The Lost Work of Saint Fiona O’Shniggy

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the celebration of the first St. Fiona Day back in 1997. St. Fiona lived in Ireland during the 10th century. She is best known for popularizing the constellation Orion in song and verse. Following her untimely death at the age of 23, she was canonized and became the patron saint of drunkards, poets and stargazers. She is celebrated on April 1.

It was previously thought that all the songs she had written had been destroyed following her death, but Professor Charlotte Gaskell recently uncovered one song that she has attributed to St. Fiona. Gaskell is the world’s preeminent expert on St. Fiona. She unearthed the song when going through artifacts related to the life of the Pope who was responsible for Fiona’s canonization. The man had met Fiona in his youth, and Gaskell had hoped to glean information about the mysterious saint by studying his effects. In her search, Gaskell came across an unusual scrap of paper with a few lines of verse in a scrawl that did not match any of the other writing in the collection. The small piece had been tucked inside an illuminated manuscript that belonged to the Pope. On the back of the scrap was a note in a different hand that simply said, “Fiona O.” The writing matched that of the Pope, and Gaskell was able to date the scrap back to the time that Fiona was thought to be alive.

Gaskell had quite a task deciphering the text as it turned out to be written in code. As Gaskell explains:

Given the risk Fiona took in writing in secret, it is understandable that she would resort to code to protect her work. But what’s curious about this is that there is no indication that her destroyed work was written in code. The existence of this coded piece of verse makes me think there may be more out there waiting to be discovered. This is truly a remarkable find for Fiona scholars and enthusiasts.

No sooner had Gaskell broken the code than she had all the confirmation she needed that she was in fact looking at original work by Fiona O’Shniggy. It was all there in the subject matter. The short bit of verse was about Fiona’s beloved constellation, Orion.

Fiona was known for her love of studying the heavens. In her mind, each point of life represented a person who had died. Of the few accounts we have of her life, we know that she would point to a particular star and tell someone that it represented someone she had lost. Gaskell theorizes that this is what led to her strong connection to stargazing. It was her attempt to connect to the stories of the past, and, in way, her ideas that the stars represented the past preceded human understanding that the light from stars really comes from years ago.

Up until this point, scholars have relied on the limited writings of others for a glimpse into the life of this remarkable saint. Now, this scrap of paper allows Fiona herself to speak through the shadows of history, and we are hearing her voice for the first time in hundreds of years.

Here, for the first time in English, are the words of the beloved saint:

Curious hunter in the night,
Always hungry for the fight.

Laid to rest amongst many a star.

Will life find me there?
Nestled in the quilt of light up in the air?

Though I wander, you are not far.

Up in the sky is where I look,
The words I write could fill a book.

Unfortunately that is where it ends. Gaskell is unsure of whether this is incomplete work by Fiona or if he rest of the poem was lost to time. It is Gaskell’s hope that she will find more writing. Until then, let St. Fiona inspire you to have a drink, look at the stars and write a poem.

As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental.” St. Fiona herself was born out of coincidence: the retelling of a bad joke about the constellation Orion, late night discussion between two friends and vivid imaginations. By chance, these things combined in the perfect moment to give birth to St. Fiona. As with people like Kilgore Trout, Thursday Next and Charlotte Gaskell, St. Fiona exists in the world of fiction, but don’t tell her that. She thinks she is quite real, thank you very much!

Celebrating Fictional Female Friendships

If you took your cues from the Real Housewives franchise or other such shows, it would appear that female friendships are full of constant bickering, going behind each other’s backs and betrayal. Whenever I see relationships between women represented this way, I cringe. I think of my own female friendships and just how far they are from this version of so-called friendship we see on TV. I know reality shows and other programs that play up the antagonism in relationships are doing so to build drama, but such representations of friendships between women unfortunately reinforce the stereotype that women are catty, petty and will stop at nothing to tear another person down.

I have some amazing female friends. We have been through ups and downs together, and even when we disagree about something or get into an argument, it is never petty and vindictive and usually ends with a quick resolution that involves profuse apologies. These are relationships full of laughing together, crying together and being unconditionally supportive. So, rather than spending any more time on the negative representations of female friendships, let’s take some time to celebrate some of my favorite fictional female friendships.

