On the Road With Susan B. Anthony

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A life crusading for women’s rights was not easy.  Over at the website of National Public Radio, Nina Martyris writes about what it is was like for Susan B. Anthony to spend so much time on the road.  Hint: she ate a lot of bad food.

Here is a taste of Martyris’s piece:

The journeys were punishing and the reception, while sometimes warm and encouraging, was often apathetic, sullen or viciously combative. On the eve of the Civil War, when the national mood was fissile, rotten eggs were lobbed at the stage and cayenne pepper flung on the stove to disrupt the meeting. Implacable, Anthony stood her ground. But one can well imagine how much she and her companions longed for a hot meal and a clean bed after these brutal encounters. In most cases, however, they went back to a dirty hotel and terrible food.

“Most of the food served them was green with soda or floating in grease and the hotels were infested with bedbugs,” writes her biographer Alma Lutz in Susan B. Anthony: Rebel, Crusader, Humanitarian. “Susan wrote her family of sleepless nights and of picking the ‘tormentors’ out of their bonnets and the ruffles of their dresses.” One South Dakota hotel served “sour bread, muddy coffee and stewed green grapes.” In others they were faced with unclean water, straw pallets and coffee without cream or milk, sweetened only with sorghum – a good cup of coffee was something Anthony sorely missed, as is evident from a report she filed for a newspaper describing how she “luxuriated in a Christian cup of coffee” in Trinidad, Colo.

“I can assure you that my avoirdupois is being rapidly reduced,”Anthony wrote with characteristic humor in a letter to her family in Rochester, N.Y. Fortunately, she had a robust constitution and weathered the harsh travel conditions mostly without complaint, but a plangent sigh in her diary reflects her frustration: “O, the crimes that are committed in the kitchens of this land!”

Read the entire piece here.

Was Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life?

According to this Saturday Night Live sketch, Susan B. Anthony believed “abortion is murder.”

But historian Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wadewarns pro-life and pro-choice advocates to think twice before invoking Anthony.

Here is a taste of his First Things piece “Susan B. Anthony’s Contested Legacy“:

Pro-lifers’ appropriation of Susan B. Anthony has resulted in a distortion of historical facts. Claiming Anthony for either side in the modern abortion debate is highly anachronistic. As a historian, I think that it’s important to understand the past on its own terms without trying to make figures from the past fit the contours of modern debates. Efforts to try to make Susan B. Anthony fit the mold of a modern pro-lifer are certainly misguided.

At the same time, I think it may be worth citing the late-nineteenth-century feminists in order to question modern pro-choice feminists’ insistence that reproductive rights are an essential, nonnegotiable part of feminism. If Anthony and her late-nineteenth-century feminist colleagues were not pro-life activists, they were not advocates of abortion rights or sexual license, either.

Read the entire piece here.

You can also listen to Williams discuss Defenders of the Unborn in Episode 2 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Saturday Night Live Tackles Susan B. Anthony

Watch the sketch from January 14:

This is an amazing sketch. We must not miss the lessons about historical thinking embedded in it.  I will use this over and over again in my classes.

Most of the commentary on the sketch that I have seen has focused on Anthony’s closing line: “Abortion is murder.”  For example, after the sketch aired on Saturday night the Susan B. Anthony Museum tweeted:

Of course the pro-life camp seemed pretty pleased by the portrayal of Anthony.

Obviously the sketch writers were trying to say something about the disconnect between Anthony’s heroic work on behalf of women’s rights and the rather self-absorbed millennial women visiting her historic house.  While Anthony shares her wisdom (“A woman can only be in chains if she allows herself to be in chains” and “An idea is the most dangerous weapon can have.”), these modern women, even as they seem genuinely excited that Anthony has appeared before them, are obsessed with food, technology, and their own comfort.

But there is an even larger point to made here.  It is about the way we encounter the past. Our society spends millions and millions of dollars each year traveling to and visiting historical sites, but we often fail to have any real encounter with the past on its own terms.  We do not want to be confronted with the claims of the past on our lives.  It is too annoying.  We want nostalgia. We want an entertaining tour with a lot of fun facts. We want to make the past fit comfortably within our world. Sadly, when the past asks us to take a harder look at ourselves we fall back into our present-day narcissism.

It seems to me that history education–at all levels (K-12 and at public sites)–is not merely about visiting cool sites and spending time “oohing” and “ahhing” about what happened in those places. It is about teaching our students to move beyond tourism and nostalgia toward empathy, understanding, an even personal transformation.