The Sum — The Meaning of The Week by Gloria Feldt

“The first responsibility of leadership is the creation of meaning.” — Warren Bennis.

The word of the week is MOVE. As in a movement has to move to be successful. (Grab your iced tea or mint julep — this Sum will be longer than usual.)

From Suffrage to Full Equality: What’s Next for Women’s Rights?

Have you seen the new Wonder Woman movie? If so, you probably noticed the reference to suffragists. William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator, was inspired by the suffragists. So on this weekend leading up to the long July 4th weekend celebrating all that America aspires to be, let’s raise our glasses to celebrate the women who fought for our being part of that vision.

Barbara Williams, Executive Director, NY State Women’s Suffrage Commission

This week I was honored to be in Nassau County to keynote for the Long Island Association Women’s Collaborative’s fabulous event celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote in New York.

The county is also the birthplace of the self-titled General Rosalie Jones. In December 1912, she led her “army” of suffragists on a 13 day march through freezing weather, from the Bronx to Albany. Their mission: to make a statement so strong that it would persuade the governor to support a statewide suffrage referendum. Imagine the spectacle — women in long skirts and winter cloaks, so dedicated that they adopted military symbols and sloshed for days through the snow.

“General” Rosalie Jones leading women to Albany

The news spread fast, even pre-twitter.

The governor joined their cause.

You’ll immediately see the connection between the suffragists and the pink pussy hats of last January’s Women’s March.

That’s exactly what I want to talk with you about today: the lessons we can learn from the suffrage movement — and equally important, the work we have yet to do to secure women’s rights now and for our daughters and granddaughters. For the work continues in this unfinished movement.

Lesson 1: The suffragists made their voices heard and their presence known. Politically powerless, they used what they had (that’s my Leadership Power Tool #3) — the power of grassroots organizing, their numbers and their passion — the power to create street theater that got the attention of elected officials and the media. (Side note: get the free AdviceCoach app to guide you through all 9 Power Tools in my book, No Excuses by texting POWERTO to 444999.)

New Yorkers seemed especially adept at street theater.

When President Wilson took the presidential yacht around the Statue of Liberty, local suffragists recruited a biplane to do a leaflet drop. Unfortunately high winds that day thwarted their plan, but media coverage went viral, and they were dubbed “Suff Bird Women.”

One hundred years ago, June 28, 1917, suffragists in Washington DC cranked up the heat on President Woodrow Wilson who so far had not taken a stand on women’s right to vote. Quaker feminist Alice Paul, head of the Woman’s Party and her “Silent Sentinels” announced they would go on hunger strikes if necessary to force President Wilson to take a stand.

Did you know the suffragists were the first to demonstrate at the White House?

Alice Paul, Lucy Barnes and Doris Stevens in front of the White House, 1917

They promised to continue their demonstration at the White House despite the arrests of 25 and the jailing of 6 women. They carried banners displaying a famous quote uttered in 1916, by the woman dubbed the most beautiful suffragist, Inez Milholland.

Milholland had collapsed after a speech to 1500 people in LA. Her last public words before she was taken to the hospital where she died a month later were “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”

How –long — must — we — wait?

The Silent Sentinels in front of the White House with the banner echoing Milholland’s final speech

Over 70 years, as it turned out, after the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, when the status of women was more like property than citizens, and that state of affairs was assumed to be God-ordained.

“Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by man and woman…were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours.” — President Grover Cleveland

Lesson 2 was summed up by Alice Paul, when she said, “When you put your hand to the plough, you can’t put it down till you get to the end of the row.”

She was the original “Nevertheless, she persisted” woman. And so must we be. We’ve got the vote, but we are far from the end of the row. The full blessings of liberty are not ours YET.

And though the moral arc of the universe may bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King asserted, as it does with any social movement, the arc toward full women’s rights is a long game, with many twists and turns.

Lesson 3 is that as a movement grows, divergent factions often develop that can deter, or alter, the path to progress.

The Minnesota Woman Suffrage Association chastised Paul and the demonstrators for embarrassing the government, especially during wartime. (The US had entered WW I in April of that year.) This revealed a schism between those who believed in direct action and those who favored more ladylike measures.

The iron fist or the velvet glove.

Which strategy do you think is more effective?

There were those who like Paul believed that to make an omelet you had to break eggs. To be bold. That the time for genteel marching was over and it was time to confront the injustice directly, to speak truth to power even with their own bodies, and like Milholland with their lives if necessary.