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Leslie Knope & Ann Perkins

I love Parks & Recreation so much that I even wrote about HR lessons that could be learned from the show. The show is peppered with excellent examples of powerful friendship, but at the heart of it all is the friendship between Leslie and Ann. What I like is how easily these two accept each other’s flaws and are there through whatever life throws at each of them. There is no jealousy or bitterness. Leslie is such a fan of her awesome friends that she throws Galentine’s Day every year on February 13 to celebrate female friendship.


“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
–L.M. Montgomery


Anne Shirley & Diana Barry

I can’t avoid mentioning “bosom friends” Anne and Diana from the Anne of Green Gables series. These two form a friendship right away and their loyalty toward each other has brought joy to readers for years. What I like about this friendship is that it was formed so easily. Some of my closest friendships started in this effortless way where we became friends because life brought us together.

Celie, Shug Avery & Sisterhood in The Color Purple

Sisterhood is a powerful theme in Alice Walker’s novel. Celie is at the center of this story, but the novel has other strong female characters in Shug, Nettie and Sofia. And each gains awareness of her own situation through their relationships with other women. These women experience difficult struggles through the course of the story, but their friendships endure. The book even ends with a touching reunion that further emphasizes how sisterhood can endure.

Idgie Threadgoode & Ruth Jamison

We meet Idgie and Ruth in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which was eventually made into a movie. The two are very different but form a tight friendship that spans the book. Flagg’s novel also shows us the development of the friendship between Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode.

The Mothers of The Joy Luck Club

I recently read Amy Tan’s book, so this one is fresh in my mind. The novel goes back and forth between the lives of four mothers and four daughters. The mothers are Suyuan Woo, An-Mei Hsu, Lindo Jobg and Ying-Ying St. Clair. At the center of the story is Jing-Mei “June” Woo, whose mother recently died. The other mothers tell her the story of the twin baby girls her mother left behind long ago in China, and they help June to get to China to meet her older half sisters. Through this action, you see the deep bond these four women formed.

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The Women of Gilmore Girls

Like Parks & RecGilmore Girls gives us some dynamic female friendships on TV. Really, we can easily say that the relationship between mother and daughter is the heart of the show, but each of these women has strong female friendships as well. Whether it’s Rory’s friends Lane and Paris or Lorelei’s friendship with Sookie (just to name a few), the women of Star’s Hollow would be more than ready for a crossover that involves Leslie Knope arriving to throw a big Galentine’s celebration in Stars Hollow.

Of course there are many more female friendships. These are just a few. Be sure to share your favorites in the comments.

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Happy St. Fiona Day!

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Ever since the first St. Fiona Day in 1996, my friends and I have celebrated this little known saint on April 1. While her day may coincide with April Fools’ Day, I assure you that she is no joke. One day back in 1996 when two young women were hanging out in their dorm room, the story of St. Fiona made itself known to them. Call it divine intervention or a whimsy of imagination, but that was the moment that St. Fiona Day was invented. This story is dedicated to Ann, the co-discoverer of St. Fiona. Here’s to our 19th year celebrating this day! May the spirit of St. Fiona inspire poems, stargazing & tasty beverages!

St. Fiona O’Shniggy of the Village Kincaid
Patron Saint of Drunkards, Poets & Stargazers
St. Fiona Day: April 1

St. Fiona O’Shniggy is the patron saint of drunkards, poets and stargazers. She lived during the tenth century in Ireland when she popularized the constellation Orion in song and verse. Unfortunately her songs have not survived over the centuries as they were destroyed shortly after her death at the tender age of 23. After her death, Fiona’s ideas were found to be against those held by the Catholic Church. This led to her eventual excommunication and the destruction of all of her work. Fiona wrote extensively in her journal about the equality that should exist between women and men. These private journals were found by her uncle shortly after her death. Unfortunately, he passed them on to the Catholic Church, thinking this is what Fiona would have wanted due to her extreme devotion to God. Although this is what led to the destruction of her writings, brief glimpses into Fiona’s life and ideas live on through the writings of her uncle. After handing over the journals to the church, he was so moved by his gifted niece that he put down his own thoughts on her writings in his journals and letters.

