-confidence and energy and men who would learn sympathy and culture and gentleness.
She really saw this balancing of the sexes as something to be embraced as a goal. She saw gender as something that was plastic, that there was not a divinely ordered natural way for men and women to be.
City: It's interesting how relevant that still is. You see some of that plasticity of gender and the push-back. "Brokeback Mountain," for example. It seems like people are freaking out over the feminization of the cowboy.
Bredes: It's interesting that the Republicans, when they wanted to denigrate John Kerry, basically said Democrats are girly men. What they did was try to make us suspicious of his strengths, his heroism, his manliness. I looked online for images of him, and there were tons of images of him feminized, dressed as a woman, etc.
When you want to hurt someone badly, you attack them in a way that makes them seem abnormal in a gender sense. Recently Ken Mehlman, Republican National Committee chairman, said Hillary Clinton was getting a little too angry at President Bush and no one was going to vote for an angry woman. If you're an angry woman you're a shrew, you're a nag. What does that mean? It means that a woman leader can't be outraged by justice, by dishonesty.
City: How do women overcome this? Is it numbers, that with more women in politics, things will change?
Bredes: I think individually, women who have a passion about family and community can do more to help each other recognize that politics really isn't only about personal ambition. It can be a way to change the conditions of our lives for the better. I think that's especially important for women to realize, because women tend to get involved in politics not out of personal ambition as much as out of a passion to change. In my case, I got involved with environmental issues and nuclear power and closing nuclear power plants. For others it was improving the school system, building a library. For Louise Slaughter, it was preserving a small bit of woods in her Fairport neighborhood.
I do also think that it's a critical-mass issue. If you have enough women there to support each other's experiences --- I'm not saying that we're all angels and we'll all get along --- it is likely that the way politics and governments work can change.
City: Do you think women today have a problem with complacency?
Bredes: Not so much complacency. Ann Crittenden has a book called The Price of Motherhood. And she believed college-age women and men really have equal opportunities. It's when families start to form that it's very hard. How do you organize lives so that both men and women have the opportunity to raise children and realize their gifts? Not only that, but for women who aren't college educated, or women who have to go out and earn a living to support their kids because they are not getting child support: there are not systems in place that support them. It's supposed to be something we manage on our own.
City: People fall into roles because institutions aren't set up to accommodate change?
Bredes: I also think there's another dynamic at work post 9/11, and that is the continued reminder of terror and that the push by our leaders to make us afraid. I think we become less likely to risk new ways of doing things, and we become much more reactive and probably need the comfort of traditions that have been long-lived in the country. Shortly after 9/11, I think it was in Time Magazine that Laura Bush was described as the Comforter in Chief. She would not only comfort the nation, but she was comforter to George Bush. She was the one who was sensitive to his feelings. That's a very traditional role for a woman to play.
City: Is there an overlap between racial equality and gender equality?
Bredes: There is in the sense that the push through the 20th century was really for the achievement of legal rights and protection. There is in the women's movement and the civil rights movement a supposition that we're there. Because we've achieved those rights, the revolution is complete --- without looking at the underlying attitudes that continue, the racial profiling that goes on, poverty accepted as the norm for minorities and for women.
Anthony said something like "Constitutional equality only gives equal chances to win equality." We still have a lot of work to do, and it's harder work because it's getting inside our closely held values and belief systems and trying to change them.
City: What do you hope people will take away from Susan B. Anthony's life or vision?
Bredes: To start talking about it again. What was it that she wanted to achieve? What did she think the vote was going to do? What would it be like if women made up six out of the nine Supreme Court Justices, 60 percent of Congress, and 70 percent of all state legislatures? What would the world be like? I think it would be neat if people just start asking the questions.
Then and now
How much has changed, how much hasn't, and what's progress?
Then: On the suffragists: "We saw, in broad daylight, in a public hall in the city of New York, a gathering of unsexed women... publicly propounding the doctrine that they should be allowed to step out of their appropriate sphere...." New York Herald, 1953
Now: On Hillary Rodham Clinton: "...stop this ambitious, ruthless, scheming, calculating, manipulating woman...." New York Republican State Committee Chairman William Powers, in a 2000 fundraising letter
Percentage of women in US state legislatures: 22. Where the US ranks in terms of women's representation in national legislatures: 68 out of 180. (The first is Rwanda.)
Then: "What, then, has driven these women to the desperation necessary to force them to commit such a deed? This question being answered, I believe, we shall have such an insight into the matter as to be able to talk more clearly of a remedy." --- Susan B. Anthony
Now: 52 percent of women who get abortions are younger than 25. Unmarried women are six times more likely to have abortions. Sixty percent of abortions are performed on women who already have one or more children. Between 1994 and 2000 the abortion rate for women below the poverty line rose 25 percent.
Then: In 1890, percentage of women doctors in the US: 5. In 1900, percentage of women teachers in the US: 86.
Now: In 2005, percentage of women doctors in the US: 29. In 2005, percentage of women teachers (elementary and middle school) in the US: 81. (Five percent of firefighters are women, but women are 99 percent of dental hygienists.)
Then: Spinsters and old maids; Susan B. Anthony; Louisa May Alcott.
Now: "The quirkyalone" and the New Single Woman; Sex and the City, Condoleezza Rice.
Then: Approximately 100 American women donned bloomers --- ankle-length pants under knee-length skirts --- in the mid 1800s. Ridicule eventually drove most of them (including SBA) back to full skirts.
Now: The perfect jeans, the little black dress, thongs, "porn star" T-shirts, flip-flops, pantyhose.
"Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less." ---Susan B. Anthony
Modern men SBA would love:
And men she would not:
Local institutions --- including the Susan B. Anthony House, the George Eastman House, University of Rochester, and the Eastman School --- have planned a year of events in honor of SBA's legacy on the 100th anniversary of her death. Check www.rochester.edu/SBA/100years or call 275-8799 for complete details.
Some of the big events over the next month:
March 13-August 31: Susan B. Anthony: Celebrating a Heroic Life, 1820-1906, an exhibit at the Department of Rare Books & Special Collections, UR Rush Rhees Library
March 15: Women Composers, a program performed by Eastman Community Music School, Kilbourn Hall
March 25: Re-enactment of SBA's funeral service, Hochstein School
March 30-April 1: "Susan B. Anthony & the Struggle for Equal Rights," first-ever history conference focusing on SBA, her colleagues, and her time, UR
Ongoing: http://whatwouldsusansay.blogspot.com, online discussion of SBA's legacy