Then there were those, led by Wisconsin-born educator Carrie Chapman Catt who believed they should be ladylike, incremental, and not challenge the power structure. They argued that since they would have to get the votes of men to prevail, they would damage their chances by breaking their gender stereotypes.

Further, Catt’s argument, aimed at coopting men’s fears of the impact women’s votes might have, was that women would just vote like their husbands. It might have helped win the war for suffrage but it left us with many battles yet to be fought.

By the end of 1917, when President Wilson realized the growing political strength of the movement, he announced support for the suffrage amendment which helped put it over the top to be ratified into the US constitution in 1920.

Alice Paul toasting (with grape juice) passage of the 19th Amendment

I’m a student of social movements as well as a practitioner so while I was preparing for my speech this week I was planning to focus only on stories from the suffrage movement. Instead, I found myself coming back over and over to the future and to the mission: Take The Lead: Gender Equality in leadership in all sectors by 2025.

I’m certain that if we don’t embrace our power to lead and set our intentions higher, women will have to keep fighting the same battles over and over.

So let’s think together, looking forward to the 105th anniversary of the 19th amendment in 2025.

What will we be celebrating about women’s advancement then?

What are your highest aspirations? Worst fears?

Lesson 4 and it’s THE most important lesson we can learn from the suffrage movement: Even when you win, you aren’t done. In a democracy, you can never congratulate yourself and think victory is forever. A movement has to move, Power and energy come from moving into new spaces, not from resisting or defending your gains.

Winning the right to vote was necessary and important, but it only gave women the OPPORTUNITY to participate in civic life. It didn’t guarantee anything would change in public policy. That, women would have to build brick by brick, bird by bird as author Annie Lamott would say. It’s slogging hard work, being full citizens. But it is noble work.

Today, women are on a precipice of opportunity — positioned for meaningful advances despite recent setbacks. Will we squander this opportunity? History warns we might. The suffragists did not leverage the political strength they had amassed from 70-odd years of building the movement.

Carrie Chapman Catt formed the nonpartisan League of Women Voters. I love the League and learned much of what I know about how government works from them, but for most of their years they didn’t take activist roles that would have used the political clout they gained from winning the 19th Amendment.

Alice Paul was the most prescient, the most visionary, and in my opinion, the most politically savvy and strategic of the suffrage leaders. Because in politics, if you are not moving forward with a proactive agenda, you will most assuredly be pushed back.

Paul asserted that voting rights would only be meaningful if the rest of women’s agenda, including the elimination of all discrimination based on gender, access to health care and better working conditions remained aligned with it.

She wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1922. In 1923, she organized to introduce it in Congress.

Though she didn’t live to see the ERA added to the U.S. Constitution (it remains unratified), WE can pick up that mantle and get it ratified now.

Can we do less? No! We can and we must do much more!

Women now surpass men in educational attainment and the business case for women’s leadership is clear: more women=greater return on investment and better governance in politics. Yet, the combination of external barriers, implicit bias, and culturally learned internal resistance to claiming power and higher intentions, have stalled women at under 20% of top leadership positions, earning 20% less than men. In the process, the nation loses a significant portion of its brainpower, while families lose up to $1,000,000 each over a woman’s lifetime.

That’s why I call upon each of you to do one thing each day to honor the brave suffragists and all other Wonder Women who have come before us by using your voice, casting your vote, running for office or helping another woman whose values you share to run for office, serving on a community board or commission, building a business — keeping your hands to the plough till we reach the end of the row. And the next row and the next.

Till we not only pass the ERA, but claim women’s rights as human rights and know we deserve them.

The suffragists inspired Wonder Woman. Let them inspire us to be Wonder Women, full-speed ahead into full parity with our male partners, and into a world where all women and men can flourish to their full capabilities.

Will you join me in pledging to do it by 2025?

Thanks to #SisterCourage: a bow to Leslie Grossman for recommending me to speak this week to the Long Island Association Women’s Collaborative and Ivy Algazy (on the right) for inviting me.

And special thanks too to two people who introduced me to wonderful stories this week. David Dismore, who has a thousand stories at his fingertips, gave me the example of the March from the Bronx to Albany and also the fact that Alice Paul was picketing the White House on June 28th! The brilliant cultural historian Linda Hirshman gave me the Suff Bird Women story.



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