Fiona had learned to write in secret from her brother, who was four years her senior. Very few women were allowed to write at this time in Ireland. Ever since she was a child, Fiona was fascinated by everything around her in nature and in the human spirit. Fiona would often wander around at night, looking up at the stars, and Orion came to be her favorite constellation. In a letter to her brother she remarked, “Something so beautiful must surely be a gift from God.” She wrote seventeen poems and six songs about it. Several of her songs were turned into drinking songs by the locals that she helped when they passed out drunk in one of the many local pubs. As a devout Catholic and the daughter of two alcoholic parents, Fiona felt it was important to help those less fortunate than her (this of course included the town drunks).

As for her fascination with Orion, it eventually killed her at the age of 23. One night she was out wandering through an open field, admiring her favorite grouping of stars. She never saw the well below her feet, and fell down it. Nobody knows how long she was there. They found scratch marks on the side of the well like she had tried to get out. The most remarkable thing about the scene was the position of the body. Fiona’s head was tilted up as if to take one last glance from earth at Orion. The last that anyone heard from her was what she said to her brother before she left on that fateful night. She told him that she was going to look at her beautiful Orion that God had given to her and all the world.

Several years after her excommunication, a man that she knew when he was a child became Pope. He had remembered the wonderful soda bread that Fiona had made for him as well as her stimulating philosophical conversation, and he figured that maybe she was not as bad as the Catholic Church originally had said she was. His first official act was to see to Fiona’s canonization.

UPDATE : Want more about St. Fiona? Check out this April 2017 post, which includes part of a lost poem of St. Fiona and more details about her life.

Why Diversity in Storytelling Matters

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With the recent announcement of the Oscar nominations, quite a bit of attention has been directed toward the type of stories that get told in movies, on TV and in books. We live in a world where there are many different stories, and to me it gets a bit tiring to see most stories on the screen and page representing such a narrow range of experience and identity. There is tremendous value in diversity in stories. Not only does it give us a chance to see ourselves represented, but it is also a way for us to connect with and learn about those different from us.

Inclusion Doesn’t Mean Exclusion

I have heard the argument that often shows up in Internet comments sections that the call to add more diverse stories is racist. The claim is that by focusing on creating more movies, TV shows and books by black people, for example, we are privileging black stories above all others. This is a false connection. Bringing more stories to the table is not a matter of pushing others out. It is really a matter of bringing more voices to the conversation.

The truth is we need more variety in the stories we read and watch. The U.S. is a nation of people from countless backgrounds, races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders and more. If what gets represented on the page and screen represents only a small percentage of that, we are missing out on a lot of interesting stories. Talking about having more roles for people of color to play in movies or stories that reflect the immigrant experience is not a way to exclude others. Being inclusive is also a good way to break down stereotypes, and stories offer us an excellent way to understand others simply by picking up a book or turning on the TV.

Learning About Others Through Stories

If we only read and watched stories about characters that were exactly like us, things might get a little repetitive after awhile. While it is nice to see people like me represented in stories, I also like to gain a deeper understand of what it is like to live outside of my own identity and worldview.

I recently watched Master of None, a new show available on Netflix starring Aziz Ansari. The show was created by Ansari and Alan Yang. While stories of people in their 20s and early 30s struggling with careers, relationships and identity are nothing new, what makes this show different is that its cast is not all (or mostly) white as we often see in such shows. In addition, the characters on the show are not the one-dimensional versions of people of color often portrayed. Instead we get complex, interesting characters that are more than stereotypes.

Ansari’s character Dev is a first-generation American, but that does not mean that the viewer must also be such to enjoy the show. There are parts of the show that revolve around Dev and his parents (delightfully played by Ansari’s real-life parents) and the life experiences specific to immigrant families. Being a country with a strong history of immigration, there have been stories like this for generations in the U.S., yet we do not get much of a chance to see them represented in mainstream entertainment. With the success of Master of None, I hope we can see more stories like this that truly represent the variety of stories in the American experience.

