As She had always persisted
Women’s suffrage NY Centennial writing
I was not born in the United States of America, I am an immigrant .
I hail from a small Northern English village, which is of little consequence, except to say that it has the dubious distinction of being a place which was, deeply embedded in Great Britain’s industrial revolution in the 1800’s. It was once a land of cotton mills and coal mines and it is where my journey began.
I arrived in central NY on the coldest night I had until then, ever experienced. It was a snow-covered January night. My daughter was so tired and small at just seven years old, that I thought her little body would shatter from the shivers, she could not control in the frigid darkness.
I look back on that day often now, as the silent snow piles deep against my window, and as I do I reflect on my female lineage, those women who walked the sacred earth before me. How the journeys, and sacrifices they made, won me the right and gave me the courage to choose my own destiny.
My mother once told me the story of my great-grandmother, who like me hailed from a Northern English town named Newcastle Upon Tyne. Like my home town of Adlington, Newcastle was a busy sight of industries, but instead of cotton mills and coal, Newcastle had shipbuilding and steel.
Through the great march of time, my great-grandmother’s story became like an old jigsaw puzzle, which had been left in the attic for too long, and now, many of the original pieces had been lost, but still the fragments that I had, were precious to me.
The story told to me began, when my great-grandmother was already married to my great-grandfather and had emigrated to Mombasa Kenya, just before the dawning of the twentieth century. My great-grandmother was white, educated and therefore a privileged woman, but this was still a time before women’s suffrage. Women in my great-grandmother’s era for the most part could not vote or stand for elections at all. It is unlikely that the idea of women’s suffrage had been birthed at all in my great-grandmother’s consciousness as she wandered the streets of Mombasa.
As was the custom then and as it often is to this day, women were the primary caregivers for children and my great-grandmother worked hard to raise her four rambunctious offspring. Like all hardworking people she wished for breaks, for vacation time, for time to simply be. My great-grandfather a man very much of his time and generation took himself off to the bush, to hunt and explore whenever the opportunity presented itself. My great-grandmother grew tired of being left alone unable to explore the far horizons of the African plains, and so she asked her husband to take her with him on his next adventure.
My great-grandfather considered this, and then explained to his wife that she could not go on safari with him because she, a woman, was of a more delicate constitution than a man and for her dignity, would need more home comforts than he would. He did not therefore believe it would be wise for his party to carry the extra burden into the plains. My great-grandmother acknowledged this.
A week later my great-grandmother returned to the subject of her husband’s next safari, but before he could object, presented to him the extra guides, equipment and materials that she would require, according to his judgment.
My great-grandfather once more considered, and then announced to his wife that she could not go on safari because their would be no latrine in the bush and her modest sensibilities would not be able to tolerate such an inconvenience. This was again acknowledged by my great-grandmother.
And once again a week past by and my great-grandmother approached her husband on the subject of the safari, and before he could object, my great-grandmother presented to him a shovel, a wooden seat and a small tent, she would have no difficulty in digging a latrine and preserving her dignity in the bush.
Again my great grandfather considered her request to go on safari with him. ‘Ah but what if you are in need of dentistry when out on the great plains, their will be no one to call upon for aid, if you get a toothache’. My great-grandmother acknowledged this.
About a week or so later, she returned to her husband and before he could formulate an objection to the subject of the safari, my great-grandmother gave him a beautiful wide smile. As she did so, she revealed a shining set of false teeth, she then explained that, as she no longer had any attached teeth in her head there was no fear of her getting a toothache on safari. My great grandmother greatly enjoyed her first safari on the African plains.
As my feet stumbled off the bus that had brought us from JFK airport to Ithaca, and I first felt the stinging embrace of that bitter cold, I was thinking of my great grandmother, I was thinking of her legacy.
I had been afforded the privilege of coming to America because of her persistence, because of her drive to succeed and make her dreams come true, even when obstacles were constantly placed before her.
She and the millions of women like her, who struggled against the prejudice of their time, who persisted, sacrificed and creatively found their way through the maze of barriers erected before them.
My great grandmother’s spirit and the spirit of her generation of women, laid the foundation for the woman’s suffrage movement. When I stepped off that bus I placed my feet on a land which was to me the epitome of that spirit. I stepped off that bus and walked in the footsteps of the women of suffrage who had walked those same streets with their placards, calling for
recognition, for justice and equality.
And it is this spirit that I invoke now, as I now contemplate the US election of 2016. Where for the first time in American history a woman, a pioneer of her generation stood for election as the president. An election which my great grandmother would never of conceived of, as she stood on the African plains.
I brought my daughter to an America, where one day she may vote for the people she wishes to represent her in government, or even stand for election herself. She will, I have no doubt, witness a woman ascend to the office of Commander-in-Chief one day, and she will be able to contribute to that choice in whatever way her conscience dictates, through her vote.
And this is because here in NY state in the 1800’s as my great grandmother lived her adventurous life in Africa, a group of women drinking tea in Waterloo NY, decided they wanted to make a change, they wanted the inalienable right to vote, to make their own choices about who represented them in government. A movement began, one that would require persistence, sacrifice and creativity to birth a new era for women.
A movement that gave women a voice, a stake in their own country’s destiny, in their own destiny. A movement that has afforded my daughter and I, and millions of women across the globe the opportunity to take control of our own lives.
I wonder what my great grandmother would have thought of it all? I like to believe that if she could, she would have been part of the suffrage movement. She was after all as strong, sure and determined as the first suffragettes were.
I was not born in the United States of America, but I am a legacy, not only of my great grandmother but also of the women of NY who began a revolution, who dared to look beyond the far horizon and see a different way of being. Perhaps as they sat drinking their tea and debating the future of woman kind, they caught the faint echo of my great grandmother’s voice raised in joy, at the sight of the great wildebeest migration. I like to think that they did.