Seeing Myself in Stories

Up until recently, I did not care much for sports. While everyone else was recently gearing up to watch the Super Bowl, I was the one running around telling everyone how excited I was about Puppy Bowl. But something strange has happened over the last couple years. One of my good friends has helped me cultivate an interest in soccer. He is a lifelong fan of the sport. I started watching games with him and started to enjoy the sport, and I finally got excited about it as we watched the 2015 women’s World Cup, which culminated in a victory for the U.S. I started to learn the names of female soccer players and even went to a recent game where the U.S. played Ireland in San Diego.

While watching the match, I came to the realization that I enjoy watching women’s soccer more than men’s soccer, and I questioned why. And I finally realized that there was something about watching players I could identify with that fueled my interest. Perhaps it is this idea that I could be out there playing. Of course, that’s not a reality. I’m too old for professional sports and I’m not athletic, but it is nice to have that fantasy in the same way that going to a rock concert fills one with the fantasy of being up on stage in front of a sea of screaming fans or reading the Harry Potter books makes readers dream of getting their own Hogwarts letter. We connect to those stories and experiences through sensing some kind of similarity or likeness. Such a connection can serve as a gateway into a story or world we might not have otherwise thought of joining.

I like when I see a bit of myself reflected in the stories I watch and read. As I wrote about in my last post, I have a particular affinity for fictional females who love reading. It is an easy way to imagine myself within the story. This is another reason it is important to see a diversity of stories told on TV, in film and in books. All readers and viewers deserve to see representations of themselves in stories. It is just as valuable as having access to see the stories of others represented.

Be sure to check out what 11-year-old Marley Dias has to say on this subject. She launched #1000BlackGirlBooks. She made a goal of collecting 1,000 books that feature black girl protagonists in response to the fact that most of the books she read in school centered around a white boy and his dog. She distributed the books to schools in the U.S. and Jamaica. Dias’s activism is a reminder of why it is important to have diversity in the books available to children. As I have said, everyone needs to see themselves represented in the stories we read and watch.

Reflections on Amber Tamblyn’s Dark Sparkler

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I was recently listening to an episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. His guest was Amber Tamblyn. I have been a fan of Tamblyn since her days as the title character in Joan of Arcadia, and I enjoy the Poetry Corner she writes for Bust magazine. On Maron’s podcast, she talked about Dark Sparkler, her new book of poems. Tamblyn spent several years searching through information on the lives and deaths of young actresses. What makes Tamblyn’s collection of poems about these women so compelling is her own connection to the subject. Tamblyn grew up in Hollywood, so in some ways it seems that her exploration of these women’s lives is a way to contemplate her own trajectory.

In my last post, I discussed Kathleen B. Jones’s journey through Hannah Arendt’s life. I think it is important to bring up Jones’s book here because, like Tamblyn, she uses her subject(s) as a gateway to explore and ask questions of her own life. I want to go back to something Jones wrote because I think it applies to Dark Sparkler:

And because, before and behind me, across thousands of miles and eons of time, someone collected souvenirs of her origins and exile, I can touch, in those layers of life’s comings and goings, ages of beginnings and endings so that, in whatever time I have left on this earth, I might tell a story, a tale that could survive this ever-changing movement of life” (193-194).

This sentiment exists in the raw beauty of Tamblyn’s poetry. Each poem is really her pouring out words as she sifts through the artifacts of lives ended much too soon. Each poem itself then becomes a souvenir of that life–something which the reader can then pick up, hold and examine.

I read most of Dark Sparkler in one sitting, yet it is a book I will keep going back to. In the forward, Diane di Prima writes:

At some point you will begin to get curious. Something will start to tug at the edge of your mind/heart. At that point, go to the library or search the Internet for information about any girl/woman you find yourself thinking about. Look up Peg Entwistle, Bridgette Andersen, Samantha Smith. Read their (often sadly short) stories. Let your imagination fill in what book and computer don’t say.

I will keep going back to this book because, just as searching out information on each of these women became Tamblyn’s gateway to a meditation on their lives and deaths, these poems are a gateway and an invitation for the reader to do more. In choosing your path to delve deeper into some of these lives, you may uncover your own truths and your own story. When you flip through Dark Sparkler, you will see familiar names like Sharon Tate, Marilyn Monroe and Dana Plato, but there are quite a few people whose names who you won’t recognize. Tamblyn’s poems make the reader want to learn more about these women–the stories beyond the glamor and sensationalized trauma.

Memoir writing is an exercise in taking up the self at a particular moment in order to gain deeper meaning. By putting such an exploration out in the world in written form, we are inviting others into the conversation. In Dark Sparkler, Tamblyn does this by first taking up the lives of her subjects and then by taking herself up as subject in the epilogue. In doing so, Tamblyn is putting her own life in conversation with her subjects.

In the end, I think that is the success of this book. Tamblyn did not set out to report the facts surrounding the lives and deaths of these actresses. If you want such information, look online or pick up a biography. What she did was set up the conversation so that we may get to know these stories beyond the typical version offered up for greedy consumption.

For more on Tamblyn’s writing, check out her website.

Works Cited:
Jones, Kathleen B. Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. San Diego: Thinking Women Books, 2013. Print.

Tamblyn, Amber. Dark Sparkler. New York: Harper Perennial, 2015. Print.

An Open Letter to Barbie

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Dear Barbie,

It’s been quite some time since we talked. I saw you recently when I was walking by the toy section at Target. We smiled and waved politely before continuing our separate ways. I was trying to find ink cartridges for my printer, and you … well, you were busy being a mermaid. Barbie, you’ve changed.

We used to be such good friends. You were different than other dolls. You were an adult and not a baby doll. You had exciting jobs like astronaut, veterinarian and pilot. You had outfits that could easily transform from high-powered businesswoman by day to a night on the town in seconds. You opened up a range of possibilities beyond dolls that were only about motherhood. You showed me that I could be anything I wanted to be.

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I know you have received a lot of criticism for your weight and size. There’s concern that your unrealistic proportions negatively influence girls’ body image. I want to be honest with you here: I never really thought about your size. When it came to body image, I was more influenced by what my peers said and the media’s obsession with women’s weight than I was by you. Even now in my late 30s when I obsess about my weight, it has never once crossed my mind to say, “Geez, I wish I looked more like Barbie.”

But you did have a big effect on me. You inspired my imagination. We used to build colonies on the moon, and you even found time to maintain a veterinary practice when you were on breaks from space travel. Much to my surprise, you took up skateboarding because your sister Skipper was not using the skateboard she had showed up with when she arrived on the doorstep of your Dream House.

Barbie, here’s the thing. You seem to have abandoned who you were back in the early ‘80s. When I visited a toy store yesterday, I walked down your aisle, and you were mostly about being a fairy, a mermaid or a princess. Sure, I saw you as a pilot, a doctor and a baby animal rescuer mixed in on the shelves, but princess versions of you dominated the aisle. Fresh from the second wave of feminism that dominated the ‘70s, the version of you that existed in my childhood did all kinds of things. Yes, you were really into fashion and hair back then, but you seemed to represent much more than the pervasive princess culture that fills every aisle of girls’ toys. I get it: you have given in to all that in order to stay relevant in a world where toy companies seem to be focused on this one version of girlhood.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on you. Maybe I am idealizing you based on what I made you out to be. Maybe you were always like this, and I just didn’t see it because you were my vehicle for all the places my imagination wanted to go. You gave me my first taste of making up stories—something that I have carried in to my fiction writing to this day. Maybe girls are still taking you home and ditching your pre-packaged princess story for adventures like the ones we used to go on. I hope that’s the case. I hope the overabundance of Princess Barbies isn’t swaying girls into seeing you only one way.

Malibu Barbie

When you first showed up in my life, you were fresh off the beaches of Malibu—a place that sounded far off and exotic even though it was only about 45 miles from where I grew up. Before the Dream House days, I would build houses for you with the pillows on my bed, and I would fill up the kitchen sink, so you could have a swimming pool. Anything was possible.

Maybe I need to be like Lisa Simpson when she designs her own doll after her beloved Malibu Stacy starts uttering phrases like, “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl.” But in a way I was already able to do that with you. Even with your love of fashion and beauty, I was able to shape and mold you into the stories I wanted you to star in–ones where you were intelligent, independent and free of impossible standards of femininity.

Malibu Stacy

Barbie, I want you to continue to be a way for girls to imagine all the stories and possibilities that are out there. You can still be a princess and a mermaid sometimes, but I want you to embrace all the things you used to be. I want you to be reminder to girls that anything is possible, and being female is not just about princesses and fairytales.

President Barbie

Maybe think of being the first female president instead of a princess–something you could earn because of your brain and leadership skills, not because you were born into it. Mostly, I don’t want you to feel trapped into ditching everything you used to be at the mercy of the hyper-marketed princess culture. Be yourself.

Your Friend,

Stephanie

P.S. I wouldn’t mind if I walked down your aisle and saw Writer Barbie or HR Professional Barbie.

What Would Susan B. Anthony Do?

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Election day is just around the corner, which means a lot of scrambling to get votes. Phrases like “the fight for women’s votes” are being bandied about as though women are some monolithic block of voters who all think and vote with one brain. In reality, women fall all over the political spectrum. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, religions, ethnicities, sexualities, races, abilities and more. To represent all women as having one mind when it comes to voting is highly flawed and ignores all the different ways women are women.

I have been reading Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings by Nellie Bly. Bly’s interview with suffragist Susan B. Anthony is a highlight of the book. If I had a time machine that would turn me into a fly on the wall, I would go back to the day in 1896 when these two great women sat down to talk. With all the chatter about the woman’s vote, it’s hard not to think of Anthony and her fight for the 19th amendment. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other suffragists spoke of votes for women. Yes, that’s women plural.

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Bly asked Anthony, “What do you think the new woman will be?” Anthony responded, “She’ll be free…Then she’ll be whatever her best judgment wants to be” (137). Anthony was hesitant to define the new woman as a single type of person. She did not assign her specific values or viewpoints. Instead she trusted the new woman to determine those things for herself. If Anthony got it back in 1896, why are politicians in 2014 stuck representing women in one way?

There have been republican commercials that try to court the female vote (pun intended!). For some clips of the commercials and humorous commentary by Kristen Schaal and John Stewart, check out this segment from The Daily Show. Why is the one type of woman represented one who seems solely obsessed with marriage? Are women that daft that they will only take an interest in politics if they are framed in terms of wedding decisions?

The way these commercials try to appeal to women makes me think that they were designed by men who have had little to no interaction with women. This seems impossible when you consider that most men have a mother, wife, sister and/or female friend, and most men also work in and go to places where women are present. It is as though a bunch of old men sat around a table on Man Island and tried to figure out what this mysterious creature called “woman” likes:

Hey, women like to get married, right? Maybe we can do something with that.

I’m not married, I’m not obsessed with marriage and I don’t watch The Bachelor. Aside from being a woman like the actors in these commercials, my values and viewpoints are not represented. I do not condemn the women who watch shows like The Bachelor or who love marriage. One of the beautiful things about what feminists have fought for is that women can be who they want to be. Even women who are interested in marriages have interests beyond that. My issue is with the fact that commercials like these are part of a larger pattern of telling a single story of women’s lives.

The issues mentioned in the commercials are couched in things like picking the right wedding dress or lamenting a bad relationship. It’s as though women lack the ability to process information about candidates and political issues, so it must be spoon-fed to us with wedding dresses and reality shows about marriage because those must be the only things we care about.

If we as women are truly going to be “whatever [our] best judgment wants to be,” then we must express ourselves through our votes and our stories. Bly closes out her interview by saying, “Susan B. Anthony is all that is best and noblest in woman. She is ideal and if we will have in women who vote what we have in her, let us all help to promote the cause of woman suffrage” (137). Anthony spoke her mind and championed the cause of women getting the right to vote because she believed that women were intelligent and informed enough to make decisions about the political destiny of their country. It is time that politicians recognized this and stopped distilling us down to a group of people whose sole interest is weddings and dating. We are intelligent and informed, and we are fully capable of participating in this country’s political process.

Work Cited:

Bly, Nellie. Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. Print.